Friday, August 27, 2010

Council At-Large: Becky Wagner and Hans Riemer

With Jane de Winter and Fred Evans reporting dismal fundraising numbers, there are only two at-large challengers with a shot to win: Becky Wagner and Hans Riemer. What are their chances?

Becky Wagner

Becky Wagner’s personality is shinier than a new silver dollar. MoCo is full of people with IQs surpassed only by their egos. Not Wagner. The long-ago comments by our spies were dead on: she is smart, extraordinarily gracious, a great speaker and aces interviews. People who meet her in person usually like her very much.

Wagner has never run for office before, so assessing her potential electoral performance is difficult. Her closest candidate analogue may be Nancy Floreen. Like Floreen, Wagner has deep roots in the community, support from business, and experience in the public arena. Unlike Floreen, she is on the Apple Ballot (which is good) and is running against four incumbents who are more or less sticking together (which is not good). Wagner’s message combines the pro-growth appeal of Nancy Floreen and the fiscal discipline of Duchy Trachtenberg. Because of that message overlap, their demographic similarity and their close residential proximity (Wagner in Bethesda, Trachtenberg in North Bethesda and Floreen in Garrett Park) the three women could be chasing many of the same votes.

We expect Wagner to do well in Bethesda because it is her home and the Apple Ballot made a strong showing there in 2006. That cuts directly into Trachtenberg’s base, since she won Bethesda last time when she was on the Apple. If Wagner erodes Trachtenberg’s area of strength and Trachtenberg cannot make it up elsewhere, Duchy will go home.

Could Becky Wagner win? It’s possible if Trachtenberg falters and Riemer does not live up to his hype, but we doubt it. Something has not clicked with this campaign. Wagner raised just $60,238 in outside contributions between January and August, less than half the outside contribution totals of Riemer ($130,782) and Floreen ($124,063) despite having substantial business support. She appears to be running the same sort of campaign as the incumbents, namely showing up at civic, public and candidate events and saving up a six-digit mail budget for use at the end. The incumbents can get away with that because of their superior name recognition. Wagner cannot. We are picking Wagner to finish sixth, with a small chance of fifth if Trachtenberg implodes.

Hans Riemer

Riemer’s campaign is one of the great stories of the election season. He has outraised all of the other at-large candidates, including the incumbents, since January. He has the support of both MCEA and the Post and his endorsement mix is better than anyone except Marc Elrich. He has reassembled much of the campaign team that won the 2009 special election for Nancy Navarro, including David Moon and Ken Silverman. And his ground game is easily the best in the at-large race, placing thousands of door-knocks and phone calls. Riemer’s opponents grumble about his brief history in the county and question his resume, but his supporters are excited and motivated.

Riemer ran for an open seat in District 5 in 2006. School board member Valerie Ervin blew him out by a 62-38% margin. Riemer won just six of forty-nine precincts, five of which were outside the Beltway, and Ervin crushed him in Takoma Park and Downtown Silver Spring. But Ervin is now Riemer’s ally and even his opponents expect him to run well in District 5. Since Riemer is on the Apple Ballot, he has a chance to run decently in places outside District 5 where the Apple performs well, including Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Potomac. His challenge will be to put together enough votes in the rest of the county to break through the incumbents.

Riemer has become something of a vessel for discontent with one or more of the incumbents. Organizations or individuals who have a problem with an incumbent have usually chosen Riemer as the alternative. For example, MCEA ditched Duchy Trachtenberg and Nancy Floreen in favor of Riemer (and Becky Wagner). The Post dropped George Leventhal and added Riemer. The AFL-CIO and SEIU dropped Trachtenberg and added Riemer. Progressive Maryland dropped both Floreen and Trachtenberg and added Riemer. The Sierra Club has never supported Floreen or Leventhal, but they added Riemer to their list along with past endorsees Trachtenberg and Elrich. And MANY people with whom we have spoken have voiced unhappiness with an incumbent or two (usually Floreen or Trachtenberg) and have included Riemer on their vote list. If Riemer is everyone’s fourth vote, he will win.

We are picking Riemer to finish anywhere from third to fifth. If his campaign skills, endorsements, money and work ethic can compensate for the incumbents’ starting name recognition, he will be headed to Rockville. If not, then the incumbents will likely have been invincible from the start. Riemer definitely benefits from a sense of momentum and the number of spies who believe he will win is growing. We will soon see if they are right.