Monday, September 13, 2010

A Personal Perspective on the District 17 Senate Race

By Sima Osdoby.

It is no secret that I am supporting Cheryl Kagan in the District 17 Senate race, since my husband and I hosted her kick off fundraiser.

I have a long history with both Cheryl Kagan and Jennie Forehand and consider both of them friends. I respect Jennie and appreciate her 32-years of service, but believe strongly that the focused and activist leadership that Cheryl offers is very much needed right now as we face tough choices in the worst economic environment in generations.

This race is wonderful in some ways because the voters of District 17 are choosing between two fine candidates, and they also happen to be women. But this race has presented me, and others, with a choice that we wish we did not have to make. It raises issues about tenure, how campaigns are conducted, and more recently, what standards of conduct should be respected in campaigning.

Anna Quindlen’s last regular column for Newsweek in May 2009 captured some of what for me was at issue regarding tenure. In it she states "Throughout the country there seems to be an understanding that this is and ought to be a time of reinvention, in the economy, in education, in the office. But no one seems eager to reinvent on an individual level. Yet never has there been a time when fresh perspective and new ideas were more necessary." Beyond this quote, the column also examines the difficulty of knowing when it is time to let go and move on.

Businesses, nonprofits and even government agencies face similar issues such as deciding when founders or long-time staff should leave, if there should be mandatory retirement, or how to implement the now accepted best practice of term limits to insure turnover in nonprofit governing boards.

But in politics, tenure is what is at stake. Being an “insider” can be good in terms of “bringing home the bacon” but it also can have a downside if and when incumbents lose touch with their constituents. More often than not, in elections, incumbency presents an overwhelming advantage. If incumbents vote “right” on the issues, the default or general rule is that they get support from political allies and PACs. Senate President Mike Miller’s support for Senator Forehand was completely expected. It would have been a surprise if he had not supported a loyal incumbent of his own party.

As this campaign progressed, Cheryl Kagan, the challenger, amassed increasingly more endorsements and support from community leaders; current and former elected officials; labor, business, and advocacy organizations. As people began to take sides, some people were annoyed that Kagan was challenging the incumbent, was too assertive and should wait her turn, but discontent with the incumbent also surfaced more openly. Neighbors abutting the new District Court building were angry with Senator Forehand because they felt that she had not done enough to address concerns about the impact of its overwhelming size and mass on a fragile historic district – an important part of her base.

There were also those who hoped that Jennie would take the opportunity to leave on a high note. I was among them. The prospect of the kind of campaign that a challenger would have to wage against a long-term incumbent was not inviting. Jennie did not step aside, and, inevitably, “The Classiest Race in MoCo” turned negative.

Even in this most competitive and ambitious of places, our campaigns have generally focused on issues. Putting aside some of the more contested municipal races, District 17 has not seen a competitive, vigorous one-on-one primary race since 1990, when then-Delegate Mary Boergers defeated incumbent Senator Frank Shore with 71% of the vote. For 20 years, legislative succession has occurred when open seats were filled in generally polite competition.

But in competitive races, candidates have to make their case before the voters, draw a contrast and give reasons to vote for them and not their opponent. Like them or not, the negative mailers that began arriving in mid-August were what one might expect in a competitive race.

But last week I received a mailer that I found so disturbing that I shared it with MPW and wrote that “I was really upset when today’s mailer came from Jennie. It really crossed a line for me.” In what MPW calls “The Tobacco Mailer” I found the visual images, references to a personal relationship and the implications of the text sleazy and loaded with innuendo.

With apologies to Justice Potter Stewart, I cannot define where the boundary is between vigorous campaigning and being nasty, but I know it when I see it. This was nasty. Personal and nasty. I was disappointed and concerned. I still am.

This, and the previous “gift” mailer from Senator Forehand, seemed more like a Machiavellian tactic out of Karl Rove's book, mischaracterizing and distorting opponents' strengths. Even more troubling was its arrival a few hours before Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the most solemn time of year for the many Jews in District 17. A Robocall the next day, in the midst of this religious holiday in which even area public schools are closed, made me wonder even more, not only about whose advice she was taking, but if this courteous and thoughtful woman whom I have known for more than two decades had lost touch with the sensitivities of her district.

I hope not.

I am not a pundit and cannot predict how this election will turn out. When it is over, I hope that there is some discussion and agreement about what is and what is not acceptable in our campaigns, and at least some exploration of where to draw lines where vigorous campaigning ends and nastiness begins.

A 36-year Montgomery County resident, Sima Osdoby has been active in civic affairs and politics. In 1990, she managed the Democratic slate that included Jennie Forehand.