Friday, September 17, 2010

Why Duchy Trachtenberg Fell

Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg is claiming to be a victim of the unions, blaming them for her defeat in the primary. But for all her many enemies, one person in particular did more to prevent her reelection than anyone else.

Duchy Trachtenberg herself.

It was May 9, 2008. The County Council’s Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, then comprised of Chairwoman Duchy Trachtenberg and Council Members Valerie Ervin and Phil Andrews, met to discuss breaking the county employees’ contracts. This was a prelude to the harder county budget battles that would come over the next two years, when the county’s deficits would hit the upper nine digits. Trachtenberg and Andrews wanted to cut two points from the employees’ cost of living adjustments (COLAs). Ervin disagreed. Hundreds of MCGEO members swarmed the room to watch, along with your author.

Ervin was in her element, reminding the crowd that she had been a member of their parent union and saw no need to cut their increases. Seeing Ervin with a group of union members is like seeing Tom Brady with a group of Boston schoolgirls, and the members cheered loudly. Andrews, with his customary smile and respectful tone of voice, explained that the county had budget problems and it was only fair for employees to contribute to the solution. After all, the County Executive had proposed breaking the property tax charter limit as part of his proposed budget. The MCGEO members booed, but they expected this from Andrews. He had been elected with labor support in 1998 and 2002 but had since strayed. More importantly, Andrews was civil, direct and non-confrontational. He was simply speaking his mind.

Then it was Duchy Trachtenberg’s turn. She was clearly flinching from the rock-star ovation given to Ervin and the flyers distributed by the union (which she later used in her 2010 campaign literature). Her voice shaking with cold melodrama, she lectured the crowd on her often-told story about her son’s schizophrenia and contended that the allegedly high labor costs of Maryland’s public employees had forced her to send him to New York for treatment. As a result, she said that she was sticking up for the truly needy – the people who were not union members.

The crowd took this as a horrible insult. Trachtenberg was blaming their greed for her inability to find in-state mental health care for her son. The reaction was one of deafening outrage. A man sitting directly to your author’s left rose to his feet, face red with fury. “I’m a single Dad and I’ve got five kids!” he yelled. “What about my kids?” Two women approached the dais from the right side, fists clenched, signs aloft and voices raised in anger. The whole room shook with pandemonium for several minutes as the county employees could not contain themselves. Trachtenberg could have used Phil Andrews’s argument, which was based mostly on numbers and delivered without rancor. But she had to make it personal.

This was Duchy Trachtenberg’s governing style: alienate people, blame them for it, and then claim to be the victim.

This pattern played out over and over again in her relationships with colleagues. Trachtenberg constantly feuded with them. Despite styling herself a women’s advocate, she tried to kill a 2008 domestic worker protection bill authored by George Leventhal and Marc Elrich because they did not consult with her prior to introducing it. Months later, when then-Council President Mike Knapp questioned a funding amount to be set aside for pensions, Trachtenberg complained to the Gazette that he was trying to “marginalize” her. Last year, Trachtenberg harshly condemned Nancy Floreen’s ascendancy to the Council Presidency, saying it was “political punishment of political opponents.” Of course, Trachtenberg’s real complaint was that a succession plan delivering her the Council Presidency had been disrupted by Floreen’s successful bid for the office. Finally, Trachtenberg even went after her chief benefactor, County Executive Ike Leggett, by comparing his administration to the KGB. It seemed that no one in Rockville was spared from Trachtenberg’s lash.

Additionally, Trachtenberg’s hypocrisy on a broad range of issues made it impossible for many people inside and outside government to tolerate her. Trachtenberg was hypocritical about ethics, justifiably raising questions about lobbyist-funded trips to Israel but then threatening to sue Maryland NOW to prevent them from discussing her handling of money as their Treasurer. Trachtenberg was hypocritical about public spending, telling county employees to tighten their belts right after missing three weeks of work while on a publicly-funded junket to Massachusetts. Trachtenberg was hypocritical about her relationships with unions, taking their money and support in 2006, then publicly disavowing them, then trying to get their support again through Progressive Maryland. Trachtenberg was hypocritical about campaign financing, telling Progressive Neighbors that she rejected development industry contributions after taking a $1,000 check from a Rockville commercial real estate construction company. And Trachtenberg was hypocritical about women’s issues, proclaiming herself their champion while refusing to support qualified female candidates for office.

This kind of behavior fueled a seething contempt for Trachtenberg that permeated the council building. On April 21, 2009, Trachtenberg became so annoyed with Council Member George Leventhal that she walked off the council dais during a vote – something that no one could recall having seen before. On April 23, we posted that story at 7 AM. Trachtenberg came into work, saw the post and threw an awful tantrum. We began receiving a steady stream of phone calls and emails describing her progress through the sixth floor as she wreaked havoc, slamming doors and “yelling at the top of her lungs.” We had heard of Trachtenberg’s temper before, but the fact that so many people were eager to feed us the details of her fury was remarkable. How profoundly had she offended them that they were so willing to tell us such things?

Trachtenberg lost her reelection bid for three reasons. First, she alienated most of her supporters in 2006 – and not just in the unions – through her conduct as a Council Member. Second, she was unable to build a new base because of her ineffective staffing, failure to build relationships and non-existent constituent service. And third, she made very bad resource decisions during the campaign.

We described those decisions in a post written the day before the election.

Our informants are baffled by Duchy Trachtenberg’s spending. She started the year with $289,198 – far more than any other candidate and mostly raised out-of-state in four-digit checks. Since then, she has spent more on tracking polls and consulting ($35,000) than she has on printing, direct mail and postage ($33,817). Contrast her printing, mailing and postage total to those of Senator Mike Lenett ($129,378) and Delegate Saqib Ali ($104,876), each of whom is running in a district that is one-eighth of the county. Trachtenberg’s ads in Bethesda Magazine, Washington Jewish Week, Leisure World News and Takoma Park Voice – purchased for a combined cost of just $7,230 – have been no substitute for the robust mail program she could have afforded. She has done just one mass mailing and was, incredibly, beaten to the mailbox by Becky Wagner.

As of August 29, Trachtenberg was sitting on $209,629 with just sixteen days left to spend it. Television could consume that amount of money rapidly, but we have seen no sign of any such ads. And it’s getting late – VERY late. Some sources are speculating that she is so sure of victory that she is saving the money for a County Executive run. Unless she has a grand strategy that has not shown up in her finance reports, she could very well be the richest loser in MoCo history.
Puzzled by this behavior, we consulted sources who had knowledge of Trachtenberg’s campaign strategy. One informant said she deliberately hired incompetent campaign staff because she did not want anyone to question her decision-making. Another speculated that Trachtenberg was convinced by her polling that she would win and was banking her money for a County Executive race. (Indeed, Trachtenberg told several spies she was interested in running for Executive in 2014.) Trachtenberg’s addiction to polling resembled the behavior of a nervous aircraft passenger flying through turbulence and constantly checking her watch. Regardless of the reasons, Trachtenberg’s ineptitude became clear in the final days of the election. She only sent out two mass mailers – far behind the mail totals of lesser-funded candidates – and seemed to rely primarily on illegal signs. Trachtenberg overestimated her support, coasted on name recognition and lost by a significant margin – all problems of her own making.

The Post wrote that the unions took out Trachtenberg. Despite their chest-beating, that is just not true. Labor promoted their endorsees, but that was about the sum total of their participation in the at-large primary. No one sent out a single piece of negative mail against Trachtenberg – not the unions, not the other candidates, not anyone. Compare that to what SEIU did to Prince George’s County Senators Nathaniel Exum and David Harrington. Only two MoCo candidates saw negative mailers from labor – District 14 Senator Rona Kramer and (surprisingly) District 39 Senate challenger Saqib Ali. In the meanest MoCo primary of all time, Trachtenberg was largely spared.

Even the complaint by the Fraternal Order of Police about Trachtenberg’s mishandling money at Maryland NOW could not have affected the election outcome because it came too late and never made it into physical print before the primary. The Post inaccurately stated that Trachtenberg was Treasurer of Maryland NOW four years ago. In fact, she stepped down from that position in late 2008 - during her term in public office. That error was repeated in the Post’s over-the-top editorial, an example of sloppiness feeding a pre-decided narrative in both the editorial office and the newsroom. The police and any other citizens have an absolute right to be concerned over the conduct of elected officials while they are in office. And the facts that Trachtenberg threatened to sue NOW if anyone discussed her tenure there with the media and that Maryland NOW had to rewrite their bylaws to make the Treasurer position more accountable after she left create reasonable grounds for raising the issue. The bottom line is that given the record above, Trachtenberg cannot claim to be a victim if there is no victimizer.

If Duchy Trachtenberg had Phil Andrews’s even temperament, Roger Berliner’s pragmatism and Marc Elrich’s dogged dedication to relationship building, she could have taken the same policy positions and not attracted so many enemies. And if she had used her campaign war chest to hire people with Hans Riemer’s campaign skills, she could have won. But instead, she is a case study for how not to serve on the council and how not to run for reelection.

And that is no one’s fault but her own.