Sunday, September 17, 2006

The 800 lb Gorilla of MoCo Politics

Adam Pagnucco is a leader in the fight for a pedestrian tunnel under Georgia Ave. at Forest Glen and had the following take on the primary election:

The mainstream media and the blogs are characterizing the 2006 Democratic primary in Maryland’s Montgomery County as the year that voters turned against growth. After all, many of the county-level winners – especially Ike Leggett, Marc Elrich, Duchy Trachtenberg and Valerie Ervin – ran on slow (or slower) growth platforms. So-called pro-growth candidates like Steve Silverman did not do as well. There is some truth to this story. However, to understand the results completely, we must realize that 2006 is the year the Teachers Union became the 800 pound gorilla of Montgomery County politics.

I first realized this while I was working at the polls on primary day. I spent all day at my precinct circulating a petition to build an east-side Metro entrance at Georgia and Forest Glen. I talked to all the political volunteers who showed up. Many candidates sent volunteers: county executive candidates Silverman and Leggett, county council candidates Ervin and Hans Riemer, and six of the eight District 18 state delegate candidates. Many candidates also showed up in person for parts of the day. The volunteers behaved pretty much the same way: chasing voters and giving them their candidates’ literature. Some voters took it while others didn’t. In many cases, the volunteers seemed to neutralize each other.

However, the candidates were not the only ones who sent volunteers. For almost the entire day, volunteers with the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) were present at the precinct. These volunteers distributed the MCEA's “Apple Ballot” – a district-customized endorsement list appearing on a red, apple-shaped handout. The MCEA volunteers did not tell voters that the Apple Ballot candidates were endorsed by the Teachers Union. Instead, they asked them, “Would you like to know who teachers are voting for?” The majority of the voters said yes, took the ballot, and read it before entering the booth. The fact that the public schools were closed on primary day no doubt helped the MCEA field an army of these volunteers across the county.

Many voters had pre-conceived opinions about some of the top-ticket races, especially Cardin-Mfume for U.S. Senate and Leggett-Silverman for County Executive (both races in which the Teachers made no endorsements). However, most had no opinion on the down-ticket races such as county council, state legislature and school board. That is where the Apple Ballot made the biggest difference. After all, who wants to vote against teachers?

The MCEA endorsed 41 county, statehouse and school board candidates. Of those candidates, 30 had contested races. Apple Ballot candidates won 27 races and lost 3. That’s an astounding 90% success rate. The Teachers had decisive impacts on the following races:

At-Large County Council
Montgomery County has four at-large county council seats, and all were up for election. Three incumbents were running: George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Mike Subin. Ten challengers were also running, of whom the strongest were Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the three incumbents would cruise to victory as the ten challengers diluted each other’s votes. But the Teachers had other ideas.

MCEA was upset that Floreen and Subin had supported delaying a 2003 cost-of-living increase that was due to teachers under their contract because of budget problems. As a result, Leventhal and challengers Elrich and Trachtenberg made the Apple Ballot, while incumbents Floreen and Subin were excluded. The Apple candidates won the top three slots, while Floreen earned the fourth seat and Subin lost. Subin’s loss was particularly notable because he was a 20-year council veteran and the long-time head of the council’s education committee.

District 5 County Council
Two candidates were running for this Silver Spring-Takoma Park-Wheaton-Kensington seat: school board member and council staffer Valerie Ervin, and Rock the Vote political director Hans Riemer. Ervin had the endorsements of most Montgomery County organizations and the advantages of council connections and a long residency. Riemer outraised Ervin $118,000 to $57, 000 – far outpacing Ervin in individual contributions – and knocked on at least three times as many doors. Most bloggers were calling this a close race. But the Apple was telling voters to support Ervin.

At my precinct, Riemer’s volunteers were present all day while Ervin’s came and went. Riemer’s people thought they had the field to themselves, but I told them, “You’re not competing with the Ervin people. You’re competing with those ladies with the apples.” The power of the Apple prevailed and Ervin blew out Riemer 62%-38%.

District 18 State Legislature
One of the three state delegate seats opened up when the incumbent state senator retired and one of the three incumbent delegates moved up to run for senate. The resulting open delegate seat attracted six challengers in addition to the two incumbents who were running for re-election. The field was deep: all six were solid candidates and had pockets of support in the district.

The two incumbents were Jane Lawton and Ana Gutierrez, who ran on a slate with the uncontested state senate candidate. Lawton worked hard, visited the neighborhoods, appeared at dozens of events and finished first with 20% of the vote. Gutierrez’s efforts focused almost solely on Spanish-language media, but that plus her slate support and incumbency earned her second place with 16% of the vote. And of course, both were apple-approved.

That left the third and final slot, and the two strongest contenders were young, aggressive lawyers Dan Farrington and Jeff Waldstreicher. At first glance, Farrington appeared to hold most of the advantages. Sometimes compared to Bill Clinton, Farrington surpassed Waldstreicher in public speaking and one-on-one contact and earned the Washington Post and Gazette endorsements (neither of which backed Waldstreicher). And while both candidates raised slightly more than $100,000, about 90% of Waldstreicher’s money came from himself and his family while Farrington had more than 450 contributors. One advantage Farrington did not possess was work ethic; both candidates worked extremely hard. Waldstreicher’s pesky, hustling style matched Farrington’s omnipresence and the two blanketed the district.

But Waldstreicher was the Apple candidate and let everyone know it. Every one of his literature pieces showed the apple, and he usually started off his voter contacts saying he was “teacher-endorsed.” Visitors to his website even found a giant red apple flying across the screen before seeing the candidate’s picture! Waldstreicher’s apple-carriers earned him a 392-vote victory for the final delegate seat (pending provisional ballot counting).

As for the school board, apple-endorsed Shirley Brandman won 59% of the vote in a 5-way contest for the at-large seat. And apple-endorsed Nancy Navarro won 57% of the vote in a 3-way race for the District 5 seat. If those winning percentages resemble each other, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Of course, each of these races involved other factors besides the Teachers. Voters were clearly tired of development, and that favored Elrich and Trachtenberg. Ervin’s supporters consistently criticized Riemer for his two-year county residency even as they were privately surprised by his fund-raising and hyperactive door-knocking. And the county’s widespread voting machine meltdown may have affected the District 18 statehouse race. But the MCEA’s ballot was the common thread in all these contests. I personally witnessed over a hundred voters reading the Apple while turning away candidate-specific literature from the other volunteers.

So what does the Teachers’ emergence as Montgomery County’s dominant political force mean for the future? With property tax growth slowing down, the next county council will face tough budgetary decisions. Public schools account for half of the county’s budget and would be an obvious location for cuts. But don’t expect any action there: the county’s politicians have learned that those who cross the Teachers Union once are unlikely to be given a second opportunity.

My Take: The teachers have an enormous incentive to be active in elections as the County has enormous control over their jobs and work environment. The democratic process is supposed to be open to participation so it is far from shocking that a group with a lot at stake in the outcome is active in the process. Moreover, by endorsing early and sending repeated flyers with their endorsement as well as providing workers at the polls, MCEA provides a lot of added value with their endorsement.

MCEA unquestionably has a lot of influence. They helped defeat incumbents in District 39 and for the County Council at-large. However, they also endorsed a lot of candidates with strengths beyond support from the teachers either in terms of issues or background. MCEA candidates failed to win in Districts 17 and 19. I doubt MCEA would have had such success in electing their preferred candidates if the issue climate had been unfavorable. Still, their support is extremely valuable and candidates would be foolish to alienate them.