Friday, September 01, 2006

Running on Empty?

Steve Silverman's campaign sent out a flyer saying that "Ike Leggett wants to increase the Maryland gas tax by 50%." Is it accurate? Well, someone has been kind enough to place the original source of the quote on YouTube so you can watch it here for yourself. According to the flyer, Leggett said it on 28 July, so one cannot accuse Silverman of abusing an ancient statement for political purposes.

Unfortunately, neither the YouTube nor the Silverman flyer provide much context for why Leggett favors raising the gas tax. One assumes that Leggett, like most red-blooded Americans, doesn't favor taxes just for the heck of it. Perhaps he thinks it will spur Marylanders to consume less gas which will less our dependence on foreign oil and aid the environment. Maybe he wants to use the money to build the Purple Line or finally fix Metro's escalators.

The flyer becomes problematic when it says "Get to the polls. Or pay at the pump!" After all, the Montgomery County Executive cannot raise gas taxes.

I'm not sure the flyer is a good political move for other reasons as well. The rap on Ike Leggett has always been that he's a great guy but not very decisive. This flyer utterly contradicts that idea by suggesting that Leggett is willing to argue publicly for unpopular ideas when he thinks they are good for our community.

Moreover, while no one like the high prices at the pump, Montgomery County seems as likely to be chock-a-block with liberal environmentalists and security Democrats who think we need to cut our gas habit as any place. And these are probably exactly the sort of people who vote in Democratic primaries, though maybe Silverman calculates (rightly?) that they are already in Leggett's camp.

The other danger of this sort of flyer is that it will increase negative perceptions of the sender. Right now, many may think Leggett is a great guy but that Silverman is a stronger leader even if he a bit hard charging. Montgomery is a big county and more than a bit prone to "paralysis by analysis" so a leader like Silverman who has both ideas and a willingness to push them through can have real appeal. That appeal could dissipate if people think not just that Silverman is not just tough but mean.

Of course, Leggett's reputation as a nice guy could also be at risk from the recent advertisement sent out against "developer-funded" candidates a.k.a. the "'End Gridlock' Gang". While funded on by the anti-sprawl Good Government Montgomery PAC, it is on behalf of Leggett and five candidates for the County Council. It says Silverman limited controls on growth but provides little evidence beyond a rather vague quote from the Washington Post.

And as a perceptive colleague who lives in the County argued to me, Leggett's record is not exactly one of implacable hostility to developers. As so often is true in a primary, perhaps we have two fine candidates who disagree less on issues than on who should be the next person to hold the job.

Which is why I think the positive ad that Silverman is running on television (see the YouTube below) may aid him more. It presents him as a guy willing to work out of the limelight on tough long-term problems. County residents are beginning to suspect that traffic and other growth-related problems won't go away overnight. Someone who looks they will work at them rather than make unrealistic promises to solve them might gain the trust of voters--a critical element in an election where the candidates just don't disagree all that much.