Thursday, April 10, 2008

Columbia Country Club Promises “Grass Roots Campaign” to Defeat Purple Line

In a letter to members of the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, club President J. Paul McNamara promises to launch a “grass roots campaign” to defeat the Purple Line.

Part of the Purple Line transit project is planned to run along an abandoned CSX right-of-way that stretches from Silver Spring to Bethesda. The right-of-way is currently used as a popular pedestrian and bicycle route known as the Capital Crescent Trail but was originally intended to be used at least partially for transit. The right-of-way runs through the country club’s golf course and thus defeat of a rail line is one of the club’s top priorities. Just Up the Pike ran an epic series on the issues surrounding the Purple Line and the trail last year and Silver Spring resident Wayne Phyillaier covers the trail-rail relationship regularly on his Finish the Trail blog.

In his letter, McNamara tells the country club members:

Regarding the issue of the Purple Line and the proposed light rail connecting Bethesda, Silver Spring and New Carrollton, as I indicated at our annual meeting, this is a very critical issue for our Club. As a result, we have increased our community and government relations effort at both the state and federal level and will be working on several different fronts to promote the Club’s position and protect our long term interests. Specifically, we will be helping to launch a grassroots campaign to identify and organize a broad and diverse coalition of opponents to the current proposal for the Purple Line. Once organized, we will be partnering with neighborhood associations, citizens groups including those working to save the trail, as well as businesses and elected officials who will be impacted by this issue.

As you would expect, the implementation of this effort requires a commitment of financial resources. The Board of Governors believes that it is in the best interest of the Club to fund this effort. However, we are doing so within the context of a balanced budget for the fiscal year. We do not expect that this expenditure will have a material impact on the long term finances of the Club. We will keep a tight control on the spending for this effort and all funds will be allocated from our capital budget.

The Columbia Country Club has a long history of fighting the Purple Line. Between 2001 and 2006, four of the club’s current officers – President McNamara, First Vice President Joseph J. Brigati, Second Vice President Eugene A. Carlin and Secretary Martin Wiegand II – collectively contributed $4,600 to former Governor Robert Ehrlich and $550 to Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie. (One can only imagine how much more was donated by the club’s full membership.) In September 2003, Ehrlich reciprocated, declaring that the Purple Line “will not go through the Country Club.” Robert Flanagan, his Transportation Secretary, explained, “The Governor happens to love golf.”

At the same time, then-District 18 Delegate and Chevy Chase resident John Hurson struck a deal with Ehrlich to route buses along Jones Bridge Road as a substitute for the Purple Line. In return, Hurson reversed his position on slots from opposition to support, matching Ehrlich’s agenda, and was promptly rewarded with a fundraiser by racetrack owner William Rickman Sr. Hurson and Ehrlich’s arrangement infuriated many Montgomery County politicians but no doubt delighted the country club’s members. The club’s announcement promises the potential for more events like the above.

To evaluate the club’s letter fairly, MPW readers need to remember three facts.

1. There is plenty of genuine grass-roots opposition to a Purple Line alignment on the trail. Whatever the country club’s membership, it is surely less than the 10,000 signatures collected by rail opponents.

2. Non-grass-roots interests exist on both sides. Ed Asher, President of the Chevy Chase Land Company, serves openly on the board of Purple Line Now. Asher is no mere train enthusiast – his company seeks to develop the land around a proposed Purple Line station on Connecticut Avenue. Asher is a prolific contributor to politicians, giving $12,000 to state and local candidates since 2000. The Chevy Chase Land Company gave $5,950 more.

3. The truth is that while the country club and Asher participate in Purple Line campaigns, neither controls them. Organizational leaders like the heads of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition and Action Committee for Transit are the true strategists and seek suitable allies when they are available. This is a reasonable approach for anyone seeking to organize a civic (or labor) coalition.

But the universal rule of coalitions is this: you are judged based on your associations with other coalition members. If Purple Line opponents publicly (or even privately) embrace funding from the Columbia Country Club, they will damage their credibility in the long run. No Democratic Party or civic activist from outside Chevy Chase will harbor any sympathy for an effort they perceive to be connected to wealthy country club members – or through them, to former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich.