Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Berliner vs. Hopkins

District 1 County Council Member Roger Berliner is facing a potential Democratic primary challenge from East Bethesda civic leader Ilaya Rome Hopkins. Berliner, a freshman who lost a special election primary for the seat in 2000 but came back to defeat incumbent Republican Howard Denis in 2006, is known for his work on mansionization, energy conservation and re-introducing policy area traffic tests to the county’s growth policy. He was recently denied an opportunity to ascend from the Council Vice-President position to the Council Presidency as almost all previous Vice-Presidents have done. Hopkins is the leader of the Coalition of Military Medical Center Neighbors, a civic group working on the Navy’s expansion of the Walter Reed BRAC site on Wisconsin Avenue and Jones Bridge Road, and is the past President of the East Bethesda Citizens Association.

Here is what four informants in and around the district have to say about this race.

Spy #1:

Roger has weaknesses. No one loves him even if they respect him and plan to vote for him. He won in 2006 because there was a D next to his name. He has managed to tick off lots of individual groups, such as the unions and the Town of Chevy Chase. Although you think the Council Presidency was just inside baseball, it was pretty embarrassing for him among the active and educated constituents of his district and I think an opponent could make a lot of hay out of it. As you know, the unions have been shopping for a candidate and would love to take him on. A generic candidate willing to embrace the Floreen side of the Council and the unions could have lots of advantages if those interests really invest in that candidate.

All that said, Ilaya is probably starting too late and is too unformed to cause him too much trouble. I like Ilaya personally and think she will be a compelling candidate someday. But she has a poor voting record, has not been a registered Democrat for more than a few years, and has worked for at least one Republican candidate in the past. Her husband was a Bush campaign staffer and then administration official. On the policy side, she is all over the place. She is well informed, but it is difficult to get a specific position out of her on any issue like the Purple Line. Is she willing to embrace the unions? If we had to classify which side of the Council divide she is on, could we?

Berliner and Denis spent something like $300,000 between them in 2006. Has Ilaya raised a penny yet? As a first time candidate, is she prepared to raise $100,000, knock on thousands of doors, and attend thousands of events by September? Does she start with a big enough base outside her East Bethesda/BRAC community?

But again, she is very engaging and well informed. She has a lot of personality traits Roger lacks and if she can raise the money and has the energy, she could always surprise me and make it a race.

Overall, I think the incumbent has got to be heavily favored. But Hopkins has a bright future even if it is not in 2010.

Spy #2:

First impression – it will be a tough race for her. Roger has some money, has done what he said he would do, and has been doing lots of town hall meetings.

Second impression – still tough but she can win. She needs to raise lots of money. She has community credibility, maybe more than Roger has. And if there is a throw-the-bums-out mentality, they are all in trouble.

Spy #3:

Ilaya is a serious, viable candidate. She comes across as capable and smart. However, she’s basically known only within her own narrow civic community at this point so we’ll have to see how hard she's willing to work, if she gets in. That’s a critical unknown. Roger’s political problems, real and perceived, are largely the inside baseball kind of stuff that most people don’t follow. In short, right now, based largely on the natural advantages incumbency generally brings, i.e name ID, running around the councilmanic district for 4 years, endorsements, etc. I give a solid edge to Berliner. However, if an anti-incumbent, throw-the-bums-out tsunami mindset overwhelms the electorate (which is entirely possible if you believe everything you read) and she busts her butt off in getting around the district, my sense is she has a shot.

Spy #4:

Off the record, I think it will be a heavy lift. Though many are unhappy with Berliner, I am not sure they will jump behind Ilaya. She certainly has a District 1 profile, but in my view, more people are “against” Roger than “for” someone else.

Our Take:

If Hopkins formally declares, this will likely be a straight-up, one-on-one primary between incumbent and challenger. Each candidate has different tasks that they must accomplish.

Berliner is the incumbent. He ran an aggressive race against Republican Denis largely on the basis of partisan affiliation. He defeated Denis even though Denis had a massive edge in institutional support (including a listing on MCEA’s legendary Apple Ballot). During his term in office, Berliner has occasionally voted against the public employee unions and is not known as an ally of business. But each of those groups has other fish to fry, notably in the council at-large race. Berliner has to show that he has his district absolutely locked down. He must demonstrate that his support is so widespread that no challenger – not Hopkins nor anyone else – has a chance to dislodge him. If he can accomplish that, the unions and the business players may stay out of the district and concentrate their efforts elsewhere. He is off to a good start on this with his giant list of supporters. Berliner is a hard campaigner with good early financing of $98,834.18 and more on the way. But we hear that some of his backing is soft and at least a few people on his supporter list will jump ship if Hopkins gets in.

Hopkins is the challenger. She has two tasks. First, she must persuade the voters that Berliner has committed a firing offense. All challengers must do that. Berliner did that in 2006 by pointing to the big “R” next to Denis’s name. It will not be that easy for Hopkins. Second, she must show that she is a viable candidate with money, in-district support and momentum. If she does that, business and labor may give her a serious look. The ultimate prize for Hopkins would be the Apple Ballot, which is usually decided in June. She must meet a high bar as MCEA looks for strong challengers to take on incumbents, even ones they do not like. If Hopkins does not look strong, MCEA could well sit out the race (as they did in Council Districts 3 and 4 last time).

Both candidates have problems. Several informants have complained about Berliner’s personality while complimenting his staff (especially Chief of Staff Cindy Gibson). His pro-rail position on the Purple Line is a problem in some parts of Chevy Chase, which is close to Hopkins’s home base. And the BRAC neighbors, who have been led by Hopkins for several years, have demonstrated their ability to raise Cain when displeased with the incumbent. (The neighbors need to be careful about separating their legitimate interests from Hopkins’s candidacy. Their needs will remain no matter who wins, and they must preserve their relationship with their County Council Member going forward.) But regardless of his problems, Roger Berliner knows how to use the advantages of incumbency and will not be complacent. He is ready for his opponent.

Hopkins also has problems. She has been a registered independent in the past and has not voted in a Maryland Democratic primary until 2008. She must raise a lot of money and cover a lot of territory in a short period of time against an incumbent who has run in the district twice. But Ilaya Hopkins is smart, likable, informed, and has a little bit of polish but not too much. She could have significant appeal among women, new residents and young families if she can gain exposure.

Berliner is the favorite. But Hopkins has a chance.