Friday, December 21, 2007

How MoCo Does Special Elections

Montgomery County Council vacancies are filled by special elections. So why shouldn’t we do the same for state legislator vacancies?

Here’s how the county process works. When a council vacancy occurs, a special election must be held if the vacancy “occurs before December 1 of the year before a year in which a quadrennial state election will be held.” (County code, Chapter 16, Sec. 16-17(a)(4)) So, if a county council member stepped down on 11/30/09, a special election would have to be held. But if a council member stepped down on 12/2/09, the rest of the council would appoint a replacement who would serve out the rest of the term (County charter, Sec. 106).

When a special election is held, it “must be conducted in a manner consistent with provisions of state law that govern special elections to fill vacancies in the office of representative in Congress.” (County code, Chapter 16, Sec. 16-17(c)(1)) The council must adopt a resolution that sets the dates of both the special primary and the special general election.

However, “if the Council vacancy occurs during the period beginning 120 days before the next regular or special primary or general election conducted in the County under state law and ending 40 days before that election, the special primary election provided for by this Section must be held on the same date as the other election. If a second regular or special primary or general election conducted in the County under state law is held more than 30 but less than 60 days after the special primary election referred to in the preceding sentence, the special general election held under this Section must be held on the same date as the second other election.” (County code, Chapter 16, Sec. 16-17(d)(2))

So by using the same dates as other elections, the cost of special elections can be reduced and turnout can be elevated.

The last time a county council vacancy occurred was when District 5 council member Derick Berlage stepped down in June 2002 to become the county’s Planning Chairman. As the date was too late to trigger the special election requirement, the county council appointed Donnell Peterman to serve out the remaining months of Berlage’s term. Peterman was appointed on the condition that he not leverage his appointed incumbency to seek office that year. Peterman honored that commitment in 2002, choosing instead to run (unsuccessfully) for an at-large seat in 2006.

Now doesn’t this sound a lot better than the appointment process for state legislators, which brought us this and this and this?

The excuses for why we should not hold special elections for state vacancies are rapidly disappearing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

That's Nice, But Where Are You Getting the Money?

Lt. Governor Anthony Brown is promising billions to pay for BRAC projects. But not so fast.

At an event marking the release of Maryland’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) report, Brown announced an ambitious plan to pay billions for education and transportation needs. The money is needed to adjust the state’s infrastructure to accommodate thousands of new jobs created by the military’s shifting of more capacity into Maryland. Brown’s proposal includes $1.6 billion for 26 transportation projects, with half the money due for projects to commence next year.

But wait – where is the money coming from? In the recent special session, the General Assembly turned down a proposal from the Governor to raise the gas tax. Instead, they chose to devote a portion of the sales tax increase to transportation. Of the estimated $400 million in annual funds generated by the legislature, roughly $250 million would go to maintenance of existing capacity. That leaves $150 million for new projects, or about the cost of one interchange project per year. That’s right – one interchange. In the entire state. Per year. That prompted some Montgomery County politicians to float the idea of a local gas tax for transportation.

No one denies Maryland’s transportation needs. The BRAC projects are another addition to a long list including Baltimore’s Red Line, Montgomery County’s Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway, and countless much-beloved little projects. But in the aftermath of the special session, the General Assembly may have little appetite for more tax hikes. So where are they getting the money for BRAC?

Transportation funding is a huge budgetary issue that is not going away. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 17, 2007


What if you could cast one vote for yourself and become a state legislator? And you could do that without having to raise a single dollar or knock on a single door? Would you do it?

That’s what Kirill Reznik did.

Regular readers of this blog are acquainted with the selection process for state legislative vacancies by now. Kevin Gillogly, in his now-legendary “Who the Frick is Bill?” post, described how Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) member, cast the deciding vote to make himself District 39’s next state delegate a few months ago. Never mind the fact that his opponent, Hugh Bailey, had earned 1,451 votes from District 39 residents when he ran for an at-large County Council seat the year before. Never mind the fact that Bailey earned 1,451 more votes than Reznik, who had never run for office, ever did. Reznik, as an MCDCC member, was entitled to vote for himself and Bailey, not an MCDCC member, was not. Do you think that Hugh ever had a chance?

Now I’m sure Kirill Reznik kisses babies, loves dogs, eats apple pie, collects Norman Rockwell artwork and buys American. Lots of politicians – and aspiring politicians – do. And he’s not the first Central Committee member to vote for himself. But since he appeared in Kevin’s excellent “Who the Frick is Bill?” piece, he’s the poster child for this column.

Recently, I ran into a man who was an MCDCC member many years ago. He told me, “Back in the old days, there was no Rezniking. We had a rule that MCDCC members could not be appointed as legislators.”

I asked, “What happened to that rule?”

He replied, “It was never written down. It was just the ethics of the time.”

“The ethics of the time.” Sheesh. How quaint. Does this guy still watch black-and-white TV?

I tried to explain this to my neighbors. They just shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s corrupt back-room politics. Of course they’re going to appoint each other. That’s what we expect out of politicians.”

Is this the relationship the MCDCC wants with bucket-carrying, lawn-mower-pushing Democrats? Do you really want us to believe that the only reason you join MCDCC is to sit around, waiting to get lucky for a legislator to leave so you can vote yourself into office? Don’t you want Democratic voters to find out the good things you do and participate in them? What do you know that your “ethics of the time” predecessors did not?

Even though I heckled them with such terms as “Baroness,” I’ll give credit to the MCDCC for some recent improvements to their process. In their latest selection for District 18 delegate, three of them posted their reasons for voting on this blog. They junked secret votes. They posted applications and recommendations on their website. They allowed camera-toting Kevin Gillogly to crawl all over their selection meeting. And I hear a few of them even laughed about that “Baroness” bit. Hey, anyone that can tolerate my sense of humor can’t be all that bad. Just ask my wife.

But I tell you, a lot of us Democrats – yeah, activists like me that contribute money, bang on doors, spend our entire careers working for progressive organizations, fight in every civic battle in our neighborhoods and vote Democratic in every election – are getting Rez-ticked that you can and do vote yourselves into office. Show us that you’re better than Crony-Hall-of-Fame members Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzalez and Mike Brown. Live up to the term “Democrats.” Return to your honorable traditions of the past and once again forbid MCDCC members from running for appointments.

Or Lord help you when you run for re-election.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Who’s Got the Biggest War Chests in MoCo?

If you have not done this already, go visit the UMBC Maryland Campaign Finance website. It’s a fun research tool and you’ll learn things about politicians you won’t believe. For example: who’s got money and who’s broke?

We here at MPW are, as always, dedicated to our growing legions of devoted readers. As usual, WE will do the work so that YOU – the informed political consumers who know enough to visit us every day – can draw your own conclusions. So, let’s go to the data!

Broadly speaking, candidate finances are reported in five categories: receipts, expenditures, cash/account balance, in-kinds and outstanding obligations. Think of the difference between account balance and outstanding obligations as a political balance sheet. High balances with no obligations can be liquidated as political ammo immediately. Outstanding obligations are almost always loans that candidates make to themselves. With every dollar they spend, candidates with high outstanding obligations are deciding whether to keep running for office or replenish their depleted nest eggs. These being politicians, most will decide to buy that extra campaign sign.

The last financial reports came in as of 1/17/07. The next batch should be in around Valentine’s Day – fitting, don’t you think? Of course, a lot has happened over the last year but fret not – we will update you.

So which MoCo state legislators have the most money? Measured by campaign account balance, the three best-financed MoCo Senators were Jennie Forehand (D17 - $64,092), Brian Frosh (D16 - $41,667) and Rob Garagiola (D15 - $31,024). The three poorest MoCo Senators were Jamie Raskin (D20 - $4,821), Mike Lenett (D19 - $7,518) and Nancy King (D39 - $8,875). To be fair to King, she was only recently appointed to the Senate.

Among the MoCo Delegates, the three best-financed were Susan Lee (D16 - $66,027), Heather Mizeur (D20 - $38,869) and Jeff Waldstreicher (D18 - $32,158). The three poorest were Al Carr (D18 - $280), Brian Feldman (D15 - $338) and Saqib Ali (D39 - $391). To be fair to Carr, he was not a Delegate at the time of his last report.

It’s not just about account balance though. Remember those pesky outstanding obligations? Sometimes they’re not merely pesky – they’re absolutely colossal. I know it’s shocking, but some politicians will spend lots of their own money to win. The only three MoCo Senators who reported outstanding obligations were Mike Lenett (D19 - $160,000), Jamie Raskin (D20 - $20,000) and Rob Garagiola (D15 - $10,000). All had contested races and all of these obligations were loans to their own campaigns.

The Delegates who reported the largest outstanding obligations were Ben Kramer (D19 - $114,450), Roger Manno (D19 - $70,000) and Jeff Waldstreicher (D18 - $42,417). Again, all had seriously contested races and all of their obligations were loans to themselves. So dear reader, if you had to put in $100,000 of your own money to just have a shot at winning office, would you do it?

Now here’s the interesting part. Subtract outstanding obligations from account balances and which incumbents were the most solvent? Among MoCo Senators, the leaders were Jennie Forehand (D17 - $64,092), Brian Frosh (D16 - $41,667) and Rob Garagiola (D15 - $21,024). No surprises there. But two Senators actually had negative net assets – Mike Lenett (D19 – negative $152,482) and Jamie Raskin (D20 – negative $15,179).

Among the delegates, the leaders in net assets were Susan Lee (D16 - $66,027), Heather Mizeur (D20 - $38,869) and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D17 - $30,843). The worst off were Ben Kramer (D19 – negative $113,252), Roger Manno (D19 – negative $67,611) and Al Carr (D18 – negative $19,370). Seeing as how Kramer and Manno serve in the same district, they would be wise to run together on a slate to avoid bankrupting each other.

One note of caution. Many of these candidates have joint slate accounts that pay for multi-candidate signs and mailings. Those who stick together on slates and collect the Apple Ballot need less money to win (and almost always do win). So monetary weakness does not always equal political weakness.

What about potential Delegate challengers? Jean Cryor (D15), Joan Stern (D39), Aaron Klein (D20), appointment candidate Hugh Bailey (D39) and Ryan Spiegel (D17) all finished with positive account balances, though Bailey and Spiegel had very little money left. Regina Oldak (D16), Paul Griffin (D19), Alec Stone (D19) and Dana Beyer (D18) all finished with five-digit outstanding loans to themselves. Beyer’s outstanding loan total – $75,000 – was only exceeded by Lenett and Kramer. These four candidates will probably have to choose between running for office again or making a down payment on that Eastern Shore beach cabin we all want. Crab-loving hedonist that I am, I’d take the beach cabin.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Real Vote in District 18

So the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee has picked the next delegate. Activists are already running wild, yelling, “It’s undemocratic! The people were not able to vote!”

Say what? Of course the people could vote. Right here, on the Maryland Politics Watch Internet poll. Hey, what the state constitution takes away, we give back to you. Maryland Politics Watch is the REAL home of democracy.

So what if the Internet poll was imperfect? So what if we failed to check for legal residency. Or District 18 residency. Or Planet Earth residency. It was a vote! And voting is our civic duty, right? You betcha hanging chads it is!

Here’s a secret: the Internet poll allowed multiple votes from the same computer. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. How do I know this? I’m not telling. It’s not like I pushed the button more than once.

What was that you said? You only voted once? Heh heh.

I can just imagine the scenes at the competing campaign headquarters. Al Carr, yelling at the other Town of Kensington council members, “Keep pushing those buttons! We’ve gotta stay ahead!” And Hugh Bailey (Roz Pelles’s son) looming over a team of button pushers, bellowing, “We can take those guys! Click faster!” Maybe the reports of those people running up and down Connecticut Avenue looking for extra keyboards and mice are related to all this.

I’ll say one thing for our Internet poll: there were more votes on there than in a “real” District 18 election. And you say we can’t figure out how to boost voter turnout!

Well, the race is over now. The losing candidates are already filing appeals with the Board of Elections. But we here at Maryland Politics Watch are moving on. It’s time to set up a new Internet poll for 2010. It’s never too early to start voting, you know!

I’ll bet we get more Internet poll votes than the entire population of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Long Ago and Far Away

Many centuries ago, in the Kingdom of Mary-Land, a member of the Grand Council of Elders representing the kingdom’s Eighteenth Duchy passed away. The people were in mourning. But soon enough, the Lesser Council of Elders of the Barony of Montgomery met to select a replacement. After all, these decisions could not be made by the peasants, who were too uneducated, ill-fed and unwise to be trusted on matters such as these.

The Baroness of Montgomery, leader of the Lesser Council, convened the meeting at the council’s castle in the Principality of Kensington. After a long feast in the Royal Banquet Hall, the council proceeded to the Order of Business: selecting the next royal representative.

“Bring in the pretenders!” cried the Baroness to the page. Appearing before the royal court were Sir Kessler, Sir Cooper and the slightly wobbly Sir English.

“Sire, these gentlemen report to the council from the House of Blanc,” announced the page.

“The House of Blanc!” growled the Baroness. “But we have given them the last two seats on the Grand Council. They’re being a bit greedy, don’t you think?”

“But your highness,” protested Sir Kessler, “I have cleaned the Royal Stables for twenty years and if you select me, I will dredge the Royal Pond!”

“Silence!” yelled the Baroness. “We tolerate your possession of tongues so long as you use them only with permission. Guards, send them to the dungeon!”

Just then, the Royal Court heard a pounding at the doors. “Your majesty, I believe the peasants are trying to get in!” whispered the page.

The Baroness reached down on her plate and grabbed a crumb. “Here, give them a scrap of the Royal Meatloaf. That should hold them! Who’s next?”

“Your reverence, these are Sir Carr and Lady Pelles. They come to us from the House of Noir, which has not been awarded any seats in ages. Sir Carr has been attempting to install a sidewalk in the Principality of Kensington to protect the peasants on the street.”

“Interesting…” pondered the Baroness. “I have heard that many peasants have been run down by the wagons on Georgia Avenue. But this is none of our concern. We’ll just have to tell them to breed faster!”

“Very good, your highness. And Lady Pelles is also renowned throughout the land.”

“This is taking too long,” muttered the Baroness. “It is almost time for the Royal Back Massage and the Royal Bon Bon. Have them draw lots. Either of them will serve the interests of the empire well enough.”

BOOM! BOOM! “Sire!” screamed the page. “The peasants are about to break through the doors!”

“Oh rot!” sighed the Baroness. “Wheel out the Royal Telly into the courtyard and turn on America’s Top Model. That will placate them well enough!”

The Most Powerful Man You've Never Heard Of

Tim Firestine won’t kiss your baby. He won’t listen to you rant about your pet peeve for fifteen minutes just so he can ask you to put up his campaign sign on your lawn. He won’t watch you scarf down three burgers at Taste of Wheaton Day and ask how you keep the weight off. That’s because he’s not running for office. But make no mistake: Tim Firestine is the most powerful man you’ve never heard of.

Firestine is Montgomery County’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) – Ike Leggett’s right-hand man. He runs the county government on a day-to-day basis. While the County Executive steers the ship of state, Firestine snaps the whip over the guys at the oars. Fifty-two county department heads report directly to him. (How does he keep them all straight?) A polished bureaucrat who could easily pass as a Fortune 500 CEO, Firestine’s relaxed demeanor conceals an encyclopedic knowledge of local government and a willingness to get into details that most politicians detest. Smiling thinly, he says, “I know where all the agencies hide their money.”

Firestine spoke to our District 18 breakfast this morning. Most of us were still woozy from the prior night’s delegate candidate forum. The CAO, however, is never woozy and covered more in an hour than most of our speakers can cover in two. A veteran of 28 years in Montgomery County government, Firestine preaches results-based management. He puts it like this: “First we figure out what we want our departments to do. Second, we figure out how to measure those things. Third, we allocate our budgets accordingly. We try to focus on things that produce results.” County-Stat, a government accountability system scheduled for introduction next month, will be one mechanism for this kind of management.

But of course the big news right now is the budget. Montgomery County is facing a $400+ million budget deficit next year, a number that may grow if the state reduces its projected aid. Firestine, as a former Office of Management and Budget staffer and a long-time county Director of Finance, knows this better than anyone. He says, “There’s a gap every year. Everybody wants more, more, more. So we have to manage expectations.”

But isn’t this year different because of the huge size of the deficit? Don’t we need huge tax hikes or spending cuts? On taxes, the CAO states, “We don’t have a lot of places to go to increase taxes. Our income tax is maxed. There is the property tax, but the recordation tax has already been raised.” On spending, Firestine would like to look at vacant employee positions. “We should ask whether we need those positions. What if we don’t?” Optimistically, he wonders whether attrition might account for half the needed savings.

Some county officials blame our state legislators for not doing enough to protect our interests in Annapolis. Not Firestine. “We came out of the special session better than we would have in the past. Our delegation held together as best they can.” He pointed out that Montgomery County benefited by not having the state pass on liabilities associated with teachers retirement. He also cited the Governor’s institution of Geographic Cost of Education Index spending (which provides extra education aid in areas with higher cost of living) as a plus for the county. But he acknowledged, “There may be more hits from the state.”

One of our regulars exclaimed, “I got some money for you!” She advised Firestine to drop the ice rink in Downtown Silver Spring, citing its $10 million cost, and claimed that the existing turf would be a fine use for the space. But the wily CAO would not go there, replying that the ice rink plan included open space.

Another regular asked whether the county could institute its own gas tax to pay for transportation projects. Such a local gas tax would require permission from the state legislature. Firestine replied, “That just is not going to happen. The state is not going to give up its authority to raise the gas tax to a local government. I don’t think anything is going to happen on a local-option gas tax.” The CAO also pointed out that if the county paid for more of its own projects, the state could then move its money somewhere else. This is a fiendish bureaucratic game, but it rings true to this activist.

And then we asked him THE BIG QUESTION. How much money can be cut from the budget without asking the county’s employees to accept compensation increases that are less than called for in their contracts? Firestine said carefully, “Our agreements with our employees are contracts. Our tendency is to honor our labor contracts. And we have a county council that is very supportive of labor contracts. But if there is absolutely no choice, that is an option.”

Hmmm… now that sounds like a snap of the whip over the guys at the oars to me.

Monday, December 3, 2007

New Jersey Millionaire Invades Blogosphere

Ever been to It’s a new blog site. Looks nice. It’s regularly updated. It carries loads of stories, though some are links to outside sources. Best of all, it has cartoons!

Guess what? It’s owned by a New Jersey millionaire who’s intent on building a state-by-state blogging empire. But shhh… you’re not supposed to know about that. So don’t tell anybody.

How do I know this? Go to the “About Us” link at the bottom. The site states that it is owned by “the Observer Media Group, which operates, a highly successful website that has set the standard as a must-read source of local political news since February 2000, and the New York Observer, a highly respected local newspaper.”

And who owns the Observer Media Group? Meet Jared Kushner, a 26-year old real estate millionaire from New Jersey with a striking resemblance to Britain’s Prince William. Kushner paid a cool $10 million for the money-losing New York Observer, promising to beef up the bottom line but stay out of the newsroom.

Where does he get his money? Kushner’s family has made a fortune in real estate, and they helped finance his deals on nine residential buildings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kushner has plowed much of his money into political donations. He has given $24,400 to New Jersey state candidates and committees (including $4,700 to Governor McGreevey), $103,350 to federal candidates and committees (including $11,000 to Hillary Clinton) and $4,500 to New York City mayoral candidate Mark Green. On many donations, Kushner listed his occupation as “student.” I have to admit, when I was a student, beer accounted for a much larger part of my budget than did political contributions.

But there’s more. Last year, the New York Times reported, “The Kushner name is well known to readers of The Observer and other media outlets, which have given thorough coverage to federal charges against [Jared’s] father, Charles B. Kushner, who was a major Democratic fund-raiser and contributor to James E. McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey. Charles Kushner was sentenced last year to two years in prison after pleading guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. He also admitted to hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law and having a videotape of the encounter sent to his sister, the man’s wife, in an attempt to get back at her for cooperating with a federal investigation into his business activities.” No one has alleged that Jared Kushner was involved in his father’s wrongdoing.

Jared Kushner is clearly a man on the move. He is using Observer Media Group to establish a state-by-state blogging empire. In addition to Maryland and New Jersey, politicker affiliates now operate in Vermont, Oregon, Maine and Nevada. Each of them promises “to have its finger on the pulse of everything that moves” in their respective state’s politics. Each of them has nearly identical graphics and formatting. And each of them has an anonymous editor named “Wally Edge."

Out-of-state ownership. Corporate, for-profit money. Massive political contributions. All that plus anonymity. In the New York Times, Kushner promised, “The headline in everything we do should be integrity.” Do you believe him and all those guys named “Wally Edge?”

Let’s put it another way. Suppose you’re running your own blog and Mr. Kushner approached you with an offer. You transfer the rights to your domain name to him. He hires you for $100,000 a year plus benefits to keep blogging. But there’s a catch. You’d have to agree to outside oversight and you could never disclose your relationship to the main man. Would you do it?

And how do we know that this hasn’t already happened?