Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thank God for MCDCC (Updated)

Now I know you're shocked to read that statement from me. But I mean it, I really do!

Yes, we didn't know who the Frick was Bill. Yes, we got a bit ticked at them. Yes, we think they eat too many bon-bons in that castle of theirs. Yes, the House Majority Leader made fun of them in a roomful of bloggers. And now MCDCC Member Marc Korman wants to jack up my gas tax. But things could be worse. We could have the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee.

Consider the silky-smooth job they did in selecting Senator Gwendolyn Britt's successor. Their pick, County Council Member David Harrington, endorsed Michael Steele for Senate in 2006. The runner-up, former Delegate Rushern Baker, refused to rule out running for County Executive. (The reigning County Executive, whom Baker ran against last time, cheered his defeat.) The only female candidate, Delegate Jolene Ivey, received no votes. Another losing candidate, Delegate Victor Ramirez, immediately vowed to run against the winner for Senate. (He told the crowd, "I’m going to ask for this seat the way I should. I’m going to come to you for your vote." So why was he running for appointment?)

But the line of the night belonged to the former Senator's husband, Travis Britt, who was also running for the seat. According to the Gazette:
Britt, [county substitute teacher Kenniss Odetta] Henry and Ramirez withdrew their names from consideration early in the meeting, with Britt citing the vicious politics – he claimed backroom deals and mudslinging were rampant – for the succession race.

"These demons are after me, but I’m going to dispel these evil spirits. I am withdrawing," Britt said to the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.
OK, I promise here and now to never call the MCDCC evil spirits. That is, unless you select someone who endorsed Michael Steele to fill one of our seats!

The Washington Post's story makes clear that Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson lobbied hard to defeat Baker and possibly even decided the outcome. Now that's understandable: many politicians will go to great lengths to punish enemies. But the thought of how easily the District 47 appointment process was manipulated makes my skin crawl. It requires much more effort for politicians or political power brokers to manipulate thousands of real, live voters than a handful of Central Committee members. That's why so many politicians are so comfortable with the status quo. The District 47 case makes at least as good of an argument for special elections as anything MCDCC has done.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More on the Great Maryland Drivers License Feud

As David Lublin noted, Marc Fisher’s January 27 column carried news of alleged broken promises by the O’Malley administration over the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. But this is merely the latest incident in an escalating, internal Democratic Party feud over the issue.

The drivers license issue has a bit of history worth recalling. Maryland is one of seven states (the others being Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington) that do not require license applicants to prove legal U.S. status. On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers, all of whom were admitted to the country legally, were able to obtain a combined 13 drivers licenses and 21 other ID cards and use them to board and commandeer airplanes. Several of these documents were obtained with fraudulent records. Among the hijackers was Hani Hanjour, who fraudulently obtained a Maryland ID card from the Motor Vehicle Administration and used it to pilot a plane into the Pentagon. Later, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission called for strong national standards applying to ID documents including drivers licenses and birth certificates to prevent terrorists from acquiring them. In 2005, the Congress passed the Real ID Act, which among other things required that states not issue licenses to individuals illegally present in the U.S. The original date established for compliance was 5/11/08 but that has since been pushed back to 2010.

It is commonly believed that the 9/11 Commission recommended denying drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. But as the commission’s successor organization, the 9/11 Public Disclosure Project, makes clear on its website, that is untrue. The project authors state:

Specifically, we did not make any recommendation about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigation, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentation (often fraudulent) that appeared lawful to immigration inspectors. They were therefore “legal immigrants” at the time they received their driver’s licenses… Whether illegal aliens should be able to get driver’s licenses is a valid question for debate.
But President Bush and the Republican Congress explicitly set up Real ID requirements to block licenses for illegals anyway. Soon enough, the states began calculating the costs of bringing their license systems into compliance with Real ID requirements and began to balk. Maryland estimates its costs at $60-80 million. Seventeen states and counting have passed legislation and/or resolutions opposing Real ID, including Maryland. But the federal requirements remain and that is causing political turmoil.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari originally proposed installing a two-tier license system to deal with Real ID. Legal residents could obtain Real ID-compliant licenses while illegal immigrants could obtain non-compliant licenses that still conferred in-state driving rights. But Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (District 18) rejected this approach, telling the Washington Post, “In this climate, that's a scarlet letter… Any policeman could call [federal] authorities.”

Delegate Gutierrez need not have worried about Porcari’s proposal because Governor O’Malley swiftly killed it. The Governor declared, “We should not allow Maryland to become an island virtually alone on the East Coast” by issuing drivers licenses to illegals. He called instead for one license program that was completely Real ID-compliant. O’Malley was no doubt paying heed to the painful experience of another blue-state governor who proposed, then backed down from, a plan to license illegals.

Gutierrez responded by accusing the Governor of “betrayal” and even told Post columnist Marc Fisher, “The governor did not keep his promise… This is what he promised me when he was begging for my vote for the slots referendum, which I gave him. And that is the last time I do that.” That should make for interesting reading for the many anti-slots voters in District 18.

This issue is turning into a significant internal feud within the Maryland Democratic Party. Each side has something important to lose.

On one side is the Democratic establishment. Over the long term, the state party benefits by strengthening its ties to immigrant voters, especially Latinos. These voters are often socially conservative and will require economic reasons to vote Democratic. It would be wise for politicians to remember that immigrants often belong to large, mixed households that include legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and citizens. Measures that target illegal immigrants tend to antagonize their entire families, and many members of these families are citizens who vote.

On the other side is the state’s Latino leadership. As mentioned above, Delegate Gutierrez has used terms like “scarlet letter” and “betrayal” in describing the administration’s policies. (One can only imagine what is being said in Spanish-language media.) This sort of hot rhetoric, flung about in the newspapers like searing frying pans, may very well earn the enmity of both the Governor and the Secretary of Transportation. And that may prevent the District 18 delegation from obtaining movement on its urgent transportation priorities. In fact, many of Delegate Gutierrez’s constituents are undoubtedly viewing the growing rift with unease, if not dismay.

And so the two sides have a strong incentive to compromise, perhaps using something resembling MDOT’s original proposal as a starting point. But neither side is showing much inclination at the moment. Happy memories of a new state-financed immigrant services center in Langley Park are rapidly fading. Should the feud escalate, it will create bad consequences for state Democrats, immigrants, and quite possibly, District 18 residents.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Should State Legislators Hand Over Their Salaries?

According to the Baltimore Sun, Senator Bryan W. Simonaire, Republican of Anne Arundel, is proposing to give the legislature the option to reduce its own pay. Currently, legislators’ pay is determined by a state commission, and the legislature can vote their recommendation up or down. Simonaire would like to allow the legislature to cut their own pay if the state’s finances suffer (as is currently happening). But is this such a good idea?

I’m not convinced that it is. I know quite a few politicians pretty well. They may be motivated by a lot of things, but pay is not one of them. After all, the typical state legislator makes just over $43,000 per year for a 90-day session and endless nights of putting up with crazed civic activists (like me). They would get a whole lot more money (and less aggravation) from continuous non-legislative employment, believe me. And the savings available from eliminating their salaries altogether amount to only $8 million out of a $15 billion general fund.

But the compensation question is an interesting one. In my industry – unionized construction – we have fixed scales for journey workers. But on certain jobs, we negotiate shared bonuses for the workers that are tied to targets. So if we meet our schedule dates, the workers would get a bonus. If we meet our safety goals, we would get another bonus. And if we keep absenteeism below a certain specified level, we’d be paid even more. Because the profitability of the contractors increases in line with our performance, they are more than happy to make these kinds of deals with us. In our case, bonus payments are made to groups of workers because construction is a team industry. So too is politics.

So why not have a bonus system for politicians? If all the legislators within a particular district get something important done for their constituents, let’s throw ‘em a bit of extra dough! So here’s my bonus schedule for my beloved District 18 delegation:

Install new sidewalk on west side of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington: $10,000 bonus

Bury power lines in Montgomery Hills: $20,000 bonus

End evil train horn noise in Kensington and Forest Glen: $30,000 bonus

Get special elections for legislative vacancies in MoCo: $40,000 bonus ($20,000 more for banning MCDCC members from appointing themselves)

Get funding for underground, deep-tunnel Purple Line: $50,000 bonus

Get new Metro entrance at Intersection of Death: $100,000 bonus plus Adam agrees to not send any email for a year.

So what are you waiting for? Come on guys!! Let’s get cracking!!!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mike Miller (and Kumar Barve) Meet the Bloggers: Part Three

In Part Two, I recounted the Senate President’s remarks to our rag-tag band of bloggers. In this part, let’s find out what the number two leader in the House had to say.

Kumar Barve, the House Majority Leader from District 17 (Rockville), is a fluid and intelligent speaker. His low-key style reflects the cool, technocratic politics still practiced in some parts of Montgomery County. While he is not as flamboyant a character as the belly-laughing, fist-pounding Miller, he has a tack-sharp mind, a dry wit and ample patience for blogger grillings.

Here’s what Delegate Barve had to say, as best as my scrawling hand could record:

On Governor O’Malley
“Martin O’Malley is a gambler. He likes to take calculated risks. He sealed 188 people in a pressure cooker and said, ‘Take as long as you want in there!’ And the special session produced a very good product.”

On Taxes and Spending
Barve described the last couple decades of state fiscal management as a “roller coaster,” noting that the state had swung between tax hikes and tax cuts. “I wish we could find a level of taxation we’re comfortable with and stick with that, but that would probably violate human behavior!” As Barve correctly observes, it’s too tempting to dispense tax cuts in good times, making tax hikes in bad times more necessary.

On Embattled State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick
“The Governor and the leaders want her to go. I assume that’s going to happen.”

On the Computer Services Tax
“The House got rid of the computer sales tax but it came back. It’s bad public policy. It’s unwise to tax businesses that are mobile,” Barve stated. “But unless we’re willing to find $200 million in extra revenues, it will be very difficult to get rid of.” And why was the computer industry vulnerable? “In politics, when something unpleasant has to be done, it’s usually done to whoever squirms around the least!” Barve noted that Senator Rob Garagiola (D-15, MoCo) had a proposal to replace it with a gas tax, “but that is a non-starter.” Added to Mike Miller’s comments, Barve’s opinion indicates that the computer tax is not going anywhere because there is no other way to raise the money.

On Marriage Equality
“I personally don’t think marriage equality is going to happen in the way we’ve sponsored the bill. But domestic partnerships will pass.” Senator Madaleno, the prime backer of marriage equality in his chamber, chimed in, “You start with what you want, and you fight for what you can get.”

On Filling Legislative Vacancies
I asked the House Majority Leader whether he would favor a bill allowing special elections to fill vacancies in MoCo and forbidding the practice of Central Committee members appointing themselves to state legislative office. The latter point actually made him laugh. “My goodness, if you took that away from them, no one would serve on the Central Committee!” Barve snickered. “We’d have to pay them to serve!” Barve indicated that he would vote for special elections on a statewide basis, but not for MoCo alone. He favors having every county use the same system for filling vacancies.

The Majority Leader’s sardonic suggestion that Central Committee members have to be paid to abstain from appointing themselves may be cynical, but it also may be true. The fact that the highest-ranking state legislator in MoCo holds this opinion of MCDCC should make them think long and hard about how they conduct their vacancy selections.

On the Democrats’ Relationship with Latinos
“I don’t think the Democratic Party is in danger of losing the Latino community. One of the problems from a strategic perspective is that many of the groups we support have the lowest turnout rate. But things are changing. People of color are noticing how bad things are under Republican rule.”

On Whether the Delegation is Bringing the Bacon Back to MoCo
I asked Barve this question: “The Gazette recently reported that of every dollar paid by MoCo residents to the state, only 15 cents came back to the county. The state average is 30 cents. When county officials and residents accuse the delegation of not bringing the bacon back to MoCo, how do you respond?”

Barve answered by pointing out the geographic income disparities of the state. “We generate an enormous amount of income. Eighty-five percent of the richest people in the state live in Montgomery County. And if you earn $200,000, no matter where you live, you are going to be taxed. A lot of social programs go to where poor people are living, like in Baltimore City. And it’s the job of government to help people who desperately need the help, wherever they live.”

I understand this argument but only up to a point. MoCo may be wealthier than the state average, but it is not universally wealthy. There are pockets of poverty even here. There are lots of needs for school aid, school construction and transportation. Our state transportation priorities list is full of projects that have sat in limbo for many, many years. The BRAC projects alone will likely demand hundreds of millions of dollars to be effectively implemented. I for one would like to see my MoCo state legislators throw their weight around a bit more than they currently are.

And now we get to David Lublin’s Big Question, which was asked of both Senate President Miller and House Majority Leader Barve. Correct me if I’m wrong, David, but the Big Question went something like this:

“In 2006, the Democrats had as good a year as it gets. George Bush was President. We were fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. The Republicans had hopelessly mismanaged the response to Hurricane Katrina. So the Democrats won a lot of extra seats. In 2010, those things will not repeat themselves. Bush will be gone and the Democrats will be held responsible for whatever is going on. You are more likely to lose seats than gain them. So how can you motivate Maryland’s progressive voters for the next election?”

Uncharacteristically, Mike Miller dodged this one. He flatly disagreed that the party would lose any seats and contended that Governor O’Malley’s progressive record would serve the Democrats well. Kumar Barve also refused to concede that the party would lose any seats. He responded, “In Maryland, we have modest taxation and very low poverty. Maybe we should point out how bad things are in other states that are run by the Republicans.”

Is this really a winning message for 2010? We may have raised your taxes, but the other guys are worse? Is that going to motivate liberals to turn out to save Democratic seats in purple districts? I hope we’ll have a better message than that, but I guess we’ll see.

Until then, let’s credit Senate President Mike Miller and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve for willingly sitting in the Bloggers’ Hot Seat. They were good sports and did their best to deal with an unlikely gathering unseen since the Mos Eisley Cantina. Let’s see if any more politicians have the mettle to do the same.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers: Part Two

In Part One, we laid the scene for you: on one side of the table sat the fearsome, powerful old bull, the indomitable Senate President Mike Miller. On the other side sat a gangly, geeky band of bloggers, united only by their common desire for a post-meeting trip to Ram’s Head Tavern.

A few comments on the Senate President. For more than twenty years, Mike Miller has reigned over the Senate with a gregarious combination of ego, fear and patronage. His personal magnetism is so overwhelming that he could likely charm a bird out of its nest and onto his open palm. But if the bird voted the wrong way on a must-have bill, the hapless creature would be quickly crushed and tossed to the back of the Senate chamber. This demonstrates the Miller Rule, which is a simple one: “Work with me and prosper. Work against me and suffer.” Most Democratic Senators respond to this rule predictably, although there have been exceptions.

We asked Miller a lot of questions, and he gave us a lot of answers. For the benefit of our readers, I did my best to keep up with the exchange. Following are the Senate President’s responses to a few of our prods and pokings. If anyone else in the room recollects it differently, please comment and we’ll adjust the record.

On Governor Ehrlich
A few people remember that at the beginning of Governor Ehrlich’s term, Miller was ready to establish a pragmatic working relationship with him. But that approach ran into problems. “Ehrlich was a nice guy, but he didn’t work, and the state suffered,” Miller grumbled. He was “surrounded by yes-men” and rarely came out of his office. “All he did was put bandages on things!” The old warhorse was clearly relieved to see him gone.

On Governor O’Malley
Miller gave O’Malley lavish credit for moving to act on a deficit that he inherited, even if it cost him politically. “O’Malley knew his numbers would go in the toilet no matter what he did, so he did the right thing.” Miller attacked some of the Governor’s opponents, criticizing them for being “mean-spirited” and spreading rumors. “The Governor is a very progressive person,” Miller insisted. But he warned, “This Governor, in order to get his numbers up, will have to do some things you won’t like.” As an example, he mentioned a new emphasis on crime prevention, not always the highest priority of liberals.

On Slots
As perhaps the greatest champion of slots in the state, Miller’s views are well-known. “We have got to have that money!” he cried. The Senate President predicted that a possible recession would hurt tax revenues, thereby making slots money all the more necessary. “We need to get the slots bill passed whether you like it or you don’t like it!” Miller thundered. So in case you were wondering if Mike Miller had changed his mind on slots, the answer is NOPE!

On Transit
I asked Miller if he had a choice to fund the Washington suburbs’ Purple Line or Baltimore’s Red Line, but not both, which of the two he would pick. I was sure he would dodge this one, but to his credit, he did not. “The Purple Line!” he declared. “You know, I was a University of Maryland – College Park graduate.” Miller pointed out that he proposed a 12-cent gas tax last year but he could not round up enough votes for it. “We need to move forward as quickly as we can on mass transit.”

On Illegal Immigration
“There aren’t more than 2% of the people that understand immigration,” Miller snorted. “If you crack down on illegal immigrants too much, they’ll just bring their families over here.” The Senate President does not support the draconian measures implemented in parts of Virginia, saying, “John McCain tells the truth on this issue.” As for drivers licenses, Miller says, “The Governor has spoken on this. He considers this a national security matter. It’s a tough issue.” Miller did not contest the Governor’s decision to abide by the federal RealID law and end the state’s practice of issuing drivers licenses to illegals.

On the Regressive Nature of the Special Session Tax Package
Regular readers will recall how I criticized the Senate President for the regressive character of the special session tax package. Leaping into the jaws of the lion, I asked him the following question:

“The tax package that was passed by the special session collected the majority of its revenues from raising the regressive sales tax. If you could have that one back and do it over, would you have taxed the rich a bit more to give the working people a break?”

Miller did not back down from the sales tax. He described it as “the most regressive but also the most acceptable” of the taxes, claiming that he received little protest on it. “But I wish I could have had more from the income tax.” Miller noted, accurately, that part of the Montgomery County delegation, backed by their County Executive, pushed back against the Governor’s rate increase for the top income tax brackets, thereby limiting the legislature’s ability to raise them. “You need 24 votes to pass something through the Senate and I didn’t have the votes to spare!” For the record, let’s stipulate that nobody – absolutely nobody – knows more about getting 24 votes in the Maryland Senate than Mike Miller.

The Senate President has a point and perhaps I was unfair with him. It is true that a substantial portion of MoCo legislators pushed back against the top income tax rate hikes but did not criticize the sales tax. If that part of the MoCo delegation did not protest the tax hikes on the rich, there would have been less need to rely on the more regressive elements of the package. And who knows? Perhaps there would have been less pressure to resort to the much-hated computer services tax.

So while I don’t agree with Miller’s assertion that the sales tax increase is in any way “acceptable,” I will no longer criticize him as primarily responsible for encouraging regressivity in the tax package. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around for that.

On the Computer Services Tax
“The computer tax is not a good tax, but it’s $200 million and I’m going to fight to keep it!” The principal reason for keeping it? “No one can agree on a replacement.”

So other than David Lublin’s Big Question, which I’ll address in Part Three, that’s what I have from Mike Miller. Even though many liberals occasionally disagree with the Senate President, let’s give him his due. He implemented a tough agenda of deficit reduction on the Governor’s behalf. He is more straightforward in answering questions than most politicians. And he keeps a lid on the natural parochialism that might otherwise prevail in the Senate through a hardened mix of guile, intimidation and pragmatism. With a weaker Senate leader, the special session may very well have failed and the need to raise taxes this year would be much greater. So you may not like Mike Miller. But you should respect him.

Even though Senator Jamie Raskin of District 20 (Silver Spring/Takoma Park) attended our blogger fest, we did not flay him as we did his colleagues. In Part Three, you’ll hear from House Majority Leader Kumar Barve.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers: Part One

It had to happen. Superman met Muhammad Ali. The King met Nixon. Alien met Predator. And last night, Maryland Senate President Mike Miller met the Bloggers.

How on Earth did this epochal event occur? Senator Rich Madaleno, political patron of the left-wing blogosphere, summoned us to Annapolis for an audience with the most powerful man in Maryland history to never serve as Governor. And so nine of us came from every corner of the state, some emerging from filthy basements, some crawling from cigarette-strewn alleys and others reluctantly shuffling out of comic book shops. None of us knew how the greatest culture clash since cream cheese Sushi was going to turn out.

A note on the bloggers. This may shock you, but they tend to be on the dorky side. Really. A white kid from Baltimore walked in with bright green earrings and a furry Afro. Following him was a middle-aged MoCo liberal with gray hair screaming down his back to be let loose from its unkempt pony tail. One blogger ranted about Massachusetts transportation policy to a glassy-eyed Senate President. Another earnestly pressed his essay on “Green Rail” into the hand of every legislator who would take it. The middle school teacher seemed fairly normal until he began reciting long-lost Industrial Workers of the World leaders unknown to even this former labor history instructor. Look, I’m not naming you guys, but I know you’re reading this and you know who you are.

Golly Wally, we’re a bunch of cross-eyed geeks! So why would Mike Miller and fellow attendees Madaleno, Senator Jamie Raskin and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve want to talk to a raggedy crew like us?

The answer lies with Senator Madaleno. As an occasional blogger himself, Madaleno understands that blog readers are becoming a critical niche in the state’s political scene. Blog readership may never exceed the levels achieved by MSM outlets. But Madaleno knows that blog readers tend to be better-informed, more inclined to civic activism, and more likely to volunteer and contribute to political campaigns than the average MSM readers. That makes you, dear readers, a valuable political constituency. And the Maryland Democrats are starting to realize this.

So by talking to us, Senators Miller, Madaleno, and Raskin and Delegate Barve are really talking to you. What is it that they want to tell you? You’ll just have to keep chewing on that towel and wait until Part Two to find out.

Monday, January 21, 2008

“Oh NOOOO! It’s a BAIT CAR!!!”

Have you ever had someone ransack your car? If so, did you say something like, “If I could ever get my hands on that punk, I’d…” Well, how about watching a video of that punk getting busted by the police? That’s exactly what the citizens of British Columbia can do and MoCo citizens should be entitled to the same pleasure.

Thefts from vehicles are a huge problem in MoCo. According to the Washington Post, between 1/1/07 and 10/15/07, there were 5,092 break-ins in MoCo, up 19% from the levels of the year before. In Police District 2, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Kensington, break-ins jumped from 577 to 1,062 over the same period. In my own neighborhood, car break-ins rose by 60% and car thefts rose by 56% over last year. And when my neighbor’s car, parked right across the street from mine, was stolen – that was the final straw for me.

Rising outrage over repeated crimes led us to identify a solution: bait cars. Used in dozens of jurisdictions across North America, bait cars are rigged with cameras, GPS devices and sensors linked to police headquarters. When a thief breaks in, the devices are triggered, the police are alerted and the cameras begin recording. If the thief tries to escape, police can remotely shut off the bait car engine and lock the doors. The trapped crook then bounces around the car like a panicked ping-pong ball as the long arm of the law reaches down to drag him off to jail.

Many of these bait car videos wind up on the Internet. You can find a lot of them on British Columbia’s marvelous website and on YouTube. Go ahead and watch these hilarious videos! You will quickly learn who these thieves really are. They are hardly hulking mastodons of the underworld. Rather, they are sniveling, larcenous weasels, so craven that they would likely flee in terror from the raised cane of an old woman. They scurry in packs like twitching, squeaking rats through parking lots, garages and neighborhoods looking for tasty morsels to grab. While certainly greedy, many are barely intelligent enough to figure out how to pick their noses with one finger.

Here’s a video from British Columbia. Note the teeth-chattering paranoia of the car thieves as they whine, “I hope this isn’t another f***’in bait car, man!”

And here’s another sorry miscreant on his way to jail. As the cops approach with police dogs, watch the crying wretch beg, “Please don’t let the dog chew on me!”

So do these programs really work? Absolutely, but only if done in tandem with aggressive marketing campaigns that inform criminals, “Steal a bait car and go to jail!” Minneapolis started the first comprehensive bait car program in the U.S. in 1997 and has seen a 30% drop in car thefts. Stanislaus County, California saw a 40% drop in two years. British Columbia has seen 10% annual drops since implementing their program in 2004. And in Arlington County, Virginia, their bait car program has helped cut auto thefts to their lowest level since 1965. Best of all, insurance companies often donate the cars and finance the marketing programs because reduced crime cuts down on claims. Upon learning these facts, nine civic associations in Forest Glen, Silver Spring and Kensington promptly asked that the MoCo police implement a comparable program.

So how could MoCo refuse a program that can draw on private funding to cut down on auto crime by double digits? Given its current budget problems, isn’t it time for the county to get creative? One thing is for sure: the car thieves aren’t going to take next summer off just because the county is cutting funding for police. So when they steal that next car, why not make these gibbering curs scream, “Oh NOOOO! It’s a BAIT CAR!!!”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Former Nevada Resident Reflects on the Democratic Caucuses

I'll bet you guys didn't know that I once lived in Nevada. Yes, it's true and I have the cheesy Las Vegas souvenirs to prove it. And as a former resident, I have a few things to say about Hillary Clinton's victory there.

Nearly a decade before I became acquainted with the joys of crossing the Intersection of Death, I was assigned to work a building trades organizing campaign in Las Vegas. Once I had unpacked my Van Halen CDs in my apartment, I went to see the Kings of Sinville - Culinary Workers Local Union 226. What I found was quite simply one of the most remarkable labor organizations that North America had ever seen. They had a savvy, battle-hardened leadership. They had the best research operation of any local union anywhere. They had an excellent organizing program. They had a hard-hitting political program. And best of all, they had a strong relationship with their members. Culinary was known for launching strikes against law-breaking casinos that went on for decades. That's right - their members walked on picket lines old enough to be mentioned in the Bible. As a young labor union researcher, I was in awe of them.

Culinary's political power in Las Vegas compares to MCEA's power in Montgomery County. But unlike MCEA, Culinary faces a state right-to-work law, a vigorous state Republican Party and giant, politically-connected gambling megacorporations that employ its members and occasionally run afoul of its contracts. Few unions can succeed in such a climate. Culinary does so through a ruthless blend of brains and brawn, mating its sophisticated staff with its militant, picket-sign-carrying membership.

That's why I'm as surprised as anyone that Culinary did not deliver the Democratic caucuses to its endorsed candidate, Senator Barack Obama. The Washington Post would have us believe that Culinary's power in Nevada is overrated. But I don't think that's a fair assessment for two reasons:

1. Culinary only announced its endorsement of Obama eight days before the primary. This did not give the union much time to educate its membership about its choice. All good unions know that members need to be persuaded, not instructed, to support their endorsed candidates at election time, and Culinary is no exception. Culinary's late endorsement was a miscalculation by its normally astute leadership, but it is not a sign of weakness.

2. Senator Hillary Clinton clearly has more name recognition and popular support than the Clark County Commissioners that Culinary usually beats up on.

So I'm not completely sure what this result says about Culinary, Nevada politics or Senator Clinton's campaign. But I'm pretty sure what it says about Senator Obama. The fact that one of North America's greatest local unions could not bring home a win for him in its stronghold is not a good sign for the junior Senator from Illinois.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Note on Labor Endorsements in CD4

Here's a quick observation from a labor guy on union endorsements in the Wynn-Edwards race.

The labor movement has been unusually divided between the top two contenders in CD 4: Al Wynn, the incumbent and Donna Edwards, the returning challenger. Wynn's biggest labor endorsers are the MSTA/NEA funds (the state teachers), the Washington Metro AFL-CIO, the Maryland-DC AFL-CIO, SEIU Local 400 (Prince George's local schools employees), AFSCME Local 2250 (Prince George's government employees) and the Washington DC Building Trades. Edwards' endorsers include the national SEIU, the national UNITE-HERE, UFCW Local 400 (grocery workers) and Progressive Maryland. She has also earned important non-labor endorsements from NOW, the Sierra Club and Emily's List.

When labor unions endorse, they bring either money, people power or both. In the Wynn-Edwards race, both of the leading candidates have enough money to compete. And both of them already have lots of name recognition in the district. So the labor endorsements that will matter the most will come from unions that 1. have lots of members in the district, 2. can get their members to turn out, and 3. have volunteers that can handle other tasks on behalf of the campaigns, including communication with non-members.

On the Wynn side, the most meaningful endorsements come from the Teachers. Both MCEA and PGCEA use Apple Ballots in their campaigns. But there are real questions as to whether either Apple Ballot will be used for a federal race and whether either affiliate will truly work hard for Wynn. On the Edwards side, the most meaningful endorsements come from UFCW Local 400 (grocery workers), the national SEIU and especially Progressive Maryland. PM has a large email list and engages in plenty of door-to-door work. But it will have to be just as active in Prince George's as it usually is in Montgomery to maximize its impact for Edwards.

So my best guess is that if the Teachers go all-out for Wynn, he'll have the edge. If they don't, PM will give the edge to Donna Edwards. But labor support is only one small dimension in this race. The overriding factors will be the level of satisfaction with Wynn inside the district and the relative skill each side shows in getting turnout. And the minor candidates could drain a few votes from Edwards, though none has yet demonstrated real strength in the district.

Two other interesting facts stand out. First, the 7000-member UFCW Local 1994 (the MoCo government employees) has not endorsed either candidate. Second, it is extremely unusual for a local union (SEIU Local 400) to take an opposite position from its parent. I cannot recall this happening inside my union, where the international and the regional councils closely align. It is probably a sign of the unusual volatility and strong feelings in this particular race.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

House of Delegates Remembers Jane Lawton

The Washington Post carried a short story on the Maryland House of Delegates' memorial for Delegate Jane Lawton. As usual, the best memories of Jane are the funny ones. The Governor had this to say:

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) told an anecdote from last fall's frantic special legislative session, when he called Lawton at her desk on the House floor to discuss the votes they needed to pass a particular bill.

"I said, 'Delegate Lawton, this is your governor,' and she said, 'Oh, no!'," O'Malley said, adding that Lawton was a strong backer of his policies.

"I said, 'Jane, how does that make me feel?'

"She said, 'I know if you're calling me, we're in trouble.' "
Can't you just hear her saying that?

Special Report: Why Are We Talking About Rent Control in MoCo?

Last month, the Gazette reported that County Executive Ike Leggett told a meeting of 50 tenants in Silver Spring that he would sign a rent control bill if the County Council passed it. This no doubt pleased fellow attendee and County Council Member Marc Elrich, who was one of the prime supporters of rent control in Takoma Park when he served on its City Council. But other county council members may not be so happy with this hot-potato Christmas present from their executive.

So why are we talking about rent control?

Rent control is one approach to the issue of affordable housing, long one of the most intractable problems in Montgomery County (and the entire Washington region). No one from any side of the debate believes that Montgomery County has enough affordable housing. There is plenty of evidence for that view, including:

1. The Census Bureau reports that 46% of the county’s rental units required rents of 30% or more of the occupants’ income in 2006.

2. In that same report, the Census Bureau finds that 36% of the county’s owner-occupied units with a mortgage required payments of 30% or more of the occupants’ income.

3. Impact Silver Spring found that 47% of renters in Silver Spring were paying rents of 30% or more of their income in 2005. Silver Spring has long been thought to be one of the more affordable areas in Montgomery County.

4. The Montgomery County Planning Department reports that the median price of a new detached single-family home reached $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2007. That means half the new homes were sold above that price.

While the county has acknowledged affordable housing problems since at least the 1970’s, its recent difficulties occur in the context of two market realities: rising prices and slow population growth.

Rising Prices
The Montgomery County Planning Department reported that between 2002 and 2007’s first quarter, prices for new single family homes rose by 138%. Huge price hikes also occurred for new townhouses (91%), existing townhouses (105%) and existing single family homes (69%). These hikes may be tapering off, but no one believes that all the price gains of recent years will disappear.

Slow Growth
Since 1990, the county’s population has grown by a meager annual average 11,873 people, or 1.4% per year. In 2006, the county added only 5,000 people – its slowest population growth since 1983. These numbers mockingly lash the back of every wild-eyed MoCo activist who has ever used the term “hyper-growth.”

In fact, rising prices and slow growth may be related. Montgomery County has long been praised for its excellent schools, attractive parks, nice downtowns and quality government services. It is one of the most desirable places to live in the nation. So why does its population grow so slowly? The county simply does not have enough housing to accommodate everyone who wants to move in. Picture a giant bucket pouring endless numbers of people into a shiny, but small bottle. Not everyone will get in. Increasingly, it seems that those who do get in fall into two groups: those who are wealthy enough to afford high-price housing on their own, and those who are willing to tolerate overcrowded, substandard conditions. (The social tensions between these two groups, who sometimes live on the same block, are rising.)

And so when limited supply meets insatiable demand, home prices and rents rise. This is the experience of Montgomery County, most jurisdictions in the Washington area, and many parts of the country.

The county’s primary tool for encouraging the construction of affordable housing is its Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. Created in 1973, the MPDU program is based on a simple trade: developers are ordered to construct below-market-rate units in return for permission to increase housing density. Currently, the law applies to developments of 20 or more units. It mandates that 12.5-15% of the new units be affordable for families earning up to 70% of the area’s median income. In return, the developer may build up to 22% more units than called for in a parcel’s zoning. A new workforce housing program based on similar principles was approved in 2006 but has not yet begun operation.

There are three problems with the MPDU program. First, developers are allowed to “buy out” from the MPDU requirements by paying into the county’s Housing Initiative Fund. Second, the program depends on new construction. When the economy slows down and residential development declines, so does MPDU construction. Finally, the program has actually created very little affordable housing. Since the first MPDU’s were constructed in 1976, only 8,527 owner-occupied units and 3,520 rented units have been built. The county’s total stock of housing units in 2006 consisted of 241,108 owner-occupied units and 100,330 rented units. So after 30 years of the MPDU program, only 3.5% of the county’s owner-occupied and rented units are MPDU’s – a depressingly low total.

In a recent Gazette column, four County Council members claimed that 31,616 housing units were currently approved for development with a projected buildout of 6 years. But how many of those units are MPDU’s? If we were charitable and assumed that 10% were to be MPDU’s and that all of them would be built, the MPDU percentage of the county’s housing stock would rise to a grand total of 4.1%. Even if every single one of these units was an MPDU, the MPDU percentage would only rise to 11.7%. Of course, this would never happen, but it would be a nice start.

There are other tools the county has to affect residential development, including master plans, Planning Board and planning staff reviews, rezoning decisions on individual parcels and zoning text amendments. But the provision of housing is only one factor affecting these decisions. Other factors including resident sentiment, environmental considerations, traffic tests, school capacity and compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods are also weighed. Inevitably, the number of units ultimately approved is less than would be built in a pure free market. And while the county offers rental and homeowner assistance through its Housing Opportunities Commission, these programs have not solved the affordable housing problem.

Deep in the long-lost regions of my mind that remember my college microeconomics coursework, a neoclassical voice cries out, “The government restricts supply, then micromanages construction and now is talking about fixing prices. Of course the housing market is broken!” But that view is too simple. Residential construction creates significant external costs that are not adequately priced in private buyer-seller transactions, such as pollution, school crowding and traffic. And these costs are not fully recovered by the county’s impact tax system. Some development limits are necessary to protect the county’s Agricultural Reserve, preserve the character of existing neighborhoods and prevent the county from resembling overdeveloped Rings of Hell like Phoenix and Las Vegas. But the cost of pursuing these worthwhile objectives may be to limit the provision of affordable housing, both owner-occupied and rental.

The two paradigms of development politics in this county do not have the answers for this problem. The affordable housing issue nicely demonstrates the critical flaws of each side of the ever-lasting development debate. Anti-growth people will not admit that limits on development tend to put upwards pressure on prices and rents over the long term. Pro-growth people will not admit that a true market solution to housing – allowing supply to meet demand – could necessitate massive new residential construction. No one knows the number of new units required to meet the true demand for Montgomery County housing – 50,000 or 100,000 or even more? – but that number is likely to be much greater than a strained county capital budget and a traffic-choked citizenry can accept.

And so we have market failure for affordable housing. And that’s why we are talking about rent control.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Former District 39 Delegate Slams Tax Hikes

Joan F. Stern of North Potomac, a Democrat who served in the House of Delegates from 1999 to 2007, attacked the state's recently-passed tax package in a letter to the Gazette.

In the letter, Stern rages against her former Democratic colleagues, thundering, "County and state officials need to rethink their philosophy and understand that most people are no longer willing to put up with elected officials who keep increasing their taxes, especially when services are being cut. I have seen the light. How about the rest of you?"

After complaining about "expensive new mandates in a declining economy," Stern concludes, "No wonder Maryland had a net loss of 35,000 people to other states. It is time for a reality check."

Stern was not included on District 39's incumbent slate in the 2006 election. Nor did she make the Montgomery County Education Association's Apple Ballot. As a result, newcomer and MCEA-backed Saqib Ali defeated her by 1,238 votes. Are Stern's complaints about taxes a prelude to an attempted comeback?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Governor Pays the Price for Miller's Advice

According to the Baltimore Sun, Governor O’Malley now suffers a 35% approval rating, the lowest since the end of the Glendening administration. Why? Two words: tax hikes. And another two words: Mike Miller.

Reacting to the state’s $1.7 billion general fund deficit, the Governor proposed a tax hike and spending cut plan prior to last fall’s special session. While, as David Lublin points out, no one enjoys either tax hikes or spending cuts, some parts of the plan were more unpopular than others. The features enjoying the most voter support were tobacco tax hikes (69% in a 9/28/07 Washington Post poll), slots (68%), corporate income tax hikes (66%) and income tax increases on the rich (62%). The feature with the least support was the sales tax hike (29%). The Governor tried to soften the tax hikes with a property tax cut.

But Senate President Mike Miller had other ideas. The Senate junked combined reporting, a corporate tax reform that would have made it more difficult for corporations to reduce Maryland taxable income by assigning it to other states. The Senate reduced the top rates in the Governor’s income tax proposal, thereby making it less progressive. And the Senate eliminated the Governor’s property tax cut. So three of the Governor’s most popular reforms were reduced or taken off the table. While the final package was a compromise with the House that restored some of the top income tax rate increases, the contribution of the Senate ensured that the outcome was less progressive than it otherwise could have been.

The result? The hugely unpopular sales tax increase accounted for more than $700 million of the final $1.3 billion tax package, the primary reason cited by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute in labeling it regressive. And Baltimore Sun poll respondents labeled the tax package “unfair” by a margin of 51-33%.

Now I was not a big fan of the Governor’s original proposal but in retrospect, it was far superior to the Senate's proposal. Unfortunately for the well-meaning but embattled Governor, the price of following Mr. Miller’s advice is the good will of the Maryland voter.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Stop Slots Maryland Promises Aggressive Campaign

Aaron Meisner, Chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, promised a group of MoCo activists today that his organization would wage an aggressive campaign to defeat the slots referendum. What is his plan and will it work?

Meisner made his remarks at a public meeting of Progressive Neighbors, a liberal group based in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. He started by noting that most recent slots referenda have failed, a point previously demonstrated by Free State Politics blogger Eric Luedtke. So while slots have a 60%+ favorability in Maryland polls, victory is possible.

"We can win, but it won't be easy," Meisner said. "It's not easy to transform a grass-roots lobbying organizations into a statewide campaign. It's taking time to shift gears." Meisner indicated that the organization is recruiting political operators with statewide campaign experience in Maryland and is in heavy talks with several religious groups. He described the evolving coalition as a group of "strange bedfellows" including secular progressives, rural values voters and religious organizations. "It's a big challenge to get organized," he admitted.

Meisner did not get into specifics, but upon reading a hard copy of this blog post, he indicated that the new plan would resemble what we have outlined. Overall it seems that Stop Slots Maryland is just getting moving. As he says, they have a real challenge: radically changing the organization in the midst of waging its most critical and difficult campaign yet. It is very, very tough for any organization to change so much while on the move, but that is what has to happen for them to win.

Right now, the big questions on this issue are:

1. Will the Governor campaign in favor of the referendum?

2. How will Stop Slots Maryland raise the money needed to win?

3. How will the organization liaison with the street-level activists who will be critical to victory?

Elbridge James, President of Progressive Maryland, hinted at the answer to a fourth big question at the same meeting. When asked whether Progressive Maryland would "help lead the fight against slots," James said that the issue would be decided at a board meeting of the group in late January. "The question is will we oppose slots vigorously, oppose slots passively or not oppose them," he said. While James declined to provide a hard prediction of what Progressive Maryland would do, few of us left the meeting believing that the group would fight hard against slots. Several of the group's union affiliates may in fact support slots because of hopes to unionize casino workers, perform the construction work, or gain more public funding. This creates a significant possibility that Progressive Maryland will sit out this fight, thus lessening the chances of slots opponents.

Pay attention to this one, folks. The fighters are still in their robes, bouncing in their corners. Michael Buffer is only now reaching for the mike. I'd advise you to place your bets, but ah... maybe that's the wrong metaphor.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Reflecting on Wheaton

Could Wheaton look like this someday?

So why have we been talking about Wheaton? After all, this blog is called Maryland Politics Watch, not Wheaton Watch. There are two reasons.

First, Holly Olson, author of the prior three postings, is my long-suffering wife. To get a sense of that suffering, imagine having to hear maximum-volume rantings about such things as the Baroness of Montgomery 24-7. One reason I blog is because she ordered me to “get it out of your system.” The least I can do is return the favor and give her a conduit for expressing her thoughts, which are infinitely better-formed than mine.

But second, and much more importantly, Wheaton represents the future of Montgomery County, the state of Maryland and the United States. Its bustling, chaotic streets, its teeming masses of every language and color and its combination of private-sector optimism and skepticism of government hearken back to our roots of a century ago. If we can bring Wheaton to its full potential, we will have a formula that could be applied broadly to every main street in America.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Wheaton, it lies at the junction of three of Montgomery County’s great avenues: Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road. Along with Silver Spring and Takoma Park, it is one of the county’s three truly diverse urban centers.

Wheaton does not have the prosperity or sheer population size of Silver Spring. It does not have the municipal government of Takoma Park. But it does have a friendly, welcoming spirit along with astounding diversity. In one small shopping center along University Boulevard, two Jewish food establishments co-exist with a Thai grocery, a Chinese restaurant and a Pho kitchen. Right across the street are a couple Latino restaurants. An Italian pizza joint is on the next block up and a Korean restaurant is around the corner. At several Wheaton businesses, when the owner hears I have walked in, he comes out, slaps me on the back and asks if my wife (who is invariably present) has gotten rid of me yet. (She usually answers, “First he buys me lunch.”) Unfortunately, Sabang was one of those places.

But Wheaton has its problems. Holly discussed the economic ones. In addition, I see a more basic one: the difficulty of communication and building relationships within the community. I worked with Holly and the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) on the inspiring parking meter revolt of last summer. One of our strategies was distributing 3,000 handbills to business owners protesting the new hours, which they could then give to their customers. Now I’ve spent many years in the labor movement, so cold calls are no big deal to me. But Wheaton was a different experience. In some of these businesses, the music was blaring and bodies were flying. Others were barren and empty. Many, many languages were spoken. Many workers looked at me with a stare that said, “Are you here from the government to mess with us?” In some places, I could not identify the manager or owner. All of this causes me to have immense sympathy for the employees of the county’s Mid-County Regional Services Center who have to deal with all of these establishments.

This polyglot of polysyllables extends to the organizations in Wheaton. There are three county advisory committees with jurisdiction in Wheaton. There are several civic associations who are inside and nearby. There is both a Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce and a new association for local, small businesses being created by LEDC. There is also the management of Westfield Wheaton, the giant mall just outside the central business district. There is one county services center, but its brave, overworked staff faces the daunting task of dealing with all of the above as well as similar issues in many other areas outside Wheaton. The central communication challenge for politicians and outsiders is that while many people speak for a part of Wheaton, no one speaks for all of Wheaton.

But we are going to have to resolve that problem because Wheaton is changing, and not necessarily for the better. Holly discussed the continuing exodus of many long-time businesses due to rising rents. Many believe that redevelopment is necessary, and the county has long recognized its need. In 2006, County Council Members Marilyn Praisner and Tom Perez championed a new zoning text amendment that raised allowable building heights and relaxed obstacles to building improvements in the central business district, all while encouraging small square footages in new retail spaces. To date, not a single new development has taken advantage of the opportunities in this new amendment.

Instead, the market seems to be creating two Wheatons. On the outskirts of the CBD, high-end housing projects have been sprouting like gilded mushrooms, including a new one above the eastern Metro entrance. Until the recent housing crash, some of the new townhouses were selling for over $600,000. But inside the CBD, there’s not much going on. One low-rise project is under construction at Georgia and University, but it has failed to maximize its location’s potential and will have little impact on the district’s retail capacity. And as Holly has said, businesses are leaving. It seems that Wheaton has two possible paths before it: continued bifurcation or a general decline along the lines of Langley Park.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Wheaton is the last great opportunity for revitalization among the county’s four downtowns. It has Metro access and bus access. It has one of the area’s most diverse stocks of retail and restaurants. A few years ago, local residents worked with the county government to produce a vision of what a revitalized CBD could look like, and that concept appears at the beginning of this post. Here’s another view:

The left edge of the “V” is Veirs Mill Road. The right edge is Georgia Avenue. Tucked into the middle is a broad swath of green space. On all sides is a mix of retail and residential, anchored by a parking garage topped by residences just north of the central green. Here is a central community space that’s greener than Silver Spring, friendly to pedestrians and features a built-in customer base for business through integrated residential in the core.

What about the existing businesses? Preventing further exodus is a high priority for both Wheaton’s business community and its devoted customers (including this author). How about getting the developers to build retail condos, grandfathering the existing businesses as owners and subsidizing their condo mortgages? Come on, guys, this is MoCo. We’re smart, we care and we’ve got resources, so we can get this done.

But somehow, the above vision has been lost in the bureaucratic shuffle and Wheaton is starting over – again. Just as in the past, resources are being directed elsewhere, a situation exacerbated by a tight budget. Businesses continue to feel disconnected from the government and some are leaving. Residents continue to wonder what, if anything, is happening. And rumor has it that the county is coming up with a new “theme” for Wheaton. Why does it have to be re-invented again? When will we stop planning and start doing? What are we waiting for?

The future of Wheaton, and the future of America, await.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Power to the People

Part Three of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson. (View Parts One and Two.)

In Part Two of my post on Wheaton, I was perhaps a little hard on our County Executive. It is not my intent to make him out to be the bad guy, but I do believe that we all need a little tough love every so often to get our butts in gear. And since I am an equal opportunity distributor of tough love, I feel that I must now turn my attention to the Wheaton community.

If there is one truth in politics, it is this: politicians pay attention to you if you make some noise. What do I mean by noise? Noise can take a lot of forms. It can be subtle (political contributions), it can be loud (letters, emails, public testimony), or it can be electoral (voting for candidates based on whether they support your issue).

Wheaton does many things well, but the one thing that the community does not do so well is MAKE SOME NOISE. Does this mean that there are no activists? No civic associations? No business groups? Absolutely not. In fact, many of them are vocal in sharing their concerns about Wheaton. But too often this takes place on a singular level. They do not speak with a united voice, and therefore they lack power. But when Wheaton does speak with a unified voice, the impact can be significant. I offer the following story to illustrate my point.

This past summer, the County was going to extend parking meter hours in the urban district parking lots. Businesses in all the affected urban districts were understandably upset. Downtown Silver Spring launched a massive campaign to get this reversed. And, lo and behold, Ike Leggett was listening. In fact, he listened so well to Silver Spring that he was going to reverse the hours for Silver Spring but not for Wheaton.

Given how precarious the businesses climate was for many of our restaurants, a group of us in Wheaton realized that we could not let this happen. We could not, and should not, be at a competitive disadvantage with other areas in the county. So, at the urging of County Council Member Valerie Ervin and with the help of the non-profit group LEDC, we created our own anti-parking meter campaign. Together, we launched an on-line petition. We canvassed business owners and encouraged them to write to the politicians. We gave them 3,000 flyers to give to their customers so that they could write as well. We solicited letters from community associations. We had a block of people testify before the county council: business owners, non-profits, citizen associations, and activists alike. In short, we ran a multi-faceted campaign to let the politicians know that we were not going to take this.

When we first launched the campaign, there was a sense of resignation among the business community. They had been so used to just taking whatever the County dished out that they felt like there was nothing that they could do that would make a difference. But gradually, that changed. And for the first time since I have been active in the Wheaton community, I saw hope in the faces of business owners. They began to realize that their actions did matter, and that they could make a difference. Why? Because they were united, they spoke with one voice, and they mounted an aggressive campaign to fight back. I share this story because I truly believe that more of this type of action needs to take place in Wheaton. Not just within the business community, but all facets of the community.

As we speak, there are efforts underway to do just that. The Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC), a non-profit that provides technical assistance, training, and financing in the area is working with Wheaton business owners to launch a Wheaton Small Business Alliance. The goal of this group is to advocate and support local businesses while promoting the principles of diversity and economic and environmental sustainability. This is an important first step because it seeks to unite the business community, which has long been fragmented. If this is successful, I believe it will serve as a catalyst for other such efforts to give a voice to Wheaton.

In the end, the bottom line is this. If the Wheaton community wants to be a political priority in Montgomery County, they must unite and pursue their interests more aggressively. There must be constant pressure. They must demand to be treated with the same respect as other urban districts such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, and they must hold their politicians accountable when they do not. The only ones that can fight for Wheaton are the community itself — therein lies the power of the people.

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Where is the Love for Wheaton?

Part Two of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson. (View Part One here.)

While serving on the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee for three years, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of residents and business owners about redevelopment issues. A typical conversation would usually begin with me relaying the recent news about redevelopment and discussing some of the options we saw for the future.

It was at this point, that if I happened to be talking with someone who was a long-time resident, the following would inevitably happen. Their eyes would kind of take on this soft, pitying look that seemed to say, you seem like a nice girl, and we appreciate you telling us this, but we’ve been around for awhile. And then they would say, “Yes, but they have been telling us Wheaton would redevelop for the last 10+ years, and it hasn’t happened yet.” It was never said with meanness, simply resignation.

This reaction was so prevalent that I took to calling it the F squared factor: fatigue and frustration. Fatigue comes from having been told for many years that redevelopment is right around the corner. “Just be patient,” the community is told. “Redevelopment is coming. Things will get better.” They have heard this for so long and seen so few results that it no longer means anything to them. It is simply an empty promise. Frustration comes from the fact that they are seeing millions of dollars being pumped into the revitalization efforts of other communities in the County, while Wheaton considers itself lucky to get a few crumbs.

In many ways, Wheaton is an oxymoron. It is an urban center located on a metro stop. It is a diverse community with tremendous spirit. By all accounts Wheaton should be serving as a national model for redevelopment — incorporating the principles of smart growth, economic and environmental sustainability, and demographic diversity. And yet it doesn’t. Instead it just sits.

Ok, you say — but it hasn’t been all gloom and doom. There has been some progress. True enough. But given the economy over the last 10 years, the demand for housing, and the increased energy directed towards revitalizing older urban centers, the pace of redevelopment has been snail-like. Wheaton has faced an uphill battle in many ways including an outdated sector plan, and up until recently, zoning within the urban core that was less than conducive for development.

Development hang-ups due to technical issues such as zoning and sector plans are important and should not be underestimated. However, one of the major factors I see in the lack of redevelopment is that Wheaton is simply not a priority for many of our politicians. In particular, Wheaton seems to have gotten little play with our County Executive. On occasion, I hear statements indicating that the County Executive is committed to Wheaton. But I don’t see that in his actions. Instead, what I see is that he continues to pump millions of dollars into Silver Spring (most recently evident in his deal to bring in Live Nation) while Wheaton continues to receive very little.

As the County faces a looming budget crisis, it is naïve to think that Wheaton will be getting any deals of its own this year. But what I do hope is that the County Executive will make some concrete and tangible efforts towards helping the Wheaton redevelopment effort. Perhaps even that is too much to ask in this environment. But the community needs hope. They need to know that their County Council and the County Executive care about them and are committed to the future of Wheaton.

So, I ask you, County Executive Leggett, “Do you have love for Wheaton?”

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

George McGovern Calls for Impeachment

Former Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern called for President Bush's impeachment this morning. His column in the Washington Post is a must-read.

There are many reasons for not impeaching the President: it's too late, people don't want it, the Republicans will block it, Cheney will assume the office, etc. But McGovern, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II, makes the best case for it of any that I have read.

He thunders, "Bush and Cheney are clearly guilty of numerous impeachable offenses. They have repeatedly violated the Constitution. They have transgressed national and international law. They have lied to the American people time after time. Their conduct and their barbaric policies have reduced our beloved country to a historic low in the eyes of people around the world. These are truly 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' to use the constitutional standard." McGovern goes on to list the intentional lies on Iraq and Iran, the criminal negligence in New Orleans and the blatantly illegal wiretapping of American citizens as specific grounds for removal.

And then he predicted that, at age 85, he would not be around to witness the rebuilding of our country. That is a sad statement because McGovern helped to build our country's greatness throughout his entire life - a greatness that the current President has done everything in his power to destroy.

I have never been a big proponent of impeachment because I know the Democrats do not have the votes to remove President Bush. But when one of our most honest and principled national heroes calls for it in his final hours, we should at least have a vote.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Wheaton, We (May) Have a Problem…

Part One of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson.

The Wheaton community suffered another loss recently when restaurant owner Victor Lantang closed his Indonesian restaurant, Sabang. If you never had an opportunity to visit Sabang, I can tell you that you missed out. They had one of the best lunch buffets in town.

The closing of Sabang comes on the heels of two other Wheaton businesses closing their doors: Bonifant, a used bookstore, and Barnaby’s Sports Pub and Restaurant. What these three businesses all had in common was that they were long-time members of the Wheaton community.

The fact that businesses close is nothing new. Costs have been increasing and rents in the Wheaton area have been rising — perhaps at a rate higher than justified by the market. And, as re-development in Wheaton continues (albeit slowly), many business owners will have to either adapt or will themselves close. This is part of change and a reality that we all must face.

However, for three long-time businesses to have closed in such a short time period is worrisome. Yes, the vast majority of small businesses are still operating, but how many have to close or relocate before this becomes a trend? When does it become a problem? Personally, I would rather err on the side of caution and hope that the county would be as proactive as possible in terms of providing assistance to our small business owners. So what should the County be doing to help them?

My sense is that the County actually does a pretty good job in terms of providing services. There are in fact, lots of services available — everything from technical assistance to loans. The deficiencies in Wheaton seem to exist more in the area of outreach. Therefore, I have laid out five outreach components that I believe are essential for helping Wheaton small businesses survive.

1. Develop relationships with the business owners.
Let me blunt about this: Many Wheaton business owners do not trust the County. Period. The only way to gain that trust back is to develop a positive working relationship with them. They need to know that the County is there for them and that they have someone that they can go to – whether it is about the latest redevelopment “gossip” or to discuss resources for training assistance.

2. Anticipate the needs of the businesses
Even organizations with the best of intentions can misconstrue the needs of their customers. By building relationships with business owners, the County will be able to better anticipate their needs. So, instead of the County providing businesses with what they think they need, they can provide them with what they actually need.

3. Recognize Wheaton’s diversity
Wheaton has tremendous diversity in terms of the demographic composition of its owners and the types of businesses available. Demographically, it means that there will be language and cultural differences that the County will need to account for. In terms of businesses, it means that the County can not just focus on one type of business, such as restaurants, but all types of businesses.

4. Partner with external organizations
The bottom-line is that the County simply does not posses the resources to be everything to every one of the small businesses. To be so would be incredibly inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money. That is why it is essential that the County continue to partner with organizations such as Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) to help fill in the gaps. LEDC is a non-profit organization that provides technical assistance, training, and financing to small business owners. Although fairly new to Wheaton, they have already provided a number of micro-loans to area businesses and have been essential in conducting outreach to many of Wheaton’s ethnic business owners.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate
This is perhaps the area that the County needs to work on the most. Despite the multitude of services available, most business owners don’t know they exist. In addition, like any small community, rumors abound among business owners—particularly about redevelopment. Many of these rumors are false and often involve some variant of a business getting kicked out for the sake of redevelopment. This creates a sense of paranoia and distrust among the business owners. To effectively communicate, the County needs to do so through a variety of modes: internet, email, hard-copy flyers and newsletters, seminars, town halls, and in-person visits. When businesses are well-informed, they will feel more confident that the County has their back.

Some of what I have just discussed is already taking place through the Wheaton redevelopment office. But this office does not have the resources to handle all of the above work alone. For this effort to truly be successful, it will take a commitment from the County and resources from all facets of the County government.

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How to Beat Slots

Failing to pass an outright bill after many years of debate, the Maryland legislature has sent the slots issue to the voters. Next November, the issue will finally be decided by referendum. Sixty-eight percent of Maryland residents supported slots in a recent Washington Post poll and the gambling industry is set to pour millions into a pro-slots advertising campaign. So the Free State will soon see beeping machines entitled “Mike Miller’s Mega-Bucks” and “O’Malley’s O’Millions,” right?


As Eric Luedtke points out on Free State Politics, the gambling industry has won only 5 of 16 ballots since 2004, and only 2 of 6 ballots since 2006. Past experience shows that it is possible to defeat the gambling industry even when they start out with a lead in the polls. But it will take disciplined organization, cooperation among unlikely allies, a bit of money and unprecedented volunteer efforts to get the job done.

There are three constituencies that oppose slots, each for different reasons. None of them has a great deal of experience in working with the others. They are:

Secular Progressives
These individuals are Democratic activists who are social and economic liberals and have contributed money and time to past liberal campaigns. They live disproportionately in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties but play important roles in many local Democratic Parties across the state. They oppose slots because they view them as regressive and inherently promoting corruption (especially via political contributions). They would play an important role in any pro-slots coalition, but they are insufficient in numbers to win a referendum by themselves. (The recent special session showed the limits of their power as Montgomery County’s delegation expended their political capital on limiting income tax increases on the rich – hardly a liberal priority.)

Religious Groups
Religious groups oppose slots because they see them as morally wrong. In their view, slots promote crime, vice, addiction and a general decline in the culture. Importantly, religious organizations from all parts of the political spectrum – from the most liberal to the most conservative – detest slots. While secular progressives have occasionally worked with liberal religious groups, they have often been on the opposite side of conservative groups. (See Montgomery County’s recent debate on protections for transgender people.)

Neighbors of Slots Sites
Slots are scheduled to be located at five sites: Worcester County on the Eastern Shore (probably the Ocean Downs race track), Anne Arundel County (probably at Laurel Park race track), an unspecified site in Baltimore City, Allegany County (probably at the state-owned Rocky Gap Lodge), and an unspecified site in Cecil County in the northeastern corner of the state. Many leaders in those areas, including the mayor of Ocean City and the Anne Arundel County Executive, oppose slots. It is reasonable to believe that immediate neighbors of the sites would oppose traffic-generating, crime-creating casinos near their homes. Many residents in these areas are probably Republicans. Some may not be regular voters. But since they are now in the target sites of the gambling industry they may be ready and willing to fight back.

None of these groups can defeat organized gambling alone. But if they unite and focus on their common enemy, they can triumph.

In order to win, these groups must work cooperatively inside a campaign structure set up for the express purpose of winning the referendum. That structure does not currently exist and must be created as soon as possible. It is not enough to simply expand Stop Slots Maryland, the group that has resisted slots up to now. That group has engaged successfully in legislative lobbying, but that is a fundamentally different task than grass-roots organizing. A winning structure would bear a significant resemblance to a Presidential state organization. It must have coordinating leadership but also significant local, perhaps even precinct-level, autonomy. It must give local volunteers the guidance, resources, money and expertise to enable them to wage effective house-to-house campaigns in their own neighborhoods. The gambling industry has outspent anti-gambling activists by seven-to-one in prior campaigns, so the anti-slots forces can only win through organized people power.

Here is what a winning anti-gambling coalition looks like:

State Leadership
The state leadership’s primary functions are to raise money, coordinate (but not control) local activities, supply resources (including training), deal with state-level media and run the campaign’s primary website. The state leadership will not directly control strategy on the ground – that is the domain of legislative district captains.

The state leadership committee should be composed of no more than a dozen prominent anti-slots leaders, possibly supplemented by a broader committee for symbolic value. Each of the three constituent groups must be represented. It is vitally important that none of the three constituencies be relegated to second-class status; otherwise it will lose interest in the campaign. It is also important that the state leadership not be too closely identified with any single politician. If it is, it will succumb to geographic, political and personal rivalries. After all, these are politicians we’re talking about.

The state leadership committee should consider hiring an experienced political organizer as an executive director with a monthly salary plus expenses. This individual will be extremely busy managing the website, directing cash flow, placating occasionally jealous politicians, traveling across the state and otherwise keeping the campaign on track.

The most important task of the state leadership is to raise money. In the 2006 gambling campaigns in Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Dakota, the Baltimore Sun reported that a total $54 million was raised by both sides. The gambling industry accounted for 90% of this total. Applying these figures to Maryland on a per capita basis, the Free State’s anti-slots activists would need to raise $1.7 million to match the record of the other campaigns. A quick way to begin would be to ask every anti-slots politician in the state to contribute $4,000 from his or her campaign account. If 50 politicians heed this request, the state leadership would have $200,000 which could immediately be applied to raising more money from the public. An additional benefit would be to identify which politicians were truly anti-slots, thereby revealing others who were anti-slots in their rhetoric but unwilling to back it up with their own campaign funds.

The campaign website is a critical gateway to potential volunteers. It must contain extensive FAQs on the issue, identify supportive leaders, allow monetary contributions (including through credit cards), contain printable handbills and other literature, report news items and most importantly, connect the visitor to their relevant district captains. Each district captain should have his or her own web page through which to communicate about local activities. It is very important that the website not only inform and persuade, but also give the visitor the motivation and tools to become an activist in his or her own area.

Each of the individual state leaders should also tend to their own constituencies. A politician from Montgomery County, for example, could activate his or her own network of campaign volunteers for anti-slots activities. A church leader could initiate talks with nearby religious groups. A conservative leader could seek out resources from national conservative groups that oppose gambling. Each of them could initiate media coverage from local newspapers. The important thing is that these efforts should be coordinated with ground-level activities through district captains as well as with other state leaders. And each must focus on opposition to gambling as opposed to other elements of their agendas – an easier task to describe than accomplish.

District Captains
W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for Stop Slots Maryland, recently told the Baltimore Sun, “We need a lot of little heroes.” Carter is correct. Anti-slots activists are more motivated and more numerous than pro-slots activists (if there are any), but they must be organized for success. This is the critical task of the district captains, each of whom is selected by the state leadership to manage grass-roots efforts in one of the state’s 47 legislative districts.

The district captains will identify and enroll activists, create and schedule work assignments, and implement locality-specific activities designed to educate voters and turn out the anti-slots vote at referendum time. Each will use a page from the statewide website to provide contact info to prospective activists, announce work assignments and other events, and exchange info with volunteers through attached listservs. District captains will apply to state leadership for literature, access to politicians, local leaders and other resources, and general guidance. But actual work decisions will be made by the captains and their teams and must be customized to local circumstances. For example, a district captain in a heavily Latino area may want to distribute Spanish-language literature. Another district captain near a proposed slots site may want to saturate neighborhoods within a two-mile radius. Yet another district captain may want to forge a close alliance with a locally-prominent religious organization. These decisions cannot be dictated by Annapolis.

While the state leadership should not micromanage the district captains, it is vitally important that they provide the captains with training. Soon after the captains’ selection, the state leadership should arrange a training session in grass-roots organizing provided by experienced political campaign operators. Literature drops, housecalls, training volunteers, scheduling assignments, media relations and other common campaign activities should all be covered extensively. Follow-up sessions, including joint briefings and info exchanges, should occur regularly over the course of the campaign.

Religious groups may want to set up parallel structures because congregations often cross district and county lines. Some may want to produce customized literature reflecting the priorities of their congregations. Others may want to work with closely allied non-profits. Still others may want to bring in assistance from national organizations. These decisions are best left to religious leaders but should be communicated to relevant district captains. On a campaign involving this many different groups in so many spheres of influence, communication by itself will be a significant challenge.

Measurement and Accountability
The state leadership committee and the executive director must strike an appropriate balance between respecting local autonomy and demanding results. Promulgating a measurement system at the start of the campaign would make clear the expectations of district captains – perhaps the sole part of the campaign’s structure under the discretion of the state leadership. Possible measures include number of handbills distributed, number of volunteers coordinated, and number of man-hours worked. Some underperforming district captains may need to be replaced, especially if they fail to produce significant numbers in a jurisdiction with potential (such as Ocean City or Montgomery County). Other district captains may need to be supplemented with aid from nearby jurisdictions. While the district captains should have lots of leeway in deciding how to meet performance measures, the state leadership is responsible for ensuring that those measures are actually realized.

Maryland has rarely seen a grass-roots issue operation of the nature described above. But anti-slots activists need one now. The clock is ticking. Gambling corporations and their allies are already raising money, reserving ad time, filming commercials and printing direct-mail pieces. If the opponents want to maximize their chances for success, the time for counterattack is now.