Friday, February 29, 2008

Latest on County Council D4

Don Praisner will be endorsed by County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council Members Marc Elrich, Phil Andrews, Duchy Trachtenberg and Roger Berliner at his announcement on Monday. The Washington Post talked to Praisner and Leggett.

Steve Kanstoroom has been subpoenaed by the Montgomery County Planning Board to provide communications he has had with news organizations over the Sandy Spring road dispute.

No assumptions should be made at this point about MCEA's endorsement. The union could endorse a candidate or sit out the race entirely.

As of 4:40 pm today, Kanstoroom, Pat Ryan, Cary Lamari and Republican Mark Fennel have filed papers to run.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Is MoCo in a Recession?

Recent attention to Montgomery County’s reduced, but still substantial budget deficit (now projected at $297 million) has caused many to pay closer attention to the state of the county’s economy. Simply put, is MoCo in a recession?

The classic definition of a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of negative growth in gross domestic product (GDP). At the national level, there are an excruciatingly large number of measures used to predict and track business cycle changes, many of which are tracked by the National Bureau of Economic Research. At the local level, fewer statistics are available. Survey sample sizes shrink, employer non-disclosure requirements become a problem and data in general are more scarce. But there is enough information to know, or at least speculate about on an informed basis, two questions: is the county’s economy growing now and will it grow in the near future?

Montgomery County’s Department of Finance is a good resource to start. It has a number of coincident indicators, or data that measure the state of the county’s economy right now. Through November 2007, the county’s labor force (the total number of civilians employed or looking for work) was 506,884, an increase of 0.5% from the year before. As a matter of fact, the county’s labor force has increased every year since 1997. Total payroll employment through June 2007 was 458,964, a drop of 0.7% from the year before. The local unemployment rate was 2.8% through November 2007, down only 0.1 from the year before. Sales taxes collected through October 2007 were up only 0.3% over the prior year, below the local rate of inflation (3.5%).

All of these figures point to a stagnant, but not shrinking economy. Jobs are stable, inflation is creeping up but unemployment is still low. (MoCo’s unemployment rate has not risen above 4% since at least 1992.) The Washington region’s employment base grew by 1.5% last year, faster than MoCo’s, which helped the county. MoCo’s tax collections are not growing as fast as government expenditures, but the private sector is not currently contracting.

However, there is more. To answer the question of whether the county’s economy will grow in the future, we have to examine leading indicators – data that correlate with future growth. At the local level, most leading indicators are related to the construction and real estate industries. These industries serve an important function because they channel economic growth from a handful of industries into a much broader range of industries. For example, in the Washington region, up to one-third of the local economy is associated with federal spending. When federal employees or contractors receive increases in compensation, they often spend them on new housing, housing upgrades or associated real estate. Those payments multiply through real estate agents, construction contractors and material supply industries, which then distribute them more widely through the economy. The construction and real estate industries therefore absorb current growth, magnify it and create future growth throughout the economy. When construction and real estate stop growing, it means that the future growth they promulgate throughout the economy will dissipate.

According to MoCo’s Department of Finance, residential construction starts totaled $485.9 million through November 2007, down 30% from the year before. Non-residential starts totaled $526.3 million, down 9% from the year before. Non-residential volume has declined every single year since 2004. Home sales through November 2007 totaled 9,348 – down 28% from the year before and 43% from 2004. And while the median price of a single-family home increased by 0.7% last year, average days on market has jumped from 26 in 2005 to 84 in 2007.

MoCo’s commercial office market is tight but beginning to slacken. According to Transwestern, the county’s office vacancy rate was 7.1% in the third quarter of 2007, a very low rate. But look at absorption – the amount of square footage newly leased minus the square footage vacated. That figure fell from 2.2 million SF in 2004 to 150,000 SF through the third quarter of 2007. That means the rate of demand for MoCo office space is rapidly cooling and may even turn negative.

So what’s the bottom line? Current economic growth throughout the county is flat. But the commercial real estate industry is slowing down, the commercial construction industry is contracting and the residential real estate and construction markets are in a steep downturn. MoCo is not in a recession right now. But if its real estate and construction industries do not bottom out this year, a recession later in 2008 or 2009 is not out of the question.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pass the CARR Bill

Montgomery County faces a $297 million budget deficit. Prince George’s County is projecting a $100 million budget deficit. Baltimore City is seeing a 20-30% drop in recordation receipts and transfer taxes. So there is lots of talk in these jurisdictions and others of raising taxes and fees, freezing hiring and perhaps even delaying compensation increases for employees, all traditional methods of dealing with budget deficits. But new District 18 Delegate Al Carr has a better idea.

Carr points out that state law allows Baltimore City and the counties to set just one property tax rate that applies equally to all categories of real property. So in Baltimore County, for example, the county levies $1.10 per 100 dollars of assessed value regardless of whether the property is a house or a giant office building. Baltimore City’s rate is $2.27, again applied equally to housing or commercial properties. No county government is allowed to establish different rates for different property types.

Over the long run this can cause problems. Take Montgomery County. According to the county’s Department of Finance, residential property (including condominiums) accounted for 69.6% of the county’s total assessed value of real property in 1991. By 2007, that percentage had climbed to 76.8%. On the other hand, commercial property’s percentage of total assessed value fell from 30.4% to 23.2% over the same period of time. The state’s homestead tax credit limits tax increases on owner-occupied homes to 10% per year, but that merely delays tax increases rather than eliminates them. The bottom line is that, at least in Montgomery, the property tax burden has been slowly shifting from commercial owners to residents.

Maryland’s municipal governments, unlike the counties, are free to set different rates on different classes of property. The District of Columbia charges 85 cents per 100 assessed dollars for residential property and $1.85 per 100 assessed dollars for commercial property. A new Virginia law allows counties and cities in Northern Virginia to establish different property tax rates and Arlington County is considering doing so. Carr’s bill, HB 676 – cosponsored by Delegates Barkley, Bobo, Feldman, Gilchrist, Hucker, Kaiser, Lafferty, Manno, McIntosh, Montgomery, Tarrant, Taylor and Waldstreicher – would give Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City the same ability to establish different property tax rates that these other jurisdictions have. (District 18 Senator Rich Madaleno is sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate.) Hereinafter, this bill shall be designated the Commercial Assessment Rate Review (CARR) bill by the authority vested in me as the author of this blog post!

Won’t raising commercial property tax rates cause real estate and job losses? Not necessarily. Consider the District, which charges a commercial property tax rate more than double the residential rate. Commercial property manager Transwestern estimates the District’s office vacancy rate at 5.8%, one of the lowest rates in the country. Transwestern proclaims, “The District remains one of the top-performing areas in the nation with a strong tenant base, low vacancy rate and high barriers to entry.” Sounds like that higher commercial rate is really killing their economy.

And the CARR bill would even enable counties to lower commercial property tax rates below residential rates. Consider a county seeking to revitalize a run-down commercial center. Right now it could not do it through cutting the commercial property tax rate. With the CARR bill, it could.

The point is that this bill gives county governments new options for changing their revenue mix in good times and bad. And at this moment, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore and other jurisdictions need those options. Otherwise residential taxpayers and public employees could pay the price. So what are you waiting for guys? Pass the CARR bill!

Kevin Gillogly is NOT Running for County Council

We promised our readers close coverage of the County Council District 4 race, and boy do we have a doozy for you! In a shocking development, we have just learned that Maryland Politics Watch contributor and District 4 resident Kevin Gillogly is NOT running for the seat! We caught up with the famed blogger outside his office and landed this exclusive interview.

Adam: Kevin, why have you decided not to run?

Kevin: Well Adam, I was all set to do it. My website was ready. My fundraising solicitations were about to go out. I ordered the voter lists. My literature was prepped.

Adam: So what happened?

Kevin: I found out that they’re holding a special election! I thought MCDCC was going to pick the replacement. That would have made things a lot simpler.

Adam: Indeed it would have, although now you won’t have to buy any royal bon-bons.

Kevin: It’s a great shame. I had my team all put together. Nancy Navarro was going to be my campaign manager. Ben Kramer was going to be my treasurer. And Steve Kanstoroom was going to be my press liaison. But when I called a meeting of my team a couple weeks ago, none of them showed up. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Adam: Yes, I’m sure that puzzles our readers too. It would have been nice to have a fellow blogger elected to office. Kind of like actually getting one geek into the prom.

Kevin: There is a bright side to it, I guess. For instance, I won’t have to take any phone calls from crazy activists.

Adam: That’s why council members hire staff. They’re supposed to take the abuse for you.

Kevin: Oh right. Hey Adam… when you were talking about the potential candidates, why did you mention Free State Politics’ Eric Luedtke but not me?

Adam: Well, he’s a serious blogger.

Kevin: What the hell do you mean by that?

Adam: Errr, moving on… are you going to endorse any of the remaining candidates?

Kevin: I don’t know. Most of my endorsed candidates lose. I mean, I ran as a pledged delegate for John Edwards for heaven’s sake!

Adam: Any advice for the candidates still in the race?

Kevin: Don’t read the blogs. You never know if the posts are for real or if they’re just ridiculous spoofs!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CRG Alleges “Intimidation” by Dana Beyer

Citizens for a Responsible Government (CRG), the organization seeking to overturn Montgomery County’s Transgender Anti-Discrimination bill is alleging “intimidation” by County Council staffer Dana Beyer. And the group claims to have video evidence supporting their allegations.

CRG states in a press release that Beyer encountered its signature collectors outside a Giant Supermarket at Bethesda’s Westwood Shopping Center on Monday February 18. The following six-second cellphone video shows Beyer telling the collectors, “An email went out; you’re going to be asked to leave. Any petitions gathered today are illegal.”

CRG claims this is part of a pattern of “harassment and intimidation” by Beyer and others. Former Republican candidate for Congress Dan Zubairi also alleges that Beyer “ordered” him not to sign CRG’s petition but CRG supplies no evidence to back up that allegation. Finally, CRG alleges that Beyer violated Section 19A-14 of the County Code during the course of her activities. CRG attorney John Garza said he will “probably” file a civil rights lawsuit soon.

Beyer, an aide to County Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg, Vice-President of Equality Maryland and former candidate for District 18 Delegate, told her side of the story to this blog. She said she encountered CRG’s petition collectors on Primary Election Day, the following weekend and President’s Day (2/18), the date of the incident in question. At the Bethesda Giant, she entered the store, told the manager that the petition collectors were violating store policy (which allows the group to collect signatures on only one weekend per month), and left soon after making the statements to the group shown on the video.

Council Member Trachtenberg was the lead sponsor of the transgender bill. Beyer, a transgender female who serves on Trachtenberg’s staff, worked on the bill and advocates for keeping it on the books along with passage of a similar state-level law. Activists with Teach the Facts and Equality Maryland are now challenging the validity of CRG’s signatures.

“These people had a right to collect signatures if they’re not trespassing and they did so. But if they’re trespassing, there’s no right for them to be there,” Beyer told us. “I didn’t harass or intimidate anybody… I don’t think what I did is wrong at all.” Beyer accused CRG of employing scare tactics, saying, “You want to talk about harassment and intimidation – we’ve gotten death threats! I have to deal with this because people are threatening my life and those of my friends and colleagues.” Trachtenberg has also talked about “spiteful messages and threats,” telling the Frederick News Post last year, “(They) left a message on my home phone asking my husband if he knows my sex.”

CRG has two things going against it. First, its video clip is only six seconds long. It does not have any context associated with the events before or after the video was taken. That context, along with testimony and evidence about any other events at other locations, will be relevant in any lawsuit. Second, the organization has a history of distorting the content of the legislation. Given that history, CRG’s version of events cannot be trusted as the entire truth.

But the incident between Beyer and CRG raises some interesting questions.

Did Beyer violate the County’s ethics code?
County Code Chapter 19A-4(m) defines a “public employee” as including “the County Executive and each member of the County Council” along with “any person employed by a County agency, including the director of the agency.” No exemptions appear for council staff or any employees operating off-the-clock. Even non-paid board and commission members are treated as employees.

County Code Chapter 19A-14(e) states, “A public employee must not intimidate, threaten, coerce or discriminate against any person for the purpose of interfering with that person’s freedom to engage in political activity.” Do Beyer’s activities in the video constitute intimidation? That question may be examined in court.

How does this reflect on the Montgomery County Council?
Should CRG go to court, they will probably attempt to tie Beyer’s conduct to her supervisor, Council Member Trachtenberg. County Code Chapter 19A-14(f) states, “A person must not influence or attempt to influence a public employee to violate this Chapter.” CRG’s attorneys may very well ask whether Trachtenberg knew of Beyer’s activities. Trachtenberg has made ethics one of her priorities while on the council. For example, she questioned the ethical implications of lobbyist-paid trips taken to Israel by other council members in the past, ultimately causing the County to abandon them. Trachtenberg has set high ethical standards for herself and others and we would expect her to vigorously battle CRG’s charges in court. Other council members and their staff will pay close attention.

How does this incident change the debate over the legislation?
There is little question that this video will be a propaganda boon to CRG. They can now expand their argument beyond the narrow confines of the legislation (on which they are clearly wrong) and into the realm of civil liberties. CRG will ask what business a County Council employee had in enforcing Giant’s solicitation policy. Trespassing on Giant’s property is a matter for company management and the police. Throw in the fact that the council employee in question was a known advocate for the bill and an employee of its lead sponsor and CRG will claim political targeting by the government. Many people who support the transgender bill will be uncomfortable with the idea of county employees – especially the personal staff of council members – seeking to get petition collectors ejected from store premises. Civil liberties questions are now going to arise on both sides of this debate.

Update: The Sentinel's coverage is here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Donald Praisner Considers Running in Council D4

Read Ann Marimow's account in Maryland Moment.

MCEA Begins Endorsement Process in County Council D4

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) is starting its endorsement process for the County Council District 4 Special Election.

Wednesday’s Gazette will contain the following ad:

MCEA Candidate Recommendation Process
County Council (District 4) Vacancy
Special Election

During the next week, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), an organization of over 11,000 education professionals in our community, will be conducting candidate interviews and reviewing qualifications in connection with its recommendation process for the upcoming Special Election to be held in conjunction with the vacancy for Montgomery County Council (District 4).

Formal announcement of the individual recommended by MCEA will occur in March 2008.

Candidates interested in seeking recommendation by MCEA should contact Jon Gerson at 301-294-6232 or email: by March 3, 2008 to ensure full consideration by the organization.
Gerson, MCEA’s Director of Community Outreach, offered our readers the following description of their process:

MCEA conducts one of the most thorough candidate screening processes of any organization in the county. MCEA contacts all incumbents and all announced and rumored candidates for office. We also run ads in both major party county newsletters soliciting candidates to participate in our screening process (note: because the timeframe for the Council vacancy did not allow placement in the party newsletters, we are running a ¼ page color ad in the Olney/Burtonsville/Wheaton editions of this Wednesday’s Gazette). All candidates are asked to complete a detailed questionnaire. All candidates are invited to participate in a personal interview with a team of rank-and-file MCEA member-volunteers from the Political Action and Legislative Support (PALS) Committee. (note: in 2006, over 100 candidates for public office were interviewed.) Each candidate is asked a set of structured questions. The interviews are all taped. The PALS Committee then discusses the interviews, reviews the questionnaires, and makes a recommendation to the MCEA Board. A 58% vote by the PALS Committee is necessary for a recommendation. The Board then reviews the recommendations, considers the broader political contexts, and makes its own recommendations; again with a 58% majority requirement. Those recommendations then go to MCEA’s final decision-making body, the Representative Assembly. At the RA, typically more than 170 elected MCEA Reps from schools all across the county discuss and debate the candidates. Approval of final recommendations of candidates again requires a 58% majority vote.

Donna Edwards Statement for Navarro

This is one of the three endorsements that every candidate running in County Council District 4 would like to have. The others, of course, would come from County Executive Ike Leggett and MCEA, neither of whom has announced their support. Edwards' statement follows:

Over the years, I have been fortunate to meet many smart, talented, and visionary leaders from all across our district. One such individual is Nancy Navarro. Her experience on the Montgomery County Board of Education and years of service in numerous volunteer roles throughout the County make Nancy an extremely well qualified candidate to become the next member of the Montgomery County Council. She embodies the critical qualities of proven leadership, understanding of the issues, integrity and progressive ideals that we need in our elected officials. I am proud to offer Nancy Navarro my endorsement in her bid to join the Montgomery County Council succeeding Marilyn Praisner in her tremendous commitment to public
service. Donna Edwards
How long before Council D4 residents see a mailout with Edwards and Navarro in the same photo?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What Transgender Opponents Really Think

Finally, we uncover the true agenda of the opponents of Montgomery County’s Transgender Anti-Discrimination bill. But first some background.

Last September, Montgomery County Council Members Duchy Trachtenberg, Valerie Ervin and Marc Elrich introduced Bill No. 23-07. The bill’s purpose was to “prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, cable television service and taxicab service on the basis of gender identity.” Its primary effect was to add “gender identity” as a protected class from discrimination along with age, race, religion, color, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, national origin or marital status under County Code Chapter 27.

After the bill was introduced, it was amended to include the following language:

A person must not deny any person access to the equal use of any restroom, shower, dressing room, locker room, or similar facility associated with the gender identity that the person publicly or exclusively expresses or asserts.
After significant public pressure, the council stripped this language from the bill. The bill was then passed by an 8-0 vote and signed by the County Executive.

But the controversy continues. Bill opponents have launched a petition drive to put its repeal on the ballot in the next general election. As David Lublin has noted, their success in meeting the threshold of 25,000 signatures is far from assured.

One dimension of the controversy is whether the bill prevents bathroom operators from forbidding biological men to use female bathrooms and locker rooms. As stated above, the language on that issue was stripped from the bill prior to its passage. Council President Mike Knapp recently commented on this in a press release:

“We have heard some people are confused about the effect of this new law on how the operator of a public accommodation controls the use of a public bathroom or locker room,” said Council President Knapp. “Bill 23-07 did not change the law in this area.”

Opponents of the legislation have circulated petitions to send the law to referendum, telling potential signers that the legislation requires men to be allowed in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.

This is not accurate, Knapp said. The law still allows the operators of public bathrooms and locker rooms to continue to separate their facilities based on gender identity or biological gender. For example, a restaurant owner can require a biological male presenting as a female to use the men’s bathroom. The new law does not require a restaurant owner to allow biological males access to women’s bathrooms, or vice-versa.

“The misinformation being put out about this law really troubles me,” said Council President Knapp. “We guaranteed that certain people in our County will have the same rights as other residents—and that is all we did. Those who intentionally mislead people about what this bill means will have to explain what is behind their actions, but we want everyone to know exactly what this law is about.”
Citizens for a Responsible Government (CRG), which is leading the fight to repeal the bill, told the Gazette that the language “is too vague.” But in gathering signatures for their petition drive, evidence is accumulating that the group did tell signers that the bill allowed men into women’s bathrooms – an opinion unsupported by the bill’s language.

CRG is an offshoot of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum (CRC), which has struggled for years to exclude discussion of homosexuality from Montgomery County Public Schools. Prior to CRG’s establishment, CRC led a crusade against Bill No. 23-07, stating on its website:

Bill 23-07 adds “gender-identity” to the current Non-Discrimination Law, and will allow males who self identify themselves as females to have open access to ALL women’s and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and showers. In other words, a male teacher or student will be able to use the female restrooms and locker rooms if he thinks he is a female.
Again, this view is directly contradicted by the language that was passed.

Furthermore, prior to CRG’s start of a paper petition, CRC posted an online petition to mount pressure against the bill. The statements of the signers are very revealing and if you read them, you will quickly realize their real intent. Following are some of the signers of the online petition against Bill No. 23-07 speaking in their own words:

Sheila F. Stepek, petition signer 47: “Those unable to use the proper facilities can go find a tree!!!!”

Joan Press, 109: “What restrooms are the Council members going to use? They are setting OUR children and neices up for RAPE. The council members and the State of Maryland will be hels accountable and sued for this one. Between the HOMOSEXUAL class in Montgoery County Public Schools and now this we have NO rights. Only in America! It's time to move, and we pay high taxes for this? They are Crazy or we are stupid! Or they are trying to make us look both! I didn't vote!”

Kathleen O’Connor, 167: “Stop using MY tax dollars to strip MY parental rights and stop endandering and indoctrinating our children with endless perversions.”

Bonnie Van Veldhuizen, 290: “HEADLINES: MONTGOMERY COUNTY MARYLAND EXTENDS OPEN INVITATION TO ALL PEDOPHILES AND STALKERS SEEKING NEW TARGETS. Shame on every council member who supports this bill. It may be your granddaughter or grandson in the next stall.”

Jeff He, 308: “Nonsense. Who summit the bill should GO TO HELL!!!”

Stephen W. Sweet, 492: “Gay is one thing. But a man/women thinking they are the opposite sex is litterally not figureitively, INSANE!! If this becomes acceptable; I promise the county counsel I will then become a dog and your yard, tree, light post and fire hydrant , are then MY bathroom.”

D. Selleh, 732: “Why isn't the council advising free psychological help instead of encouranging dilusion?”

Robert J. Cassotto, 757: “God is Still in control and those who are not with Him are against Him.He will show is all that He lives.God is also Just and we will very soon have to pay for following satan.....some of us will, that is! Come Lord Jesus !”

Michael Garlick, 768: “Matt. 23:27: Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.”


David John, 991: “This is shame wellcame evil in America bye bye God and son and h spirit, What next patition man or women to marry pets”

John Fulayter, 1006: “To applease's the transgender, is to undermine's the well-being of public's mentality & pshyical show how the bill or in any form cannot encourage the harmony but put it backwards to wondering why we only have more dysfunctional problem to fix's. Please do not allow this bill back fired the public safety.”

District 2A Delegate Appointment Proceeding in Secrecy

The resignation of District 2A (Washington County) Delegate Robert A. McKee promises scandal in the newspapers for some time to come. But the appointment process to replace him may also be scandalous.

As readers of this blog know, when a state legislator steps down, the county central committee of his or her party selects the replacement. This process has been used seven times over the last year (Senate 35, 39 and 47; Delegate 16, 18, 35A and 39). Voters have no role until the next regular election, which can often be several years away.

Yesterday, the Gazette reported the following about the District 2A appointment process now underway:

Meanwhile, Washington County Republican Central Committee leaders are tight-lipped on the process to replace McKee.

Interested candidates had until Thursday to apply, but committee chairwoman Penny Pittman declined to say how many people have submitted applications or expressed interest in the vacancy. She also did not say when the committee would interview candidates.

‘‘We are not leaking anything to the press,” she said Thursday. ‘‘We are not [releasing the interview date] either so that we won’t have the members of the media waiting outside to question candidates. We are choosing to convey information through press releases so that information is conveyed accurately.”
Contrast this with the appointment process used by the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee for the District 18 Delegate vacancy. MCDCC posted all applications on its website. They posted as many recommendation letters as they could. (Ultimately, there were too many letters for Al Carr for the committee to keep up with.) The District 18 Caucus hosted an open candidates forum and moderator Charles Duffy accepted written questions from the audience. Multiple MCDCC members posted their reasoning for their votes on this site. And on the night of selection, MCDCC allowed Kevin Gillogly to cover the process on this blog and voted by open ballot.

Is MCDCC's appointment process perfect? No, and we will continue to discuss it. Did they make a real effort to increase the transparency of their process? Absolutely, and they deserve credit for it. The Washington County Republican Central Committee would do well to adopt the reforms used by MCDCC.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

County Council District 4 Special Election Preview, Part Two

As noted in Part One, Mrs. Praisner’s premature departure has left a large vacuum in Council District 4’s political world. But there are potential aspirants for her seat. The actual and possible candidates in the all-important Democratic primary include:

Board of Education President Nancy Navarro

Navarro, a co-founder of immigrant services non-profit Centro Familia, was originally appointed to the school board in 2004. She quickly formed an alliance with fellow board member (and future County Council Member) Valerie Ervin. When Navarro ran for election in 2006, she appeared on the Apple Ballot and leapfrogged Sharon Cox to become President shortly afterwards. Navarro declared for office on Tuesday and was promptly endorsed by progressive hero Donna Edwards.

Navarro is the early favorite for three reasons. First, her position on the school board gives her substantial district-wide name recognition. Second, she would be a logical choice to once again appear on the Apple Ballot. (Note: MCEA has not disclosed its plans.) Third, there is growing concern among politically-active MoCo women about a recent trend of filling vacancies formerly held by women with men. (The state legislative appointments in Districts 16, 18 and 47 come to mind.) If Navarro is the only female candidate in the field, she will benefit.

Current State Legislators

Of the eight current state legislators in Districts 14 and 19, all but one (District 14 Delegate Karen Montgomery) live in Council District 4. Two of them have run unsuccessfully for County Council before. District 19 Delegate Ben Kramer was the Democratic nominee in District 2 in 1994 and ran at-large in 1998. District 14 Delegate Herman Taylor was the Democratic nominee in District 2 in 1998. (Ironically, both Taylor and Kramer were defeated by Republican Nancy Dacek.) Any of the current state legislators would be plausible contenders for Mrs. Praisner’s seat.

However, not many of them will actually run. First, three of them (District 14 Senator Rona Kramer and Delegates Herman Taylor and Anne Kaiser) are in their second term and District 19 Delegate Henry Heller is in his sixth term. These legislators have or are gaining seniority in the General Assembly, probably making it less tempting to leave. Second, because their state legislative incomes ($43,000 and up) supplement their salaries from regular employment, they would have to make significant financial sacrifices to accept a sole County Council member salary of $89,721. Third, each of them would have to work hard to raise money quickly and make contacts in the portion of Council District 4 that they do not currently represent.

The most likely exception to the above rules is Ben Kramer. Kramer, the son of former County Executive Sidney Kramer and brother of current District 14 Senator Rona Kramer, is a self-employed businessmen who has loaned his delegate campaign $124,450. If he is still interested in following his father into County government, he is more than capable of waging a well-financed campaign aided by name recognition.

Former State Legislators

Former District 19 Delegates Adrienne Mandel and Carol Petzold unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2006 against Mike Lenett. Either of them may be interested in a council run. But they would face the same problems the current state legislators have: the need to raise money quickly and campaign in the parts of Council District 4 that they did not represent in the statehouse.

Civic Activists

MoCo has hundreds of civic activists who volunteer substantial amounts of time on various causes. When many of these activists broaden their agendas beyond their neighborhood-specific issues, they often focus on limiting development, pursuing accountability in government and restraining government taxes and spending. These sorts of issues interest participants in organizations like the Montgomery County Civic Federation, the Montgomery County Taxpayers League and Neighborspac.

Two District 4 activists have already declared their candidacy.

Steve Kanstoroom, an activist from Ashton, looks a bit like an older Dirk Benedict without the cigar. Among the issues he has worked on in recent years are illegal deforestation, abuses in FEMA’s flood insurance program and the Planning Department’s denial of street addresses to some residents of Sandy Spring. Kanstoroom even exposed an individual who had appeared as an expert witness at Board of Appeals hearings as never having possessed a professional engineer license. The Montgomery County Civic Federation gave him its “Community Hero” award in 2006. But not everyone is a fan of Kanstoroom’s. Council Member George Leventhal was incensed after Kanstoroom picketed his house over the Sandy Spring issue.

Patrick E. Ryan is a management consultant with the Washington Federal Practice of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. He is a co-chair of Action in Montgomery, a multi-purpose activist group affiliated with the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation. He is also active in the Church of Resurrection Catholic Parish, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans and the Fairland Master Plan Civic Advisory Committee. Ryan lives in northeastern Silver Spring near Burtonsville.

Civic activists were a natural part of Mrs. Praisner’s base. But a pure civic candidate faces problems of name recognition, raising money and securing endorsements – all of which are exacerbated in a short campaign. The 2006 race in Council District 2 provides an example. Longtime activist and Neighborspac endorsee Sharon Dooley ran against well-funded, endorsement-rich, MCEA-backed incumbent Mike Knapp. Dooley lost the race by 64-36%.

Perhaps the biggest problem Kanstoroom and Ryan have is each other. In a one-seat race, they threaten to split much of Mrs. Praisner’s coalition, thereby allowing another candidate to win. And there may yet be other civic candidates.

Finally, Free State Politics blogger Eric Luedtke lives in Council District 4. Luedtke is an MCEA member and is one of the most-learned, best-researched bloggers in the state. Are we going to see any announcements on FSP, Eric?

Our readers should watch three things going forward. First, who is getting endorsements from organizations with money (like the Chamber of Commerce) and ground operations (like MCEA)? Second, who is raising money? Campaign finance reports are due to the State Board of Elections on March 18, April 4, May 2 and June 3. Third, who is the County Executive, a Burtsonsville resident, going to support? A literature mailout with the Executive’s picture on it will be valuable in a short campaign with low turnout.

Stay tuned for more on this race.

Update: You can read the Post's coverage here. The Post floats one additional name: Cary Lamari, former president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Lamari finished 11th out of 13 candidates in the 2006 council at-large race.

Update 2: The Gazette's coverage is here and here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

County Council District 4 Special Election Preview, Part One

The upcoming special election for MoCo’s District 4 County Council seat is important for two reasons. First, it is the first time a council member other than Marilyn Praisner will represent the district. Second, it will decide the close balance of power on the council, especially on issues related to growth. And so we offer special coverage of this race here at Maryland Politics Watch.

Montgomery County Council District 4 was created in 1990, along with the four other council districts. Prior to that time, the council had seven members, all of whom were elected at-large. In 1990, the present system was set up assigning one council member to each of five districts, with four others running at-large. The districts roughly mirror the county’s population distribution with Council District 4 covering East County.


District 4’s boundaries are (roughly) the county line on the northeast and east, the outskirts of Olney and Brookeville on the north, Rock Creek and Veirs Mill Road on the west and Randolph Road, Four Corners and US-29 on the south. You can view the official district map here.

The district contains two distinct sub-sectors. The western sector includes the neighborhoods between the northern reaches of Wheaton and the southern outskirts of Olney. Much of this sector is accounted for by Aspen Hill. The eastern sector includes the US-29 corridor from White Oak to Burtonsville as well as the areas near the Howard County border. The dividing line between the sectors is New Hampshire Avenue. We make this distinction because these two sectors have very different demographics, as we shall see below.

There are no urbanized downtowns in District 4. The vast majority of the district is covered by single-family neighborhoods with only one Metro station (Glenmont) that is very close to the District 5 border. There are a few commercial strips along Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road in the west, US-29 and Cherry Hill Road in the east, and New Hampshire Avenue. But the lack of density robs the district of any centrally-recognized locations of social, political or civic activity.


District 4 conforms fairly closely to the Census Bureau’s Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) 01005 and 01006. (Those areas, however, include part of Kensington and exclude part of the area along the Howard County border, so they are not a perfect fit.) According to Census, the two PUMAs had a population of 236,844 in 2006. The population was 44% white non-Hispanic, 26% black non-Hispanic, 17% Hispanic and 11% Asian non-Hispanic. Two-thirds of the population is native-born while one-third is foreign-born. Of the 33% foreign-born, almost two-thirds (19%) are non-citizens. Forty percent of the district’s population speaks a language other than English at home. Median household income is $74,656, lower than the county’s average ($87,624). Forty-one percent of MoCo’s black population lives in this district.

There are significant demographic differences between the two sub-sectors. On the western side, which includes Georgia Avenue, Aspen Hill and most of Layhill Road, the population was 51% white non-Hispanic, 17% black non-Hispanic, 21% Hispanic and 8% Asian non-Hispanic. The median household income was $70,170. On the eastern side, which includes the US-29 corridor along with Colesville, the population was 37% white non-Hispanic, 35% black non-Hispanic, 11% Hispanic and 14% Asian non-Hispanic. The median household income was $80,043. So the western part of the district is whiter, more Latino, and relatively poorer than the eastern side. On the eastern side, the black population almost equals the white population, Latinos are not as numerous and the residents are nearly as wealthy as the county average.


The natural breeding grounds of politicians are municipalities and civic associations. District 4 does not have any municipalities and its civic associations are generally not as well-organized as those closer to Downtown Silver Spring and the I-270 corridor though there are a few exceptions). Those factors combined with the lack of urban density and the long dominance by Mrs. Praisner have created something of a political vacuum in the district. Mrs. Praisner had no real rivals and no designated successors.

The population’s racial diversity is not well reflected by its politicians. State Legislative District 14, which accounts for much of the eastern side of the district, is represented by three white women and one black man. State Legislative District 19, which accounts for much of the western side, is represented by four white men. Mrs. Praisner was the only County Council Member who lived in County District 4. However, there is one important exception to the above rule: County Executive Ike Leggett, who served four terms as an at-large member of the council, is a Burtonsville resident.

Dan Reed’s outstanding East County blog Just Up the Pike provides a good feel for East County. Dan paints a picture of a community handicapped by lack of transit, car-oriented neighborhood design and a general lack of commercial amenities. His series on the Briggs Chaney area provides one example. Dan’s interview with Mrs. Praisner also touches on these issues.

But East County’s large and diverse population and its links to both Wheaton and Silver Spring tie it firmly into the rest of the county. Mrs. Praisner, an unusual thinker who could handle both big-picture concepts and excruciatingly minute details, understood this very well. She was a capable defender of the area’s priorities but also a serious player on countywide issues. Whoever follows her will require quite some time to match her stature.

In Part Two, we’ll look more closely at the district’s political playing field.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More on Special Election Dates in MoCo Council D4

Here's a tidbit sure to interest all of you MoCo political junkies.

The County Council staff memo written by Senior Legislative Attorney Mike Faden confirms the dates reported by Kevin (4/15 for the primary, 5/13 for the general). But it then says the following:

Although neither date falls during a school break, Council President Knapp confirmed with Superintendent Weast that the school system could handle continuing to use schools as polling places on these dates. Of the 46 polling places used this year in District 4, 43 are public schools. County Elections staff indicated that they expect to consolidate some polling places for this special election. In any case, voters in District 4 will be officially notified at least twice of the election dates and their polling place.
Two questions:

1. What will this "consolidation" of polling places do to turnout?

2. If the teachers are working, who is going to distribute the Apple Ballots?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Is MoCo Getting its Share of the Spoils?

Believe it or not, there are a few people in MoCo who believe that we are getting the short end of the gubernatorial stick from our ex-Mayor of Baltimore. The latest list of the Governor’s appointments will give them a bit of ammo.

Last Friday, Governor O’Malley released this year’s “green bag” nominations, a list of appointments to many of the state’s boards and commissions that require Senate approval. There are 165 nominees on the list, which you can view here. Obsessed as we are with numbers, we counted the nominees by county of residence. The leaders were Baltimore County (35), Baltimore City (26), Prince George’s County (18), Anne Arundel County (15), Montgomery County (15) and Howard County (11). No other county had more than five appointees. Caroline, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Somerset Counties, all of which are located on the Eastern Shore, had no nominees. Mysteriously, two "non-residents" appear on the list instead.

Let’s consider the populations in these counties. Baltimore County accounted for 14% of the state’s population in 2006. It accounted for 21% of the Governor’s green bag list. Baltimore City accounted for 11% of the state’s population and 16% of the nominees. MoCo, on the other hand, accounted for 17% of the state’s population and 9% of the nominees. Prince George’s fared a bit better than MoCo (15% of population, 11% of nominees).

Now we are all good Democrats on this blog and big supporters of Governor O’Malley. So I have an idea for how the Governor could rectify this unfortunate appointment deficit. How about appointing Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman as our next Secretary of State? He would be a nice D18 counterbalance to all of the people from Takoma Park who seem to be taking over the state government these days.

Just a suggestion from a blogger who’s trying to be helpful, Governor!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Committee Assignments on MoCo Council

Mrs. Praisner's passing has left vacancies on the Planning, Housing & Economic Development (PHED) Committee, which she chaired, and the Management & Fiscal Policy (MFP) Committee, which she chaired for many years. Those vacancies have now been filled by Mike Knapp (PHED) and Phil Andrews (MFP). Marc Elrich is the new PHED Chair. But these committee assignments are temporary pending the special election for Mrs. Praisner's seat in District 4. After that election, all of this (and more) could change.

You can view the new committee structure here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Heavy Metal Makeup

If you’re a knuckle-dragging Cro-Magnon like me, you’ve probably waited impatiently for your wife or girlfriend to finish getting ready before you both head out to dinner. You’ve growled at the bathroom door, thinking, “What on Earth is she doing in there? What’s taking so long?”

Well, Mr. Caveman, she’s going through her checklist. Foundation and powder, check. Mascara, check. Eye shadow, check. Lipstick, check. Mercury, check.

Waitaminnit – MERCURY?! That’s right, MERCURY.

Mercury is sometimes used as a preservative and germ-killer in a wide range of cosmetics, including soap, mascara, eye-liner and creams. It is the active ingredient in some foreign-made skin-whitening creams. Back in 1995 and 1996, skin creams containing mercury were found to have poisoned three people in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In 2002, women in Hong Kong panicked after a skin-whitening cream was found to contain 9,000-65,000 times the maximum allowed mercury dosage. A 2005 study by the Mercury Policy Project found that mercury frequently appeared in cosmetics used in Africa, and a quarter to a third of women used those cosmetics in several countries. Shockingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually allows mercury in eye-area cosmetics so long as its levels do not exceed 65 parts per million.

Last month, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban all cosmetic products containing mercury. And Maryland could follow suit. New District 18 Delegate Al Carr has introduced House Bill 587 (co-sponsored by Delegates Braveboy, Gutierrez, Howard, Hucker, Krysiak, Kullen, Lee, Manno, Mizeur, Montgomery, Stukes and Waldstreicher), which would ban the sale, offer for sale or distribution of all cosmetic products containing any mercury in the state.

Come on you guys, is it really worth it? If we can’t eat it, can’t drink it, can’t inhale it, can’t use it in our thermometers, then is it OK to spread it all over our bodies? This bill is a total no-brainer and it has to pass on the first go.

But if it doesn’t, at least all that mercury should cut down on those pesky botox fees.

(We would like to thank District 18 Breakfast Goddess Susan Heltemes for sharing this with us. Susan doesn’t need mercury to look her best at our breakfasts!)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Freak of the Week

Anyone who can prove the following statement wrong gets a case of Dogfish Head 90 IPA and a no-prize.

Never before in the history of Maryland have two incumbent Congressmen and a MoCo Apple Ballot school board candidate gone down in the same primary night. Go ahead, start doing the research to prove me wrong!

And here is the strangest question you will ever see on a political blog: what do MCEA-backed school board candidate Alies Muskin and my tailbone have in common? Answer: both of them were done in by an ice storm.

MCEA's Apple Ballot, the WMD of county politics, relies on mass volunteering for distribution. Back in 2006, the Teachers fielded at least six Apple Ballot ladies in shifts at my precinct. Yesterday, only one Apple Ballot lady showed up. She left when the flurries started at 11 and no one replaced her. The rain started falling around 2, and a couple hours later, a thin sheet of ice covered every hard surface. I found this out the hard way when I fell down my front steps, ba-BUMP ba-BUMP ba-BUMP. Thus the considerable sympathy in my bruised tailbone for Ms. Muskin's plight. (Worry not, D18 legislators: I can still handle a shovel.) Philip Kauffman and Tommy Le, each of whom had run for school board before, edged out Muskin probably on name recognition alone.

I tell you, people, you can't get election analysis like this on CNN!

Monday, February 11, 2008

PFA Statement on First Amendment Rights on Ellsworth Drive

In the summer of 2007, a controversy occurred concerning First Amendment rights on Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring. Ellsworth, part of the Downtown Silver Spring retail center developed by PFA (a partnership of Peterson Companies, Foulger Pratt and Argo Investment), is a publicly-owned street that is privately leased. After a demonstration on July 4, the County Executive and County Attorney determined that First Amendment rights applied to Ellsworth Drive. At the time, management spokesman I. J. Hudson said:

"We’re reviewing the [county attorney’s] opinion and generally have no arguments with the general principles that First Amendment rights apply to parts of downtown Silver Spring, including Ellsworth Drive."
Last week, Chip Py, who led last year's demonstration, told Just Up the Pike and the Silver Spring Penguin that he was recently prevented from distributing political literature on Ellsworth. PFA issued the following statement on the incident:


The management of Downtown Silver Spring recognizes and supports the public’s First Amendment rights along Ellsworth Drive.

On February 8th, a gentleman was distributing political pamphlets on Ellsworth Drive, as is his right. He was asked by DSS courtesy officers to come to the management office, at which time the management reviewed the DSS property policies and determined that he and any other individuals would be well within their rights to distribute the pamphlets. This was immediately communicated to this person by management. In fact, this person was specifically advised that he was free to continue distributing the political pamphlets on Ellsworth Drive and we believe he did so.

As the result of community concerns about Downtown Silver Spring's policies last year, DSS property management, Montgomery County government and other concerned parties began an exhaustive review of first amendment rights along Ellsworth Drive. Given the unique public-private nature of DSS, all stakeholders wanted to ensure the rights of the public were understood and honored, at the same time respecting the rights of the property owners to protect the activities of their tenants and the public at large.

This review was completed and new rules were issued protecting First Amendment rights and providing for other applicable DSS property policies. We are also in the process of further communicating our new policies to the public, tenants and security and support staff.

In the daily business of maintaining and monitoring activities at DSS, and providing for the needs of our patrons and its businesses, from time to time visitors are asked to visit management offices to review policies and procedures. It is never our intention to keep people from expressing their First Amendment or any other rights.

We apologize to the community if anyone felt that our precautions were inappropriate, however briefly they may have occurred. We would like to emphasize that individuals are free to distribute political materials and exercise their other First Amendment rights along Ellsworth Drive.

We respect the rights of all our guests and other visitors to DSS. It is our hope that the public understands, once again, that any rules and regulations are painstakingly considered and then enacted only with the rights and needs of the public, our tenants and the community at large in mind.

Friday, February 8, 2008

What a Way to Seek an Endorsement

Did you read the Post’s article on the Montgomery County school board candidates the other day? Did you see at-large candidate Tommy Le’s comments on the Montgomery County Education Association?

Le, by contrast, opposes the [teachers’] raises and the influence wielded by the teachers association, which he referred to as the "Montgomery County Extortion Association" during a telephone interview. He said labor support has packed the school board with people who "owe their allegiance to anything that benefits the union."
So Le is a principled objector who’s going to stand up to the “extortionists,” right? Wrong.

It turns out that Le actively sought the Teachers’ endorsement, sending in a questionnaire last December and sitting for an interview with them. In that questionnaire, Le described the current collective bargaining agreement as “a win-win situation for all concerns.” When the Teachers asked him, “Would you support honoring negotiated agreements, especially in tight fiscal times,” Le replied, “Yes.” Le also supported continued inclusion of MCEA on the schools’ Executive Leadership Team and Deputies’ Operating Budget Committee (a sure mechanism for “influence”). It was only after the Teachers endorsed Alies Muskin that Le went on the warpath.

Stranger still, Connection Newspapers reported the following during Le’s last school board run in October 2006:

Le said that he has not sought the endorsement of any organization because he does not want to be “subjected to their interests in the future.” “I want [to be able] to put the interests of the students first over the teachers’ union in case of financial crisis,” he said.
So first he doesn’t want an endorsement. Then he does. Then when he doesn’t get it, the Teachers are “extortionists.” What’s that old rule about getting out of the way of a politician who’s blowing himself up?

So here’s my idea: let’s get Kevin Gillogly to endorse him. That’ll put this campaign to bed for sure.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More on the Politburos

Today's Post contains a few tidbits about the Montgomery and Prince George's County Politburos... err, excuse me, Democratic Central Committees.

First, the Post reports that PGCDCC used an open roll call vote in selecting District 47 Senator Gwendolyn Britt's replacement. Hmmm, very interesting. Does anyone know how long PGCDCC has been using open votes for appointments? Delegate Saqib Ali had to threaten MCDCC with state legislation before they agreed to open voting.

Second, the same article supplies even more details about County Executive Jack Johnson's maneuvers to thwart his enemy, former Delegate Rushern Baker, from getting the appointment. Apparently, Johnson employed an eyeball-to-eyeball staredown (probably in addition to other tactics) to reverse a vote that was previously pledged to Baker. Now do you think Johnson could have personally stared down the thousands of voters who would have participated in a special election to fill the vacancy? I think not.

Third, in an article chronicling County Council Member Marilyn Praisner's long and distinguished career, the Post notes her support for special elections:

In an ironic twist, Praisner and former council member Betty Ann Krahnke, who died in 2002, were the driving forces behind a measure that in 1999 created the mandatory special election for replacing council members. They didn't want to leave those decisions to the political activists on the Democratic and Republican committees.
Actually, I believe the County Council appointed its own replacements prior to 1999 and MCDCC had no role. But Mrs. Praisner favored special elections for vacancies and worked to pass them at the county level. And unlike MCDCC spokesman Milton Minneman, Mrs. Praisner believed in the capacity of voters to choose their own leaders. Remember Minneman's infamous quote in the Examiner?

...The county’s Democratic Central Committee spokesman Milton Minneman believes his team is best equipped to make the selections. Because the group’s purpose is to get Democrats in office, and because it spends time interviewing potential replacements and hosting public forums, it is far more knowledgeable than average voters of each candidate’s suitability.

“Special elections are often held rapidly, and voters don’t have time to get to know the candidates,” Minneman said. “We think we’re more representative.”
That's right, I thought you remembered that.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

MoCo/PG State Legislators for Wynn

Maryland Moment's Rosalind Helderman covered a rally in Annapolis for District 4 Congressman Albert Wynn. I encourage everyone to read her piece as it contains details of the remarks made by Senators Mike Miller, Ulysses Currie and Rob Garagiola, all of whom have endorsed Wynn. As part of that coverage, Helderman provided a list of the Montgomery and Prince George's County state legislators who turned out at that rally and we reproduce it here.

Montgomery County State Legislators for Wynn
District 14: Senator Rona Kramer, Delegate Karen Montgomery
District 15: Entire Delegation
District 17: Senator Jennie Forehand
District 19: Senator Mike Lenett, Delegate Ben Kramer
District 39: Entire Delegation
Note: Districts 16 and 17 do not overlap with CD4. District 18 only shares two precincts with CD4.

Prince George's County State Legislators for Wynn
District 21: Senator James Rosapepe, Delegates Ben Barnes and Barbara Frush
District 22: Delegates Anne Healey and Justin Ross
District 23: Delegate Marvin Holmes (23B)
District 24: Senator Nathaniel Exum, Delegate Michael Vaughn
District 25: Senator Ulysses Currie, Delegates Melony Griffith and Dereck Davis
District 26: Senator C. Anthony Muse, Delegate Jay Walker
District 47: Delegate Victor Ramirez

In addition, Helderman noted attendance at the rally by Prince George's County Council Member Will Campos, Former District 39 Senator P.J. Hogan and Betty Weller from the state teachers union, which endorsed Wynn.

Edwards responded by announcing endorsements from Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (D18), Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D21) and Edmonston Mayor Adam Ortiz. But this is far from a complete list of her elected supporters.

Notably absent from the Wynn camp are Delegates Herman Taylor (D14, who briefly considered challenging him), Kumar Barve (D17, the House Majority Leader), Luiz Simmons (D17), Senator Paul Pinsky (D22, a staffer of MCEA) and everyone from District 20 (Silver Spring-Takoma Park).

Congressman Wynn is known for his long memory. So are MoCo progressives. That's what makes the above list so interesting.

It's Just Not That Strange, George

The Washington Post just carried an article in which Montgomery County Council Member George Leventhal complained about a school fundraiser at McDonald's. I've got news for you, George: given what's already going on, it's just not that strange!

According to the Post, the "McTeachers Night" fundraisers feature teachers serving students at McDonald's with the schools getting a cut of the proceeds. Upon hearing about this at a council meeting, Leventhal reacted with disbelief:

"Teachers are enlisted by McDonald's to work behind the cash register at McDonald's, and students are recruited to go to McDonald's that night to see their teacher dishing out the Big Macs?" he asked with horror. "I never heard of that."

About 20 minutes later, Leventhal spoke up again. "The McDonald's thing really bothers me a lot," he said, his sentiment partly fueled by a concern about childhood obesity. "I mean, I don't know if we'd have a fundraiser at the local cigarette store."
Now look, George. It's seventy degrees out and it's February, and that's causing some odd behavior. Governor O'Malley and State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick kissed and made up. Immigrant-baiting Republicans are voting for John McCain for President. And even you and Marc Elrich are cooperating(!) on a bill to protect domestic workers. So maybe it's not so strange that among these oddball alliances, the teachers are teaming up with McDonald's.

And that's not all! Looking through my inbox, I see a lot more weird things going on. Hmmm, let's go through the list of upcoming events:

March 8
Fundraiser for County Council Member Marc Elrich, Federal Realty Headquarters, Rockville, MD. Special guests: Neighborspac Executive Director Drew Powell and Doug Duncan.

March 29
Fundraiser for _______________ at Georgia Avenue/Forest Glen Road intersection, Silver Spring. (Errr, one problem with this. We can't get any politicians to appear for fear of endangering their lives at the Intersection of Death.)

April 17
Casa de Maryland hosts rally for County Executive Candidate Chuck Floyd, Wheaton. Special guests: District 18 Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez and Help Save Maryland Founder Brad Botwin. Start of petition drive calling for removal of MCPD Chief Tom Manger.

April 26
Joint Fundraiser, District 39 Senator Nancy King and Delegate Saqib Ali, Montgomery Village. Special guests: Governor O'Malley and Comptroller Franchot. Also appearing: Abraham Van Helsing and Dracula.

May 10
Reverend Donald Wildmon hosts fundraiser for District 18 Delegate Candidate Dana Beyer, Chevy Chase. Special guests: District 31 Delegate Donald Dwyer and District 18 Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher. Also appearing: Itchy and Scratchy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It’s Time to Protect Domestic Workers

Back in 2006, the Montgomery County Council commissioned a study by researchers at George Washington University about conditions faced by the county’s domestic workers. The study found that domestic workers were frequently paid less than minimum wage, often did not receive overtime pay, rarely had written employment contracts, did not know their rights under U.S. labor laws and did not have enough contact with their peers to facilitate unionization. On that basis, Casa de Maryland and other groups called for a “domestic workers bill of rights” to protect these workers from employment abuses.

The council did not implement the broad-ranging bill of rights, but Council Members George Leventhal and Marc Elrich recently introduced Bill No. 2-08 mandating employment contracts for domestic workers. Under the bill, any employer of a domestic worker must negotiate a written employment contract with that worker. The contract must specify days and hours of work, wages, paid and unpaid time off, and many other conditions of work. Furthermore, live-in domestic workers must have a private room for sleeping with a lock as well as reasonable access to a kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. Employers are forbidden to retaliate against workers requesting such an agreement. Any worker who suffers an agreement violation can file a complaint with the County’s Office of Consumer Protection.

On its face, this is a strong system of protection for a very vulnerable class of workers. But as David Lublin has noted, the bill has its critics – even among progressives. Among other things, they question whether employment contracts with domestic workers who are illegal immigrants are binding, whether an illegal immigrant would have to acknowledge his or her immigration status during the contracting process, and whether increased education would be a more appropriate alternative than contracts.

As I’ve probably told our readers before, I have spent my entire adult career in the building trades section of the labor movement. We have to deal with the anarchic intersection of illegal immigration, sometimes murky tax and employment laws and predatory employers on a daily basis. Believe me that these are not easy issues. The critics’ questions are legitimate and deserve to be answered.

1. Is an employment contract with an illegal immigrant binding?

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not illegal for an employer to hire an illegal immigrant. Under the Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), an employer may not knowingly hire an illegal immigrant. An employer has a duty to ask for a list of documents from any job applicant but has no duty to verify them with the federal government. When prosecutors go after an employer for hiring illegals, they must prove knowledge of their illegal status in court, which is not an easy task. (That’s why there are so few prosecutions.)

Illegal immigrants execute all manner of contracts in the U.S., including car purchases, business agreements and even mortgages. These contracts are enforceable in court. Labor unions and other organizations routinely recover wages owed to illegals who have been cheated by their employers. Many illegal immigrants are covered by employment agreements, including union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements. So employment agreements involving illegals do not inherently violate the law.

2. Would an illegal immigrant be forced to acknowledge his or her status by this bill?

Bill No. 2-08 is silent on whether the worker is to be classified as an employee or a contractor. That is a meaningful distinction, but not necessarily for immigration status.

Generally speaking, employers may classify workers as independent contractors if they face substantial business risk from their operations, control their own performance and hours of work and own their equipment and capital. When employers set schedules, control work conditions, closely supervise performance and own the relevant equipment and tools, they are supposed to classify workers as employees. Employees are eligible for social security, workers compensation and unemployment benefits while contractors are not. (Because of the immense costs at stake, this distinction is often abused.)

If a worker is classified as an employee, they will be expected to supply a social security number (SSN) and a number of documents establishing legal residency. The employer has no duty to verify them. Illegal immigrants can and do use false SSNs to establish employment (and credit). I have personally audited construction jobsites on which three-quarters of the SSNs used were false. IRCA’s document requirements have spawned a massive phony documentation industry, but that is an inevitable byproduct of a large number of illegal immigrants and a large number of employers willing to hire them.

The consequences of using false SSNs are usually minimal. When a false SSN is used for social security withholding, the Social Security Administration sends “no-match” letters to employers requesting that they provide corrected SSN information. But there is no requirement that the workers be fired, much less deported. (If workers were frequently terminated over no-match letters, half the construction jobsites in America would shut down tomorrow. Trust me on that.) A recent attempt by the Bush Administration to require employers to fire workers with false SSNs was recently turned back by a federal court. It seems unlikely that a President McCain, a President Clinton or a President Obama would seek to institute such a requirement.

It’s much more likely that employers of domestic workers will instead classify them as independent contractors. In that case, the employer would issue a Form 1099 to each worker reporting their compensation for tax purposes. The Form 1099 reports the recipient’s “identification number.” That could be an SSN or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which is available to anyone regardless of immigration status.

The IRS is generally forbidden to share taxpayer information with other federal agencies and is delighted to issue ITINs. As IRS Commissioner Mark W. Emerson told the New York Times last year, “We want your money whether you are here legally or not and whether you earned it legally or not.” In 2006, 1.4 million people used ITINs to file income tax returns and many of them were undoubtedly illegal immigrants.

So under either of the above arrangements, a worker would not have to confess his or her immigration status and any possibility of deportation is extremely unlikely. If the bill really did threaten to cause deportations, Casa de Maryland would not be supporting it.

In any case, while the above issues raise some questions, the workers are not better off working “off-the-books.” In my experience, off-the-books arrangements lead to cheating, abuse and exploitation far, far more than the employment contracts proposed in the Leventhal/Elrich bill.

3. Would greater education be sufficient to protect these workers?

The key determinant of whether a worker’s rights under the law are protected is not the worker’s knowledge of them. It’s the available enforcement mechanisms. I have worked on many organizing campaigns in which education of the workers is an important, early component. But even when workers knew their rights, the employers could and did decide to ignore and violate them. Whether the workers were ultimately able to get their rights respected depended on the vigorousness of government enforcement (which was usually weak), the financial strength of the company and the success of the union’s tactics in countering the law-breaking employer. This is a harsh, HARSH country for workers – even those who are citizens, know their rights and have strong unions.

In the case of domestic workers, education in and of itself would be a challenge. How can the government reach them, especially those who live with their employers? How many languages must the government use? How can the government persuade the employers to respect those rights? And exactly what are the workers supposed to do when their rights are violated? Individual domestic workers have almost no power in their workplaces. That’s why they’re so vulnerable. That’s why they’re in need of real protection.

The way I read it, the Leventhal/Elrich bill will not cause mass firings or deportations of domestic workers. And it may very well bring them up out of the working poverty they currently inhabit. It gives them something almost all union members have: an enforceable, written contract that protects them. It’s a good bill. All progressives should line up to support it, perhaps discuss improvements to it, and ultimately pass it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Marilyn Praisner: Passing of a Titan

Perhaps you have heard about the recent passing of Montgomery County Council Member Marilyn Praisner. I write this post in praise of a legend of county politics, a true titan of public service who will never be forgotten.

Mrs. Praisner has represented District 4 (East County) since 1990. She is the longest-serving woman in the history of the County Council. But she was far, far more than that. She was a former member of the school board, a long-time chair of the council’s Management & Fiscal Policy Committee and a long-time member (and recent chair) of the critical Planning, Housing & Economic Development Committee. Those positions and her long tenure made her one of the county’s most influential voices on budget issues, cable policy, technology, education and land use.

But one of the things I always remembered when dealing with her was her long service in the Central Intelligence Agency, starting as an analyst and moving into the senior ranks. That gave her an unusual skill set for a politician. Mrs. Praisner was the one policymaker who read every page of every report and grasped every single detail. Nothing got past her. She could not be fooled or bluffed. If you were going to see her about an issue, you had better do your homework! Because chances are, she would know your subject better than you did.

Time and again, I saw her use that encyclopedic mind and relentless style to grill the unprepared. I’ll never forget her interrogating State Highway officials at the annual Road Show meetings. The purpose of those meetings was to allow the state officials to brag about all of the road construction work they were doing in the county. But Mrs. Praisner would have none of that. She stood up, armed with a bookful of documents, and flayed the bureaucrats about every project in her district. She wanted to know about every lane design, every curb, every paint line and every traffic cone and exactly when each step was going to be completed. And woe to the hapless bureaucrat who didn’t know the answers to those questions!

But there was another side to Mrs. Praisner. She was a civil and courteous public servant who enjoyed intelligent debate. She insisted on decorum but she liked ideas. She responded diligently to communications and requests. I did not live in Mrs. Praisner’s district but that did not stop her from answering my emails and considering my proposals. If you treated her with respect, knew your facts, did your best to answer her questions and told the truth, Mrs. Praisner was your friend.

She was a woman of incredible intelligence, great fairness, and most of all, unquestioned honor. Nobody was smarter, tougher, harder-working or more honest. She was a towering figure in our county. There will be other people who follow in her position as the District 4 County Council member. But no one – no one – will do a better job than Marilyn Praisner.