This column was corrected on June 10, 2014. An explanation follows.
Stop! Don’t throw away that political flier you just got in the mail. Instead, carefully read it because it tells you what the candidates think of you. Or, more precisely, what the candidates think you want to hear.
Political platforms and promises have a single purpose, getting your vote. So, here’s what most Montgomery candidates are promising this election:
They’re for: jobs, universal pre-K, raising the minimum wage (again), renewable energy, smaller class sizes, mass transit, taxing businesses and the rich, closing the “achievement gap”, the Bay, abortion, LGBT rights, diversity, seniors and labor unions.
They’re against: climate change, income inequality, fracking, traffic congestion, tax cuts, growth, estate tax reform, business and telling you how they’re going to pay for all their promises.
But a handful of MoCo candidates sense a new, emerging voter concern: getting short-changed in Annapolis. Normally, MoCo’s fat, happy, disinterested voters don’t care how much tax revenue is exported to the rest of the state. So what if MoCo gets $882 per capita in state aid while Baltimore gets $2,033 and Prince George’s gets $1,341? We’re rich, we can afford to help other jurisdictions and, if the state won’t help us, we’ll just pay for it ourselves. Or, as MoCo senator Rich Madaleno puts it, “It’s better to be a donor than a recipient”.
But, now, all those decades of neglect are beginning to haunt Montgomery. The wake-up call is school construction where MoCo, with 17 percent of the state’s students, gets 11 percent of the state school construction funds. We can’t keep up with our exploding enrollments, 2,000 new students a year. When this year’s march on Annapolis for more school construction money ended in utter failure, County Executive Ike Leggett raided $41 million from other county projects while further delaying more school construction projects. We’re burning the candle at both ends.
Montgomery’s politicians have known for years that the county’s “better to be a donor” credo is fiscally unsustainable, but they hoped the voters would never catch on. Yet, the school construction crisis is only the tip of the iceberg: MoCo’s statehouse delegation has capitulated on so many financial fronts (shifting the state’s teacher pension costs to the counties, “equalizing” billions in classroom aid, cutting local highway, police and community college funds) that the county’s long-term financial viability is in danger.
These long-term time bombs together with a stagnant federal spending economy, ongoing tax-base flight and the governmental needs of MoCo’s new immigrant population are a perfect storm.
American politics is the last free market, anyone who correctly senses the public pulse and offers a new direction can win. Right now the way to win in Montgomery is to appease the labor unions, the environmentalists, the minority groups and the gay lobby. In its recent statehouse endorsements, the Washington Post mumbled that MoCo’s delegation “doesn’t always exercise clout commensurate with its weight” and, then, endorsed all the incumbents except two.
So change must come from outside, not from within the establishment. Enter a breed of fiscally responsible, socially liberal Democratic challengers like Rick Kessler, who’s running for the House of Delegates in the Kensington, Wheaton, Garrett Park, Silver Spring district. He’s as liberal as they come: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-Dream Act, Save the Bay, tax corporations and so on. Plus, Kessler spent 20 years working for Capital Hill liberal lawmakers and his wife is the former director of the League of Conservation Voters.
But Kessler is blowing the whistle on the delegation he hopes to join. “Rick Kessler is tired of Annapolis treating Montgomery County like an ATM, we can do better,” his ads say. He would have voted against the 2012 state pension shift and the income tax hike that came, 40 percent, from MoCo. And he’ll vote against any future budgets that penalize MoCo.
Another whistleblower is County Executive candidate Phil Andrews, a fellow good-governent, social liberal courageous enough to take on the public employee unions and MoCo’s dysfunctional statehouse delegation.
The political establishment is closing ranks against agitators like Kessler and Andrews because the incumbents don’t want to be accountable for the county’s looming fiscal crisis. It’s their futures, not the county’s that most concerns them.
So, once again, the county’s fate is in the hands of its voters. Are they paying attention? Do they understand that nothing is going to change until the establishment starts losing elections?
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This column originally misstated the organization where Kessler’s wife works.