Friday, September 15, 2006

teachers union: the 800-lb gorilla of moco politics (a guest blog)

Just Up The Pike is taking a little time off this weekend, but in my place, I offer a very different take on the MoCo election results from Adam Pagnucco, who worked at the polls on Tuesday. You may remember Adam from last month, when he called into NewsTalk and asked Valerie Ervin and Hans Riemer about the proposed pedestrian tunnel under Georgia Avenue. So - have a great weekend, and enjoy Adam Pagnucco. He's a bit more well-read than I tend to be.

Teachers Union: The 800-lb Gorilla of MoCo Politics

The mainstream media and the blogs are characterizing the 2006 Democratic primary in Maryland’s Montgomery County as the year that voters turned against growth. After all, many of the county-level winners – especially Ike Leggett, Marc Elrich, Duchy Trachtenberg and Valerie Ervin – ran on slow (or slower) growth platforms. So-called pro-growth candidates like Steve Silverman did not do as well. There is some truth to this story. However, to understand the results completely, we must realize that 2006 is the year the Teachers Union became the 800 pound gorilla of Montgomery County politics.

I first realized this while I was working at the polls on primary day. I spent all day at my precinct circulating a petition to build an east-side Metro entrance at Georgia and Forest Glen. I talked to all the political volunteers who showed up. Many candidates sent volunteers: county executive candidates Silverman and Leggett, county council candidates Ervin and Hans Riemer, and six of the eight District 18 state delegate candidates. Many candidates also showed up in person for parts of the day. The volunteers behaved pretty much the same way: chasing voters and giving them their candidates’ literature. Some voters took it while others didn’t. In many cases, the volunteers seemed to neutralize each other.

However, the candidates were not the only ones who sent volunteers. For almost the entire day, volunteers with the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) were present at the precinct. These volunteers distributed the MCEA’s “Apple Ballot” – a district-customized endorsement list appearing on a red, apple-shaped handout. The MCEA volunteers did not tell voters that the Apple Ballot candidates were endorsed by the Teachers Union. Instead, they asked them, “Would you like to know who teachers are voting for?” The majority of the voters said yes, took the ballot, and read it before entering the booth. The fact that the public schools were closed on primary day no doubt helped the MCEA field an army of these volunteers across the county.

Many voters had pre-conceived opinions about some of the top-ticket races, especially Cardin-Mfume for U.S. Senate and Leggett-Silverman for County Executive (both races in which the Teachers made no endorsements). However, most had no opinion on the down-ticket races such as county council, state legislature and school board. That is where the Apple Ballot made the biggest difference. After all, who wants to vote against teachers?

The MCEA endorsed 41 county, statehouse and school board candidates. Of those candidates, 30 had contested races. Apple Ballot candidates won 27 races and lost 3. That’s an astounding 90% success rate.

The Teachers had decisive impacts on the following races:

At-Large County Council

Montgomery County has four at-large county council seats, and all were up for election. Three incumbents were running: George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Mike Subin. Ten challengers were also running, of whom the strongest were Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the three incumbents would cruise to victory as the ten challengers diluted each other’s votes. But the Teachers had other ideas.

MCEA was upset that Floreen and Subin had supported delaying a 2003 cost-of-living increase that was due to teachers under their contract because of budget problems. As a result, Leventhal and challengers Elrich and Trachtenberg made the Apple Ballot, while incumbents Floreen and Subin were excluded. The Apple candidates won the top three slots, while Floreen earned the fourth seat and Subin lost. Subin’s loss was particularly notable because he was a 20-year council veteran and the long-time head of the council’s education committee.

District 5 County Council

Two candidates were running for this Silver Spring-Takoma Park-Wheaton-Kensington seat: school board member and council staffer Valerie Ervin, and Rock the Vote political director Hans Riemer. Ervin had the endorsements of most Montgomery County organizations and the advantages of council connections and a long residency. Riemer outraised Ervin $118,000 to $57, 000 – far outpacing Ervin in individual contributions – and knocked on at least three times as many doors. Most bloggers were calling this a close race. But the Apple was telling voters to support Ervin.

At my precinct, Riemer’s volunteers were present all day while Ervin’s came and went. Riemer’s people thought they had the field to themselves, but I told them, “You’re not competing with the Ervin people. You’re competing with those ladies with the apples.” The power of the Apple prevailed and Ervin blew out Riemer 62%-38%.

District 18 State Legislature

One of the three state delegate seats opened up when the incumbent state senator retired and one of the three incumbent delegates moved up to run for senate. The resulting open delegate seat attracted six challengers in addition to the two incumbents who were running for re-election. The field was deep: all six were solid candidates and had pockets of support in the district.

The two incumbents were Jane Lawton and Ana Gutierrez, who ran on a slate with the uncontested state senate candidate. Lawton worked hard, visited the neighborhoods, appeared at dozens of events and finished first with 20% of the vote. Gutierrez’s efforts focused almost solely on Spanish-language media, but that plus her slate support and incumbency earned her second place with 16% of the vote. And of course, both were apple-approved.

That left the third and final slot, and the two strongest contenders were young, aggressive lawyers Dan Farrington and Jeff Waldstreicher. At first glance, Farrington appeared to hold most of the advantages. Sometimes compared to Bill Clinton, Farrington surpassed Waldstreicher in public speaking and one-on-one contact and earned the Washington Post and Gazette endorsements (neither of which backed Waldstreicher). And while both candidates raised slightly more than $100,000, about 90% of Waldstreicher’s money came from himself and his family while Farrington had more than 450 contributors. One advantage Farrington did not possess was work ethic; both candidates worked extremely hard. Waldstreicher’s pesky, hustling style matched Farrington’s omnipresence and the two blanketed the district.

But Waldstreicher was the Apple candidate and let everyone know it. Every one of his literature pieces showed the apple, and he usually started off his voter contacts saying he was “teacher-endorsed.” Visitors to his website even found a giant red apple flying across the screen before seeing the candidate’s picture! Waldstreicher’s apple-carriers earned him a 392-vote victory for the final delegate seat (pending provisional ballot counting).

As for the school board, apple-endorsed Shirley Brandman won 59% of the vote in a 5-way contest for the at-large seat. And apple-endorsed Nancy Navarro won 57% of the vote in a 3-way race for the District 5 seat. If those winning percentages resemble each other, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Of course, each of these races involved other factors besides the Teachers. Voters were clearly tired of development, and that favored Elrich and Trachtenberg. Ervin’s supporters consistently criticized Riemer for his two-year county residency even as they were privately surprised by his fund-raising and hyperactive door-knocking. And the county’s widespread voting machine meltdown may have affected the District 18 statehouse race. But the MCEA’s ballot was the common thread in all these contests. I personally witnessed over a hundred voters reading the Apple while turning away candidate-specific literature from the other volunteers.

So what does the Teachers’ emergence as Montgomery County’s dominant political force mean for the future? With property tax growth slowing down, the next county council will face tough budgetary decisions. Public schools account for half of the county’s budget and would be an obvious location for cuts. But don’t expect any action there: the county’s politicians have learned that those who cross the Teachers Union once are unlikely to be given a second opportunity.

- Adam Pagnucco, Silver Spring


Anonymous said...

wow, thanks for this extraordinarily accurate and well-researched post. An interesting aspect of this is the role the teachers' union played in getting School Board candidates to pledge their support for renewing Jerry Weast's contract next year.

Anonymous said...

You must be new to MoCo politics; the Apple Ballot has been highly influential and even decisive for years. And how can you possibly know how many voters did or did not already have picks in the "down ballot' races? I spent all day working outside the polls, too: very few of the voters took lit from anyone, and most of those who did took it from everyone.

Anonymous said...

Agreed - the Apple Ballot is in very real danger of becoming irrelevant. The reason why Subin lost and Floreen did so poorly had to do with GROWTH - I know that's something you don't want to acknowledge. Also, look in Council races D-4 and D-3. NO influence there. Come on. You are stating a cause and effect that does not exist.

Anonymous said...

The apple ballot has always, and always will be, the most important endorsement in Montgomery County.

Why? Because voters care about education, and they trust teachers.

The reason the Apple Ballot had no influence in Council D3 and D4 is because they chose not to endorse anyone in those races.

Anonymous said...

I was at three different polls and not a single soul took the apple ballot. Not one.

Anonymous said...

You may not want to admit it, but Neighbors for a Better Montgomery had an even bigger effect on this election. Without it, SIlverman would have been our next executive.

Anonymous said...

If Neighbors for a Better Montgomery was so influential, how come they couldn't knock off Leventhal? He came in first in the At-Large race and was not among the NIMBY candidates. He was, of course, on the Apple Ballot, as were Elrich and Trachtenberg. I think the Apple was much more important than the NIMBY, excuse me, Neighbors PAC.

Anonymous said...

You know what I noticed about the Neighbors for a Whiter Montgomery? They claimed to have endorsed two Black candidates for County Council, but when they sent out their mailing... whoops! Bailey and Ervin were gone. Their real agenda is to keep immigrants and minorities out of established neighborhoods. no more jobs, no more housing... who do you think is going to be kept out?

Anonymous said...

Wow, same stupid comment on the past three blogs I've looked at. You just can't get over the fact that Silverman lost, can you? So now the people who disagree must be bigots? Please explain to us all why these bigots endorsed Ike Leggett for County Executive. Was that just to throw us off so we won't suspect their "real" agenda? How clever you must be to know what is truly in their hearts. Silverman LOST! Just deal with it

Dan Reed said...

If we put a cap on development like NBM wants, housing prices would skyrocket. Whether or not they're racist, their policies would keep low-income people and minorities out of the County.

Anonymous said...

I guess you haven't noticed that housing prices have ALREADY skyrocketed. Please don't try to disguise your bias as concern about minorities and the poor. You throw around accusations of "NIMBY" at anyone who disagrees with your blatant build, build, build sentiment. Neighbors has been one of the main advocates of real affordable housing. What they object to is development that outpaces infrastructure. And what's with this "whether or not they are racist' innuendo? C'mon.

Anonymous said...

Neighbors for a Whiter Montgomery wants "real affordable housing" in Prince George's County.

Silver Springer said...

I question the infrastructure argument that ‘slow growth’ NIMBYs continue to pound into everybody’s head. There seems to be a no-compromise approach with these people. Their one sided approach equates to having their cake and eating it too without understanding the big picture.

What infrastructure is being compromised and if so what is your solution? What is your time frame for having the ifrastructure “catch up”; three, ten or twenty years from now? How do you plan on “slowing growth” without derailing the economy of the county?

Anonymous said...

don't look for consistency in the philosophy of the Neighbors for a Whiter Montgomery. Whatever it is, they just don't... want it... here. They have their nice houses and their good jobs and they don't want anyone else to have them.

Anonymous said...

Over the last 15 years, all of the population growth in Montgomery County has been among racial minorities. In fact, the white population here is smaller than it was 15 years ago.

Run the "slow growth," "we have too many people here" back 15 years and you can see the real-life impact of the NMBY philosphy.