"I ran for office for a lot of reasons . . . I did not get elected to office to make developers rich." - George Leventhal
Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal [D-At Large] didn't have a boring childhood in Bethesda, but he certainly was hungry. As a child, he says, "the most exotic meal you could get in Bethesda was a plate of French fries at the Hot Shoppes."
And if there's one way for him to mark the changes in Montgomery County since then, it would have to be food. "I like to link demographic change with food," he says. In forty years, Montgomery County went from French fries to French brasseries. With its newfound ethnic and culinary variety, the County is "just a more interesting place to live."
Not everyone would agree. There are some in Montgomery County who might want an end to immigration, but the real threat to our county's growth - and, of course, the good food - would have to be a few activists collectively known as the Neighbors for a Better Montgomery. Last week, he was still smarting from a spat with the head Neighbors, Drew Powell and Jim Humphreys. Nancy Floreen patiently refers to them as the "advocates," and they're quickly becoming the public face of citizen activism in Montgomery County.
The media "is buying into that [anti-growth sentiment]" espoused by the Neighbors, Leventhal says, "those same fifty people, the usual cast of characters, are the ones who get quoted in the Post." Their influence seems to have made a lot happen over the past few months, largely because County legislators are now listening. "Some of my colleagues think they're responding to the people," worries Leventhal, but they've only listened to one side of the story.
He holds up the new Downtown Silver Spring as an example of the debate on development we're not having. "My sense about Silver Spring . . . is that young people dig it," he says. "I think younger people want stuff to do . . . excitement! Activity! But the discussion [on development] is dominated by retirees who want to keep the county the way it was in 'fill in the blank.'"
Unfortunately, the people who benefit from this new development just aren't being heard. "We don't hear from the broad public who actually likes to go shopping," Leventhal says. (Perhaps, I wonder, it would be beneficial to hold County Council hearings in the food court at Montgomery Mall. People, especially young people, can be apathetic - but could the promise of Panda Express and piped-in Fall Out Boy make local politics exciting again?) "We need to find some other voices in this conversation. It can't just be elected officials, it can't just be developers, it can't just be developers' attorneys."
Our changing demographics have been ignored in the public sphere as well. "When we have this debate" on growth and development, Leventhal explains, "what we've had missing are some basic facts." For an example, he takes out a graph from Montgomery County Public Schools illustrating the change in enrollment from 1998 to 2006, broken down by race. There are over nine thousand fewer white students than in 1998, but nearly twenty thousand black, Hispanic and Asian students have entered the school system in the same period, with over half of those students identifying themselves as Hispanic.
"Between 1990 and 2000, the white population has declined," Leventhal continues. "Immigrants and people of color comprise all of the growth in Montgomery County over more than the last decade . . . I think growth, more economic development is very attractive to a lot of people," especially those new to the area and seeking to make a living. But they aren't being heard. At last month's Council hearing for the proposed moratorium, he says, "Marilyn [Praisner, County Council president] stacked the witness list with the same 'cast of characters,'" giving the Neighbors most or all of the say in how the County should deal with development, and that's not fair.
Leventhal is most disappointed with the current political situation in Montgomery County because it ignores the reason why people move here in the first place: "People like living in Montgomery County," he says. "I really like living in Montgomery County. I understand the things that make it special and my interest in planning comes from preserving that . . . [but] trying to freeze things in place means less of the things we welcome."
"Nearly half the county is not going to be developed, and I'm not proposing to change any of that. We're still gonna have the Ag Reserve, Rock Creek Park, the C and O Canal, we're still gonna have nice, green neighborhoods, but we'll have more options," Leventhal insists. "Don't be afraid of change. There's no going back, and it's gonna be better. It's not gonna be worse."
"We have the resources to do it," he says, beaming.