Tuesday, March 13, 2007

valerie ervin, leaving the campaign trail behind

The fifth stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."

PICTURED: County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin with aide Amparo Macias and intern Avi Edelman. Not pictured: Chief of Staff Sonya Healy.
It's 5:45, time for the Council Office Building to shut down, but things are just getting started with County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring). Two people have already insisted that she move on to her next appointment, and Avi Edelman, intern and Blair High senior, is looking a little nervous, but Ervin doesn't look ready to go anywhere.

But if Ervin has to squeeze just one last comment into this hour-plus-long round-table discussion with three staff members, Henry from Silver Spring Scene and yours truly, she decides to take me to task for a few incendiary comments I'd made last summer regarding some things she didn't say about the County's Gifted-and-Talented program.

"What you said . . . that was all wrong," Ervin says about my suggestion that she'd called for magnet programs to be dismantled because of racial inequalities. "It was completely out to lunch." The issue is "so complicated that you can't describe it in a paragraph," she continues. "People took something that was said and ran with it."

"The problem with Montgomery County," she notes, "is that people wanna find enemies."

And Valerie Ervin isn't like that. Even Hans Riemer, her opponent in last fall's elections, has become a valued member of her circle. "Hans and I talk a lot about this whole development thing," she explains. "We're working on the Purple Line in East Silver Spring, trying to do a charrette." Riemer may have lost the election, but "he's gonna be on the scene for a long time," Ervin notes.

While I didn't originally support Valerie Ervin, I've come around upon realizing that, unlike the rest of the freshman county councilmembers, she hasn't been beating the "no-growth" drum that everyone thought kept time during the campaign. Or maybe it did. "Some people ran on a couple of issues" - growth and development - and in the County Council, "it feels like people haven't gotten off the campaign trail," Ervin laments. "Even though we don't all agree with each other . . . we will at some point have to gel as a council."

"People tend to . . . follow the leader," she points out. "They tend to not have their own points of view. A lot of people think Ike Leggett was elected on this anti-growth platform, but if you talk to him, he really isn't . . . a lot of councilmembers think they were elected to slow growth."

"What we do will have ramifications for a long time."
These kind of suggestions may make Valerie Ervin out to be a sort of maverick, a freshman county councilmember who broke away from her fellow freshmen and even challenged her old boss, George Leventhal, shortly after taking office in December. (But Leventhal remains a friend and mentor: Ervin thinks "he's very thoughtful and poses questions that other people think about but don't say aloud.")

And as the first African-American woman on the County Council, Ervin's definitely in new territory. "Someone who looks the way I look and represents the community I represent you wouldn't expect would be saying what I have," she says. "I think that most people see in black and white, but when you start to take on issues, there are many shades of gray."

"It's why I wasn't following the councilmembers around for the moratorium," Ervin continues. "[It's] bad for the East County." It was an end, she argues, but the means were flawed. Ervin came back to the moratorium several times during our conversation. "It was very interesting to watch," she says. "[Marilyn] Praisner and [Marc] Elrich gutted their own [proposal] . . . I think they listened to what people had to say and they said 'proceed with caution.'" No matter what the County decides to do regarding growth, it needs to do it in a careful manner, so we know our decision is the right one. "What we do will have ramifications for a long time," she warns.

And Ervin is "looking forward . . . twenty years, thirty years, forty years from now," she says. Her idealism and vision - reminiscent of Leventhal's - does seem a little strange coming from a community that in the past few years has become increasingly wary of progress. But there's no question whether or not progress can take place. "Urbanization has happened," she laughs, "whether I'm in favor of it or not . . . Silver Spring is far from being finished. We're still in phase one of a five-phase" program for development."

"We can no longer look at Montgomery County in a silo. This region attracts work."
As the community grows, a regional focus becomes increasingly important. Ervin refers to Silver Spring as "extension of D.C.," noting that school statistics in her district and The District show similar demographics and similar income levels. She's working with Prince George's County Councilman Will Campos (D-Hyattsville) to create the first bi-county master plan in nearly forty years, covering Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Langley Park.

And she fully supports the InterCounty Connector, which for all its controversy, proves indispensable for connecting Montgomery County to the rest of the area. "At the end of the day," she notes, "the people who wanted that road were up in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins . . . they wanted to hook up. We can no longer look at Montgomery County in a silo. This region attracts work."

"A conversation about jobs has been missing," she says, talking about the "knowledge industries" that our County could be attracting. "We could really become this 'knowledge-based' economy . . . we could be finding a cure for cancer if we're able to connect FDA to Johns Hopkins to biotech corridors in Shady Grove."

This growth in Silver Spring will inevitably spill into East County, Ervin says. Her district includes the Cherry Hill Employment Area, the collection of office parks, car dealers and shopping centers at Route 29 and Cherry Hill Road in Calverton. Right now, she says, "creative developers and other people are looking at ways to bring a 'city center downtown feel' in East County." She holds up Clarksburg as an example of this "nexus of urban and suburban" environments that East County could one day feature.

"When you're a district representative, people expect you to be in the district."
This has become an investigation of sorts for Just Up The Pike: who's really coming to visit our councilmembers? George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen say it's the NIMBYs. Marilyn Praisner insists it's the developers. But Valerie Ervin says it's a mix of everyone. "Everything under the sun that people want to meet about," she says. "We really do get regular people on the street . . . I think what happens is people decided what councilmembers will get them what they want, and that's who they're gonna see."

Avi Edelman, who along with fellow intern Adam Yalowitz served as Ervin's de facto campaign managers, speaks up. "What's interesting is that . . . when we were campaigning, the kind of issues they brought up was 'I want a traffic light on my street and I don't know who to bring it to,'" he says. The big issues may bring voters to the polls, Ervin says, but when the campaign is over, they want the little things taken care of. "When you're a district representative, people expect you to be in the district," she says, noting the creation of satellite offices in Wheaton and Kensington where constituents can speak to her. "I really am enjoying this work," she notes. "You're lucky enough to be given the opportunity to make people's lives better."

With a sigh, she adds, "We're tired, though."


Silver Springer said...

Valerie Ervin did a 180 on me. I'm interested to see how she makes her mark on the county.

Anonymous said...

She is clearly the Sandra Day O'Connor of the Montgomery County Council.

Anonymous said...

Marilyn Praisner = NIMBY

Anonymous said...

Ervin clearly wants to be the swing vote, but her admiration for her old mentor Leventhal and her new mentor Floreen shows her direction. I do believe that many voters think she's done a 180 from her campaign talk.