Part SIX of our "District 4 Head-to-Head Tour," which seeks to interview all eight candidates running in a special election to replace Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who passed away in February. A primary will be held April 15, followed by a general election May 13.
County Council candidate Robert Patton, left, and his brother and campaign manager William, at the Starbucks in Burtonsville. For more information about Robert Patton, check out his campaign website.
If you've ever been to the Turf Center on Route 198 in Spencerville, you've bought sod from the Pattons, who've been landscaping Montgomery County yards for seventy years. Last Monday, I talked to two Pattons - Republican District 4 candidate Robert and his brother and campaign manager William, himself a former council hopeful - about Burtonsville, McMansions, and just what's wrong with the County establishment.
It was hard to get a word in between their rapid-fire conversation, and you can clearly tell how close they are. "We bounce ideas off each other all the time," says Robert. "I guess that's an advantage. I got more than one head to think with."
Robert decided to run because he was frustrated by politics and politicians. The County Council is distracted by "issues they feel aren't that important because it meant they didn't have to deal with other things," Robert laments. "I understand that new problems have new needs . . . but what tends to happen is you neglect your core responsibilities. On basic terms, it's your schools, your police force, your roads. Everything that makes the basic quality of living."
Meanwhile, those in his own party aren't holding true to their own ideals. "The Republicans are saying 'we gotta cut spending' but you ask them 'you wanna build the Purple Line' they all say yes," says Robert. "I don't think it's a worthwhile investment . . . who's gonna ride the Purple Line but the people who watch kids in Bethesda?" he says, suggesting that a line on Route 29 would be more successful.
"I could never play their game," he adds. "I might never be successful in politics but I'd sleep better at night knowing I tried."
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
"You know with Howie Denis and Steve Silverman there was a better feeling on the council," says William. He points out that former Democratic councilmember Silverman and the Patton brothers represented a horse farm on Route 198 that was shut down because their weekly equestrian shows caused "a lot of traffic on the roads, and people complained," Robert says. "Now they have a hundred fifty houses and now they have traffic every day instead of just on Sundays . . . there's animosity between the farm and the neighbors when we'd really just want to see a farm."
"I hate these McMansions with yards that you could cut with a weedeater, they're so small," says Robert. If elected, he would seek a minimum one-acre lot for new homes in East County - or seek other uses for the land altogether.
"We're looking at what's a better use for the land after the father's done with his land and he wants to pass it on to his kids - like a driving range or a church or something," adds William.
Robert questions the commitment of people who complain that the East County doesn't have enough amenities. "They move here for the government jobs and they make a lot of demands but they aren't planning to retire here," he says.
While he supports the proposed Burtonsville Access Road, Robert's skeptical about further development in the village center. "I think there are a lot of amenities out here. I'm kind of partial to the green space," he says. "Burtonsville's always sort of looked like an afterthought. It was meeting a demand. It was never architecturally pleasing . . . I don't begrudge Burtonsville, but I wouldn't take a girlfriend here, maybe to Seibel's for a milkshake."
Suddenly, Robert and William launch into nostalgia. "There was a tractor dealership where the Free State used to be," says William.
"I used to go to the Amish Market for ham sandwiches," Robert adds. "Even when I was a kid I used to go there it was a Chesapeake Bay Seafood House. My parents took me there when I got A's on my report card."
William laughs. "Who thought we were gonna have a Starbucks in Burtonsville. This used to be a driving range."
Robert replies with a sigh. "That's sort of the kind of rural flair this area used to have."
The rural village charm isn't what drove Robert out of the Burtonsville area twenty years ago. As a sophomore, he left Paint Branch High School because "people were stabbing each other and there were thirty students in class and teachers couldn't handle it," he states.
"I remember I was at a party not too far from here and somebody got stabbed or pulled a knife on somebody and the police came," says Robert. "And my friends . . . they said 'Hey, there are some nice cars in the neighborhood. Let's go steal stuff.' and I thought 'Who are these friends I'm picking?'"
The following day, Robert's hockey team traveled to New Jersey to play Lawrenceville, a boarding school outside of Princeton. He was so inspired by the grandeur of the campus that he immediately applied to a dozen schools across New England before being accepted to one in Connecticut. "All of a sudden I was in classes with six to twelve students, and you had to do your homework," says Robert. "You couldn't hide it."
He proposes giving Montgomery County parents a property tax rebate that functions as a voucher for private schools, reducing the school system's budget while also helping students who like himself did not feel comfortable in a public institution. "The school voucher thing isn't so much I'm partial to private schools but you're spending nine grand a kid and the schools are one hundred percent at capacity you take twelve hundred dollars and they'll be under," says Robert.
"I would argue that this would cost the county $30 million but in three years it would make them $100 million," adds William.
After prep school, college and several years living in El Salvador - first in the Peace Corps, later working for the Salvation Army World Service Office - Robert returned to Burtonsville and was shocked at how much it had changed. "Coming back, you know, it's like seeing your nephew in ten years, you don't recognize anything," says Robert. Rising house prices forced him out of humanitarian work and into landscaping, which he had done before leaving.
"He's great at it, he's fluent in Spanish," William says.
As a contractor, Robert finds himself embroiled in the ongoing debate over illegal immigration, but he favors extending rights - like workman's compensation and time-and-a-half - to workers legally in the country. "Anyone that's worth employing is worth employing right," he says.
However, he is skeptical about the effectiveness of Casa de Maryland, a government-supported agency who runs a day laborer center in Takoma Park. "The Casa program, it has good intentions and it sort of keeps them on the grid, on the radar," says Robert, "and generally I'm in favor of it. But when you have budget problems I'm not sure if it's the best way to help the Latino community."
All of Robert's employees - many of whom have been there for several years - are legal, but he appreciates the struggle all immigrants went through to get here. "The most ambitious and hardworking of the Latinos are the ones who save six thousand dollars in a place where you can make ten dollars an hour to pay a coyote who can get you across the border just so you can stand outside Home Depot trying to get a job," says Robert. "I got a lot of respect for that kind of character just to begin with . . . and then once you're here send ten percent of your income back home."
Twenty years ago, he couldn't get out of Burtonsville fast enough, but now Robert hopefully plans to stick around. "If I had some guarantee that District 4 would remain the way it is, with acres of green space, however we decide to use them, I'd consider staying," he says. "I think most candidates would say yes but most of them are lying. Everyone wants to go to Florida, but my family's been here . . . it just makes sense."