Wednesday, April 8, 2009

ben kramer: returning balance to the council

Part EIGHT in our series of interviews with candidates in the County Council special election. For more information on Ben Kramer, check out his campaign website.

Ben Kramer in Ashton. Below: Kramer (at right) greets the staff at Dempsey's Restaurant.

“Fiscal responsibility” is probably the best way to sum up Marilyn Praisner’s career on the County Council. It’s also a phrase that all the candidates running for the seat she filled for nearly twenty years have used, even those campaigning for a change in leadership. As we sit in Dempsey's, an old diner in Ashton whose green benches and Keno posters suggest its age, Delegate Ben Kramer says he’s not interested in trying something different. “I don’t think there is a demand or a need for directional change,” says Kramer. “What Marilyn did is bring balance to the Council, and I think it’s important to continue that kind of representation, that kind of balance. People appreciate that.”

A long time friend of Marilyn Praisner – who encouraged him to run for the state legislature – Kramer’s earned the endorsement of many Praisner family allies, including County Executive Ike Leggett and Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg. He’s even won the support of Don and Marilyn Praisner’s daughter, Alison Klumpp. “They said it would be very important to have someone who is independent,” he says.

“Independent” is a word that sounds a little disingenuous coming from someone who’s supported by many in the Montgomery County establishment. To Kramer, it means “someone who is going to look at each issue on its merits, to look at all sides, not come in predisposed and have already made up their mind,” he says. “That’s what I’ve tried to do in Annapolis, it’s what the residents of this district expect. It’s what they’re accustomed to.”

And if there’s anything he’s learned in the State House, it’s the importance of reaching out to others and keeping an open mind. “The first thing I did when I came to Annapolis was make contacts, talk to other folks around the state about their concerns,” says Kramer. “We don’t always agree, but I respect my colleagues and I know they’re representing their constituents.”

Nonetheless, Kramer’s had a difficult time convincing legislators from throughout the state that “the streets in Montgomery County are not paved with gold,” and that as the state’s largest jurisdiction, the county has its own struggles. “We have more students on free and reduced meals then I think nineteen jurisdictions have in their entire student body,” says Kramer.

While some might see Kramer’s bid for County Council as a step down, he considers it a “lateral move” from the State House. “There’s a lot of overlap on the issues,” he says. “It’ll be important to have someone on the council who has connections to the state legislature. Marilyn was the only one who communicated regularly with the Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis.”

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

A Kramer campaign sign outside the Cloverly Towne Centre, one of two local shopping centers Ben Kramer has developed.

It’s also a shift that’ll bring him closer to the senior citizen community, Kramer’s largest political base. Not only is District 4 home to Montgomery County’s two largest retirement communities, Leisure World and Riderwood Village, but they’re filled with residents who remember his father Sid Kramer, the county’s first executive.

“I have three large pieces of legislation moving through the House and Senate that deal with senior issues,” explains Kramer, two of which deal with the financial exploitation of seniors. The third proposal is something he calls “Silver Alert” – like Amber Alert, an emergency announcement system for missing children, but for people with cognitive disabilities, regardless of age. When an individual went missing, the program would send out text messages to high school students who volunteer with Silver Alert to gain required student service learning hours. Given physical details and a location, the students would be able to go find the missing person and contact the police.

“Only six percent of those who wander can find their way back,” says Kramer. “If we have people out looking for them, it’s very important. And who knows the communities better than our high school students?”

One concern many voters might have is if Ben Kramer knows their community well enough. He lives in Derwood, in the far western reaches of District 4. He’s only a few minutes from the County Council Office Building in Downtown Rockville, but a half-hour drive from Burtonsville or White Oak, yet Kramer doesn’t see that as a detriment. “I don’t see it as being all the way over there,” says Kramer, who notes he “used to spend a lot of time” in the Tamarack Triangle, a neighborhood at East Randolph and Fairland roads.

“Geographically, it’s a large district,” Kramer says. “Between having grown up in the Wheaton area and residing in the Olney-Derwood area, I’ve spent my entire life in the geographic boundaries of District 4 and I will work with people on the eastern side of the county to make sure their concerns are represented.”

Kramer names some of the issues he sees facing the east side: community centers either being built or renovated in Good Hope, Sandy Spring and White Oak; working with minority business owners in Wheaton; and the Kennedy Cluster Project, a large part of his opponent Nancy Navarro’s tenure on the School Board. “It’s my alma mater,” he says. But when it comes to naming the biggest issues in the district, Kramer sounds a lot like Marilyn Praisner when we interviewed her two years ago. “For the most part, the issues that affect District 4 are the issues that affect us countywide,” he says, mentioning the ongoing budget crisis.

One concern he has is the dearth of jobs in east county. “Marilyn Praisner worked to bring jobs to the east side. When major employers locate in Montgomery County they seem to go to the 270 corridor, and we’d like to see them on the east side.”

Even though his family’s business, Kramer Enterprises, has built several shopping centers throughout the region, Kramer insists he’s not the “developer” his opponents make him out to be. He prefers to be called a “small business owner,” noting that the only developments he’s worked on were a small strip mall on Norbeck Road (“with five minority businesses,” he boasts) and the Cloverly Towne Centre, a shopping center at New Hampshire Avenue and Briggs Chaney Road completed three years ago.

“There were a lot of buildings from the 40’s that were deteriorating, and my sister [Senator Rona Kramer (D-Dist. 14)] and I acquired the land,” says Kramer. “Wth the help of the community . . . we got a beautiful town center in Cloverly.”

Former Councilmember Don Praisner unveils a sign for the Marilyn Praisner Library, named for his wife, who preceded him on the council.

Unlike the proposed Ashton Meeting Place, which sparked years of fighting between residents and a developer before its approval by the Planning Board last summer – civic associations in Cloverly and Colesville welcomed the Kramers’ project. “It was a long process as far as inception to completion, but they were all very supportive,” says Kramer. “They liked the concept of having a redeveloped town center. It is small, but they were hoping to see something that was more attractive. One of the things that’s been a huge hit was the dance studio, because the area had nothing for the kids.”

For Kramer, the success of Cloverly Towne Centre isn’t just a show of business savvy – it shows that he feels responsible for the communities he serves, whether as a so-called developer or as an elected official.

“Business, particularly small business, is the economic engine of this county and this state and I stand to fill a dearth of business knowledge on the council,” says Kramer. “It’s also a perspective of fiscal responsibility that’s important to have. You have to have tremendous respect for the taxpayer’s money. It’s not Monopoly money.”

So, what should District 4 expect from its new councilmember if Kramer takes office? “I think they’ll have a strong advocate for the issues that are important to them, whether specific to the district or in terms of the whole county,” says Kramer. “They’ll have someone who’s very focused on constituent service and working on their behalf in the state legislature.”


Thomas Hardman said...

The concept of someone who could reasonably be expected to vote in all circumstances in a way to favor all efforts to expand the Sprawl and turn the down-county into a massive beehive of skyscrapers can hardly be described as "returning balance" to the County Council.

When will we see the election of someone who will bring Real Chance and Real Balance to local government?

Who will vote to preserve our "pocket parks" and cherished community parks such as the Rachel Carson Meadow in Four Corners? Will Ben Kramer vote to turn it into a soccer field? Or will he vote to leave such decisions to the community?

We hear that most of the people who support Ben Kramer support the notion that "we cannot allow local community activists to set policy in their communities, that would set a bad precedent". Does Ben Kramer support the idea of letting communities decide the fate of their community jewels such as Rachel Carson Meadow, or does Ben Kramer support letting the County ride roughshod over what the voters want for their own beloved community treasures?

Let the voters decide.

Speaking with the Northwood/Four-Corners Citizens' Association tonight -- which Ben Kramer couldn't be bothered to attend though he did send a non-speaking representative -- I got the feeling that their votes will go with the candidate that will best defend their local political will.

Though the people that endorse Ben Kramer are on record as saying "we can't allow community activism to dictate county decisions on local matters in those communities, it would set a bad precedent", I'm on record as saying that with the depth of religious conviction and with the fervor of a true believer in the principles of Democracy, I can think of no better precedent to set than to ensure that if communities want to preserve their natural spaces, that commitment should be honored to the greatest possible degree.

Communities should decide what happens in their communities, at least in terms of whether or not what they love will remain under their control. And Northwood/Four-Corners loves their Rachel Carson Meadow and I say that if they've shown as much love and dedication and persistence as we've seen, leave all decisions about it up to them. They love it, they care for it, it is beautiful indeed and a last vestige of Nature in an increasingly appalling over-urbanized landscape.

Let the precedent be set: Communities shall determine their own destiny, anytime they come together to insist on a course of action that comes from the heart of the community, as in this case it clearly does.

Mr Kramer? Tell us directly.

Rachel Carson Meadows? Or just some generic county soccer field that nobody in the community wants?

Thomas Hardman said...

ahem, typo, "Real Chance" should read "Real Change".

District 4 Voter said...

Why should we vote for Kramer, a Robin Ficker imitator, when we can vote for the real thing?