Josh Kurtz: Post Plays Favorites

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Inevitably, the media in Maryland are going to influence elections.

It could be a well-timed bomb in a news report that changes the discourse or the public’s thinking on a particular issue or takes out a leading politician. It could be a forceful opinion piece — the classic example is the front page editorial in the Baltimore Sun endorsing Harry Hughes for governor, which changed the trajectory of the 1978 Democratic primary.

Like it or not, the media are as big a part of the electoral process as the candidates themselves. Big money, hard work on the campaign trail, a thousand endorsements from key interest groups — the media can, as often as not, trump them all.

For months, the editorial page of the Washington Post has been wailing against the power of public employee unions in Montgomery County. This isn’t altogether surprising — the Post itself has a long record of hostility to its workers’ unions, and it has always complained about the influence of labor in Montgomery County politics.

But the Post has turned up the heat in recent months and reached new heights — or depths — in its anti-unionism on its editorial page Sunday. And it was breathtaking to behold.

Using the kind of space that most newspapers devote to endorsements in presidential elections, the Post’s editorial, “A tale of two counties,” attempted to argue that Montgomery County has fallen behind the D.C. region’s other suburban powerhouse, Virginia’s Fairfax County.

“Fairfax and Montgomery used to be about even,” the paper posited in the editorial’s secondary headline. “What happened?”

Well, for the next 2,000 words, the Post presumed to answer its own question, arguing that the disparity between the counties — in their fiscal soundness, their governance, and their appeal to business — comes down to a simple, single difference: the Montgomery County government is too beholden to its public employee unions.

Without using the exact word, the Post has concluded that Fairfax County is “better” than Montgomery because its public officials are more senior, less affected by petty political concerns — and unencumbered by pesky labor laws.

That’s an awfully slippery slope for the Post to be on. Why not argue that Montgomery County is “better” than Prince George’s County because there are fewer black people there? Or that Howard County is “better” than Anne Arundel County because it has a more highly-educated population? Why not say that D.C. is “better” than Frederick County because there are more young professionals there and fewer rednecks? It’s one thing to argue about the role and potency of government employee unions. But to start rating local jurisdictions based on their unique political dynamics — that’s insulting, just for starters.

The Post makes some valid points about Montgomery County’s budgetary woes, the lack of political will among its leaders and the very sweet deals that public employee unions have negotiated over the past several years. But there is a screechiness, bordering on hysteria, in the tone of these editorials.

The Post has always been highly influential in Montgomery County elections — and will continue to be. It has always been in bed with developers and the business community, and will continue to be. The newspaper will weigh in on candidates in the all-important Democratic primaries — and that’s its right (though in years past, the Post has frequently done so without even interviewing the candidates — but that’s another story).

With all these whacks at the unions, though, it’s like the Post is trying to build a case for the selections it will make later this summer — but is feeling the need to get louder and louder because thus far, nobody has really paid attention.

(You also have to wonder whether Post editors — so many of whom live in Bethesda and Chevy Chase — are somehow worried about their property values and doing what they feel they need to do to protect their investments.)

Montgomery County is by and large a liberal place. On national issues, its politicians are all liberal Democrats. Where they largely differ is on the “slow-growth” vs. “pro-growth” continuum. And here, at election time, the playing field is definitely tilted. Pro-growth forces have money and throw their weight around. The slow-growthers, while they can be effective on certain issues, are a rag-tag bunch and are almost always outmuscled at election time.

The unions have their own set of priorities — and they are also able to throw their weight around. The endorsement of the teachers’ union, in particular, is every bit as influential in Montgomery County Council and legislative races as the Post’s is.

But who’s speaking for the poor and downtrodden? That’s an increasingly big segment of the Montgomery County populace — but you’d never know it from the tenor of the county’s elections. The same tired arguments are trotted out every four years. That’s just the way they do their elections in Montgomery County.

So the Post continues to do its thing — bashing the unions, and blaming them for the business climate in Montgomery County. But guess what, Post editorialists — maybe, just maybe, Montgomery residents are getting the government they wanted, the government they voted for. It may not be pretty. But it just may be true.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.