Josh Kurtz: The Full Montgomery

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Editor’s Note: Josh Kurtz will be leaving his position as a managing editor at Roll Call next month to become editor of Environment & Energy Daily, E&E's online publication that covers Congress. Fortunately, Josh will continue his regular column for Center Maryland.

Both the Prince George’s County Council and the Montgomery County Council have nine members. In Prince George’s, all nine represent individual districts, while in Montgomery five represent individual districts and the other four are elected countywide.

Critics of the Prince George’s government frequently complain that the district-by-district system is partly to blame for the county’s dysfunction, because it ensures that every council member only thinks parochially. Fans of the Montgomery way like to think that the at-large system produces a Council with at least a few members who are broad-minded and not captive to parochial concerns.

The argument carries some validity when it comes to governing. But the Montgomery system can be awfully confusing come election time. It makes for funny alliances and confusing strategies, and can be subverted or exploited by powerful interest groups. It’s hard for voters to follow the storylines when all the leading candidates are liberal Democrats — and it’s almost impossible for us political junkies to handicap, because almost anything can happen.

This year, the Democratic primary for the four at-large seats seems harder to read than ever.

All four incumbents are seeking re-election this year: second-termers Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, and Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg, who are completing their first terms. In the decades-long political debate in Montgomery County between pro-growth forces and slow growthers, Leventhal and Floreen are in the pro-growth camp (they were elected in 2002 on a slate put together by Doug Duncan, who was then the county executive), and Elrich is decidedly slow-growth — he takes pride in not taking a penny in campaign contributions from developers.

Trachtenberg is kind of an island unto herself.

Five non-incumbents are also running at large: economist Jane de Winter; retired educator Fred Evans; Hans Riemer, a political activist and operative; management consultant Raj Narayanan, and Becky Wagner, who is on leave from her job as executive director of a faith-based nonprofit. In the pro-growth/slow growth continuum, Wagner is decidedly in the former camp and Riemer is a little harder to define. Conventional wisdom suggests that the other three challengers won’t raise enough money to win.

Montgomery County Democrats can vote for any four candidates in the primary. They are to be forgiven if they are confused.

Each incumbent starts with certain advantages, like experience and name recognition and relationships with many of the power players in the county. All but Elrich should have plenty of money. But Riemer is also expected to show a good fundraising report next month, and Wagner might as well.

Wagner and Riemer are both attractive challengers. Wagner has a long record of service in the county — including a stint as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) — and knows her way around. She is a committed public servant who knows how to get things done. Riemer is handsome and energetic, with a beautiful young family, and is trying to run a campaign that puts together new alliances and goes beyond some of the tired old arguments that have dominated Montgomery politics for 20 years.

But both have vulnerabilities. Wagner has chosen to ally herself with the Duncan crowd; that carries some risk. And she is making a regional appeal as she goes around the county, reminding voters in certain areas that they are unrepresented among at-large councilmembers. (Leventhal and Elrich are both from Takoma Park, Floreen is a former mayor of Garrett Park, and Trachtenberg is from Bethesda.)

And…who the hell is Hans Riemer? As an ambitious newcomer to the county, he ran unsuccessfully for the Council’s 5th district seat in 2006, saying his Silver Spring neighborhood reminded him of Oakland, Calif., where he had grown up. Then, he kind of disappeared. He did become active in the group Action Committee for Transit, which advocates for the Purple Line, and went to Chicago to work for the Obama campaign. He’s back now running for office again.

Traditionally, the two most important endorsements in Montgomery elections come from the teachers union and the Washington Post, and both weighed in fairly early in the process. The union endorsed Elrich, Leventhal, Riemer and Wagner. The Post endorsed Elrich, Floreen, Riemer and Trachtenberg.

Both sets of endorsements carried surprises.

The teachers were expected to back Floreen, but they didn’t because they didn’t like the way she handled budget negotiations this year as Council president. The Post, which has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for growth and development in Montgomery over the past few decades, was expected to back Leventhal, who despite many progressive instincts has contorted himself to become a leader of the pro-growth forces. But the Post of late has gone on a crusade to obliterate the teachers union, and Leventhal apparently had become too close to the union for the paper’s taste.

Leventhal was counting on finishing first in the at-large race, to give him momentum for the 2014 county executive race. He’ll have to work harder to do so without the Post on his side.

The Post endorsement of Elrich was also something of a surprise. He’s a former teacher — and he probably wouldn’t mind if you called him a socialist. But he’s displayed enough independence, and asked enough tough questions of the teachers and the rest of the county’s education establishment, to warrant consideration from the Post.

Those dual endorsements will help Elrich considerably — he’s a weak fundraiser and is perceived in some circles as being inflexible and unreasonable. The Post endorsement in particular will help him bat back that argument.

The dual endorsements for Riemer definitely put his candidacy in play. Wagner, with her pro-growth alliances, might have expected to be endorsed by the Post — but the teachers’ blessing will definitely help her.

So who wins? Leventhal probably will. Despite the Post going against him, he’s worked hard to build a countywide network of supporters and is driven by ambition. Elrich, who once looked vulnerable, will probably also be OK, but he can’t afford to be complacent. Floreen seemed secure at the beginning of the year, but you can’t say that now. To paraphrase “Death of a Salesman,” she is liked, but not well liked. If the business community isn’t going to fully mobilize behind her, she could find herself in trouble.

Trachtenberg? She’ll have a lot of money and some committed supporters, but she has not ingratiated herself with her colleagues and certain interest groups. The Post lauded her independence; that will help her.

In most years, a candidate like Wagner would be a good bet to break into the club. And it could happen. But Riemer has a young and savvy campaign team behind him, and if he changes the electoral calculus in the county even a little, he could prevail.

Some observers, though, wouldn’t be surprised to see all four incumbents come back.

Just as interest groups think strategically before deciding whom to endorse, voters must also think strategically when considering the at-large race. Some may choose to “bullet vote” for just one candidate, fearful that giving votes to their favorite candidate’s rivals will make life more difficult for the person they like best. The system, in a sense, tempts people to essentially throw their votes away.

So who says it’s better, and more clear-cut, than the system their neighbors are living under in Prince George’s County?

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:

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

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.