Josh Kurtz: Cold New Reality for Montgomery County

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By: Josh Kurtz 

That cold wind howling past the Montgomery County Conference Center early Friday morning served as a perfect metaphor for the chilly new reality the county is facing in Annapolis over the next few years.

The annual breakfast of the group Committee for Montgomery – billed as the unofficial kickoff to the General Assembly session and traditionally a time for Montgomery County’s 1,000 most important people to celebrate themselves – was about to begin, and the ennobled masses shuffled into the conference center at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. for a smorgasbord of schmooze and to get their first glimpses of the man most of them had voted against, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R).

The takeaway, though largely unspoken: We’re screwed.

It wasn’t just what Hogan said, though that was certainly part of it. It was the sense that Montgomery County is once again headed into a gun battle with a pea shooter. How the hell does Maryland’s largest and most diverse and most economically vital jurisdiction find itself with less political juice than ever?

Hogan did not calm many fears, and there was much grumbling afterward that the olive branch he extended, following a standing ovation, no less, was about three inches long. But maybe that, too, was a metaphor: This, after all, is the guy who is going to take a huge pair of pruning shears to state government, right at the time when Montgomery County is preparing, in its characteristic meek way, to request its fair share.

Actually, Hogan did ok. He repeated, as might be expected, the talking points he’d been using all week about the state’s dire fiscal condition, down to the line about raiding the kids’ piggy bank. And he did in fact say a few nice things about Montgomery County.

Hogan also sought to find common ground. He noted that 10 members of his 60-person transition team come from Montgomery County. He talked about the county’s economic assets. He praised, though a little condescendingly, County Executive Ike Leggett’s (D) new six-point plan for improving the business climate. He even counted the county’s diversity as one of its strengths – something former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) seemed incapable of recognizing.

Hogan acknowledged the elephant in the room – the fact that Montgomery was “one of three lonely counties that unfortunately voted the wrong way from the rest of the state,” as he put it. No one was really sure whether Hogan was joking, but then he did say, “We’re all in this together, my friends,” and expressed a desire to carry Montgomery when he runs for re-election in 2018 – both sincere enough sentiments.

What he wouldn’t do was commit to any of Montgomery County’s funding priorities. And by the time county leaders were making their case at Friday’s breakfast, Hogan had left the building.

Just a day earlier, Leggett and Hogan had breakfast together. Hogan told reporters that the two “didn’t talk much about the Purple Line,” but Leggett did say in an interview after Committee for Montgomery that Hogan “didn’t take anything off the table.”

Hogan, Leggett explained, has varying levels of priorities, and it isn’t clear yet where transit projects like the Purple Line stand (though it’s easy enough to surmise). Montgomery County leaders are appealing to Hogan in a language they think he can understand, touting the rail line’s benefits to the business health of the county and region. Asked whether the fact that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties voted against Hogan could jeopardize state support for the Purple Line, Leggett replied, “I hope not.”

But it’s going to take more than hope. If Montgomery County is coming out swinging for its priorities, the boxing ring must be 20 stories underground. Leggett, in public at least, is his usual mild-mannered self, repeating the same warning that the state should not regard Montgomery as an ATM that his predecessors have used for 20 years or more.

As for the heads of the county’s legislative delegation, Sen. Nancy King (D) is the kind of “don’t rock the boat” Montgomery lawmaker that Senate President Mike Miller (D) likes to promote, while Del. Shane Robinson (D) is the epitome of the mild-mannered do-gooder that the county often breeds. Nice people, but no one’s idea of strategic-minded brawlers. Montgomery’s Senate delegation is short on seniority, and the county has been shut out of the major committee gavels. In the House, even the presence of two committee chairmen and the newest majority leader, Del. Anne Kaiser (D), doesn’t seem to strengthen the county’s hand much. Perhaps Sen. Rich Madaleno (D), elevated recently to vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, can make a difference.

Of Friday’s four “rebuttals” to Hogan’s speech, only County Council President George Leventhal’s (D) seemed forceful, as he respectfully staked out positions sure to put county leaders at odds with Hogan. But then, Leventhal can’t be expected to be much of a presence in Annapolis; Leggett has yet to meet formally with the county delegation or the County Council to discuss a unified battle plan for the session.

And another opportunity to make the county’s case was lost last week when the three-day bus tour for the incoming new members of the legislature made its way to Montgomery. The caravan inexplicably spent most of its time at the Covanta waste-to-energy plant in remote Dickerson, skipping more logical, congested and gritty locales that more starkly illustrate the county’s myriad needs (other Montgomery County sights on the tour included the seldom-used Intercounty Connector highway, the important but hard-to-get-to Universities at Shady Grove campus and the science corridor that’s growing up around there).

Leggett passed up an opportunity to meet with the newbies – about one-third of the 2015-2018 legislature – and instead participated in a regional summit with incoming Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), which no doubt was important, if ill-timed. While the executives of Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, greeted the bus tour, Montgomery was represented by Tom Street, the county’s assistant administrative officer, and Steve Silverman, the departing economic development director.

Meanwhile, another powerful Montgomery official was conspicuous by his absence at Friday’s breakfast: Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). Franchot got plenty of ink last week for his Eastern Shore shopping spree with Hogan. But a more significant appearance went unreported: his visit to the state Democratic central committee meeting the previous weekend, and his vow there to meet in the coming months with the Democratic central committees of every Maryland jurisdiction.

It begs the question, though, of whether this will be a party-building exercise, or a Franchot-building exercise.

The spin from Franchot’s camp in the aftermath of the election is that their guy is right where the state’s voters are, and based purely on his winning percentage – he got 63 percent of the vote, more than any other candidate for statewide office – the argument has some merit. But while Franchot likes to portray himself now as being in sync with the Democratic Party’s beer-track voters, the fact is that his big winning margin was rung up first and foremost in the Democratic strongholds of Prince George’s, Baltimore city and Montgomery, in that order.

So it will be interesting to see what Franchot’s contributions to the conversations about the future of the Maryland Democratic Party are while he plays footsie with the incoming Republican governor – and it will also be interesting to see what he does, if anything, to re-establish political ties in his home turf of Montgomery County.

Lord knows, the county could use the help.   

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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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.