Josh Kurtz: A Gene for Public Service

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When the great Pete Rawlings died in 2003, way before his time, a friend of former state Del. Gene Counihan (D) called Counihan — not to commiserate, but to yell at him.

Like his former colleague Rawlings, Counihan, who represented Montgomery County in Annapolis for a dozen years, was — is — quite overweight. So the friend’s message was stark but clear: shape up, unless you want to suffer Rawlings’ fate.

Now that Counihan is in a hospital intensive care unit with kidney failure and other ailments, it’s hard not to think about the friend’s warning. But it’s also hard, especially in this highly charged political season, not to think of Counihan and his zest for politics and public service. And it’s hard not to think that Counihan won’t see this crisis through.

It would be wrong to call Gene Counihan a Renaissance Man. But Counihan has shown an unusual talent for public service — and it has manifested itself in an array of interesting ways through the years. Despite political defeats and divorce and personal tragedy — his daughter Molly died in 2005 — Counihan has managed to pick himself up off the mat, reinvent himself, and continue working on behalf of the people of Maryland.

Counihan spent 29 years as a teacher and administrator in the Montgomery County Public Schools and became active in local politics. He was elected to the House of Delegates, representing the northern part of the county, in 1982, rising to vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Counihan was not your typical Montgomery County politician. While many come to the county from other parts of the country, usually to work in D.C., Counihan spent most of his life in Maryland. He was born in Cumberland and had a real feel for the entire state. It gave him perspective that many of his colleagues lacked, and endeared him to legislators from the rest of Maryland. He was also extremely generous with younger politicians, and mentored several of them through the years.

In 1994, Counihan seemed like a lock to advance to the state Senate. Legislative leaders drew a new upcounty district in Montgomery just for him. All Counihan had to do was remind his neighbors how much he had done for them in the previous dozen years.

But a funny thing happened to Counihan on his way to the next level: He ran into the buzzsaw of the national Republican Revolution. The local GOP found an appealing young Congressional aide, P.J. Hogan, who looked and sounded a lot like a lot of the young fathers in the rapidly changing district, to run for Senate. Counihan, and his insider tales about legislative action, couldn’t compete.

Republicans swept all but one legislative seat in the upcounty (only the presence of a Kennedy, Mark Shriver, on the ballot kept the Democrats from being completely shut out); it was the last time the GOP showed any kind of pulse in Montgomery County.

Out of a job but not out of options, Counihan for the 1995 General Assembly session found a home in the office of new Gov. Parris Glendening (D). By the end of 1995, he was the Maryland lobbyist for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — better known in the D.C. region as Metro. He’d hold that gig for a decade.

At the same time, Counihan gave his time to a dizzying array of organizations: Montgomery College, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the Universities at Shady Grove, the Olney Theater, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Leadership Montgomery. He also served as a presidential elector.

Counihan knew everyone and everything. He could come to Annapolis on behalf of one of these groups — or in his official capacity with Metro — and wind up scoring points or cutting a deal on behalf of one of the others. Not a bad life — to be indispensible to so many people, places and causes.

But Counihan still thirsted for a political role. When Hogan — who ironically had switched parties and become a Democrat in late 2000 — resigned from the Senate three years ago to take a job as the University of Maryland System’s chief lobbyist, Counihan was one of several Democrats who sought the appointment. But Nancy King, then a delegate — and a protégé of Counihan’s — had the process wired.

Counihan’s consolation prize was to be appointed one of Montgomery’s three representatives on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, and Counihan has served with distinction, unafraid to go toe-to-toe with his counterparts from Prince George’s County on politically sensitive topics like minority contracts and finances at the water and sewer agency.

Which pretty much brings us to today. Gene Counihan lies in a hospital, struggling to get better. He’s built up a lot of good will in his long and interesting public career, and now it’s all being sent back his way.

* * *

While we root for Gene Counihan to pull through, we have to pay tribute to a friend and former boss — and, coincidentally, a former constituent of Counihan’s — who didn’t make it.

Michelle LeComte died earlier this month after a brave three-year battle with cancer. She was just 58.

For almost a decade, Michelle was editor of The Gazette of Politics and Business, the weekly publication that on its best days does as good a job covering the State House and Maryland politics as anyone — even the big boys at the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. Earlier, she had worked for the now-defunct Journal Newspapers, and also for the Beacon-Journal in Akron, Ohio.

Michelle is a large reason why the Gazette became so good. For years, the Gazette was a profitable chain of weeklies; the quality of the papers ebbed and flowed — it didn’t matter how good they were editorially because they’d make money no matter what.

But Michelle fanatically pushed for a higher editorial standard. She prodded everyone around her to be better — and even though it practically killed her some days, most of the time we were better as a direct result of her exhortations.

Michelle also had a very jaundiced view of politics and politicians; she didn’t suffer fools gladly and didn’t think the Gazette’s readers should have to, either. That attitude helped keep the Gazette’s coverage of state and local politicians very sharp indeed.

Also, she could be very funny. And she was intensely loyal to the people she worked with; beneath her hard-ass exterior, she was enormously compassionate.

I’m proud to have worked for Michelle, and I will miss her very much.

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:

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

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.