Josh Kurtz: The Future Is Not Now

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By: Josh Kurtz 

The annual Committee for Montgomery legislative breakfast, which takes place every December in the Marriott conference center that took about 97 years to build, has the air of a family reunion.

It’s supposed to be a look at the upcoming General Assembly session. But it’s more like a nostalgia session for Montgomery County political, civic, business and labor leaders, chock-full of the usual suspects – up-and-comers and wannabes, has-beens and never-wases. Put another way, it’s a roomful of all of Robin Ficker’s enemies.

Want to catch up with Gene Counihan, the erstwhile legislator who continues to serve the public two decades after his political career ended? Or Carla Satinsky, the doyenne of community access cable? Or Keith Haller, the public affairs maven? Or me? We’re all there – as we have been, year after year after year.

But that annual trip down Memory Lane, pleasant as it can be, sadly seems like a perfect metaphor for the 2014 campaign for Montgomery County executive. As the three Democratic candidates worked the room last month – County Executive Ike Leggett, former executive Doug Duncan, and County Councilman Phil Andrews – it was hard to escape the conclusion that a real conversation about the future of Maryland’s largest jurisdiction is going to be put off for another four years.

All three of the candidates are giving nods to the future, talking a little bit about economic development and education and the county’s stunning diversity. But none is making it a central theme of his campaign, and it’s unlikely to be a big part of the debate in the six months before the primary. And that’s a troubling thing, as all the jurisdictions in the D.C. region – and in central Maryland – become increasingly more competitive with one another.

This state of affairs should come as a surprise to no one.

Doug Duncan in the race is inevitably going to talk about how he put out the Travilah dump fire 20 years ago when nobody else could. He’ll remind people of the days when the heart of downtown Silver Spring was the Tastee Diner and a slope of yellowing grass. He’ll talk about how he made Montgomery County a player in Annapolis after years of irrelevance. And he’ll argue that very little has been accomplished during Leggett’s eight-year tenure.

Leggett, who has been on the political scene for as long as Duncan, will talk about the mess he inherited from his predecessor, thanks in no small measure to the generous deals Duncan gave to labor unions as he was gearing up to run for governor. He’ll talk about helming the county through the toughest of economic times, and the difficult, often unpopular choices he had to make. And he’s starting to talk about his remarkable rise from the humblest of beginnings in rural Louisiana, and about his military service in Vietnam, two appealing storylines.

But beyond the expected platitudes, neither of these highly visible figures seems to be sketching out much of a vision for the future.

To be sure, you can examine their long records and argue that they were forward thinking. Duncan had the vision and muscle to reimagine downtown Silver Spring, to build the Strathmore Hall performing arts center, and to keep fighting for the Intercounty Connector highway even when it seemed like a hopeless cause. Leggett, without the noise and fuss often associated with Duncan projects, has aided the county’s high-tech industries and education centers in myriad ways.

Yet inevitably a race between the two will be about the past. The message that both seem to be offering is “more of the same” – leaving voters to decide what “the same” means and which version they find more appealing.

Andrews, running a low-budget campaign both by preference and out of necessity, is a different animal. After 15 years on the Council following six years running Common Cause Maryland, he can hardly be called a fresh face – nor, ironically, is he very well known.

But while some of Andrews’ reformer instincts are admirable, there is little talk of the future in his appeal to voters. In fact, his message of lower taxes, less profligate spending, and fewer givebacks to public employee unions, seems geared to a very exclusive audience – the editorial board of The Washington Post.

It may also appeal to older voters, tired of paying higher taxes to subsidize the ever more needy school system long after their kids have graduated. How is that forward-thinking?

And tell the truth – can anyone imagine the earnest, aw-shucks Andrews, who looks and acts like he stepped out of the cast of “Leave it to Beaver,” running the polyglot Montgomery County of today and tomorrow?

Imagine instead a race for county executive featuring, say, Mike Knapp or Tom Perez or Valerie Ervin or Andrew Kleine or some of the current members of the County Council or the legislative delegation – all potential contenders four years from now. That would be an enviable campaign, with a real debate over how best to position Montgomery County competitively and how to serve its ever-changing population.

Among the insiders present at the Committee for Montgomery breakfast last month, there was undeniable nervousness, and a certain standoffishness toward Duncan; like children of divorced parents who happen to be in the same room, no one wanted to be too chummy with him in the presence of Leggett.

Most probably feel, as I do, that voters will be willing to give Leggett, who is 68 years old, his four-year victory lap. There just isn’t a compelling reason to fire the incumbent and hire one of the other guys.

If the perception somehow changes, if Duncan is seen as gaining, the insiders, like lemmings, may be more drawn to him – physically, and on primary day. If the Post editorial board puts its enmity for public employee unions ahead of its longtime championing of worthy African-American politicians and endorses Andrews over Leggett, that, too, changes the dynamic.

No matter what, an in-depth and enlightening discussion about the future of Montgomery County will probably have to wait.

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.