Josh Kurtz: Montgomery County’s Shame

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Montgomery County residents pride themselves on their civic mindedness and fluency.

Just ask any 3rd grader who the deputy U.S. secretary of Commerce is, and she’ll be able to tell you (Bruce Andrews, acting).

If you live in Montgomery, chances are one of your neighbors is helping run the world: John Roberts, Denis McDonough, Bill Marriott, George Will, etc. etc.

At presidential election time, voter turnout in Montgomery County is pretty decent: Almost three-quarters of enrolled voters showed up at the polls on Election Day 2012 to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Of course, in Montgomery County, people aren’t just voting for the next president; in many cases, they’re picking their next boss.

But when it comes to acting locally, when it comes to selecting their leaders at the state and county levels, Montgomery County residents fail miserably.

In the recent statewide primary, just 16 percent of registered voters in Montgomery County bothered to vote. Sixteen percent ! This in a place where running the World Bank or mapping the human genome is considered community service.

That’s lower voter turnout than in Garrett County (27 percent), where cousins marry, or in Somerset County (24 percent), where the raging issue is chicken waste, or in Baltimore city (22 percent), where they’re selling drugs on every street corner, or in Prince George’s County (18 percent), where every public official has a palm extended.

Who’s the civic-minded Marylander now?

Voter turnout in Montgomery County flagged despite the fact that two of the three Democratic candidates for governor, Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur, came from the county. It dragged even though the primary winner, Anthony Brown, bidding to make history by becoming the state’s first African-American governor, tried to drive turnout in Montgomery County by micro-targeting certain segments of the electorate, like voters from the West Indies who identified with Brown because his father was from Jamaica.

Turnout sagged in Montgomery even though the county was home to a race for county executive that was invariably described as a heavyweight brawl, the most wide-open primary for the top job in two decades.

Turnout lagged in Montgomery even though the winning candidate for attorney general came from there, even though there were three or four hard-fought County Council races, even though two of the fiercest state Senate primaries in the state were in Montgomery, and even though there were competitive races in six of the county’s eight House districts.

So what the hell just happened? Why did only 16 percent of the county’s voters bother to show up?

There is plenty of blame to go around.

The early primary of course had something to do with it. But the primary was early in all 24 Maryland jurisdictions.

It’s easy, too, to blame (and lampoon) Montgomery County’s preoccupation with federal affairs. When average Montgomery County voters care more about the chain of command at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency than who is representing them on the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis, then of course voter turnout in state and local elections is going to be pathetic.

Powerful incumbents lost primary races last month in Prince George’s and Baltimore counties and in Baltimore city. Yet every incumbent seeking reelection in Montgomery County this year won his or her primary. Is that a sign of voter contentment – or another sign of voter apathy?

Then again, what were the voters of Montgomery County being offered?

For all the political talent residing in Montgomery County, it often seems as if a minor league squad is taking the field at election time.

A county executive race featuring Ike Leggett, Doug Duncan and Phil Andrews may have been worthwhile in, say, 1998 – but in 2014, it was a dud.

The County Council at-large primary usually generates plenty of heat. But was anybody excited this time – particularly about the prospect of granting Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal 16 years in office? These are dedicated public servants with estimable survival skills, but no one is suggesting they are transformational figures. The Council does have some energetic younger members like Craig Rice and Hans Riemer, but are they going to grow into true leaders, or will they prove to be, as some people fear, finger-in-the-wind careerists with their eyes on the next political prize?

Even the presumptive newcomers to the Council are old-timers. Sid Katz has been Gaithersburg mayor since 1998 and spent 20 years on the City Council before that. Tom Hucker served the last eight years in the legislature and was a political player before then when he ran Progressive Maryland. Both, to be fair, will be assets to the county political debate, in their own way – just not new assets.

Montgomery County’s legislative delegation will be a little younger and a little more diverse in 2015, and that’s not a bad thing. Assuming all the Democrats win in November, the 32-member delegation will have four Asian-Americans, three Latinos and two African-Americans – still not representative in a majority-minority county, but a step in the right direction (there are seven minority lawmakers from Montgomery in the current legislative term).   

The presumptive election of the county’s first minority state senator, current Del. Susan Lee (D), ought to be celebrated. But truth be told, Lee has hardly been a heavyweight during her dozen years in the House. She’s better known for showing up at events around the county – lots and lots of them – than for high-profile legislative accomplishments.

Even when Montgomery County voters were offered a dynamic choice – arguably, all three of the House challengers in Dist. 18 were better than the incumbents – they stuck with the familiar. Was anybody paying attention?

But when assessing the county’s low voter turnout, only so much blame can be placed on the voters – and the quality of candidates.

Many of the county’s leading institutions also share in the responsibility. Once endowed with the ability to inform voters, generate interest and influence outcomes of local elections, they have become pale imitations of their robust former selves, their effectiveness diminished by circumstance or narrowing agendas or dwindling resources. Consider:

-- TheWashington Post has abdicated its responsibility to cover state and local affairs. You can still find local political news online if you fish around for it on the Post website, but in the paper, almost never. And the Post editorial policy has become a joke, with its jihad against public sector unions implying that no other issue matters.

-- TheMontgomery Journal is long dead, and The Gazette has imploded.

-- Local broadcast media, despite the efforts of Bruce DePuyt on News Channel 8 and Kojo Nnamdi on WAMU-FM to put public affairs broadcasting on the air, never cover Maryland politics and government. In Baltimore, a local lawmaker actually has a decent chance of getting on TV or radio every now and then.

-- The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce is a shell of its former self, especially when it comes to political influence. The Greater Washington Board of Trade is out of the politics game altogether.

-- Montgomery civic groups – didn’t they once have an impact on local election results? That seems like a long time ago.

-- Leadership at some of Montgomery County’s unions is so old it’s practically creaking, and some local labor leaders seem more committed to self-preservation and settling scores than actually advancing a progressive agenda.

-- A once-promising effort this election cycle by a group of local leaders to promote minority candidates across the county fell far short of reaching its potential. In fact, despite the two-seat pickup for minority members in the county’s incoming legislative delegation after last month’s primary, the County Council will have one less minority member in 2015 than it does now.

What it all amounts to is what many wise people have said through the centuries, in several different ways: You get the government you deserve. In Montgomery County, we now have four years to try to do better.

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.