Josh Kurtz: Sticking With the Union

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Other than a small item in The Washington Business Journal last week, the $31.4 million sale of the National Labor College, right next to the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring, went largely unnoticed in the state and local media.

A fascinating 2-1 vote by the Board of Public Works a week earlier to OK the sale also went completely unmentioned.

This is a property with a lot of political history and symbolism. The Board of Public Works vote, and the debate that preceded it, will add to that history, as it was chock-full of surprises and contradictions and hidden agendas.

The 45-acre tract, once property of the Catholic Church, was purchased in 1970 by the national AFL-CIO, which has used it mostly as a place to educate and train workers and fledgling labor leaders. It was accredited by the state as a full-fledged college in the 1990’s, and began offering bonafide academic curricula and degree programs.

Around the same time, over a period of a few years, the state awarded $2.75 million in grants and bonds to the AFL-CIO to upgrade the property, which looks very much like a small college campus, complete with dormitories, classroom buildings and abundant open space. Republicans in the legislature cried foul at the time, arguing that the financial arrangement was officially putting the state in bed with the labor movement, whose frequent goal, after all, is to defeat Republicans.

But then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D), no doubt harboring higher ambitions, quashed the irrelevant GOP, reveling in the attention from national labor leaders. John Sweeney, then the AFL-CIO president, turned up in Silver Spring more than a few times, and at some point the labor college even put together a lecture series dedicated to Glendening’s career.

Fast-forward to this decade. The National Labor College is struggling financially and closes its doors, laying off most of the staff. The property is put up for sale. The Reid Temple AME Church in Silver Spring is interested in buying it, but a deal can’t be worked out.

Earlier this year, the labor college strikes an agreement to sell the property to the Amalgamated Transit Union, which envisions the site for its new national headquarters (the union has put its Washington, D.C., headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue up for sale). But for the sale to go through, the state must forgive the $2.75 million in grants and loans it gave to the college during the Glendening administration.

Which brings us to the very interesting Board of Public Works meeting of July 23.

Now, if you’ve been paying any kind of attention to the Board of Public Works over the past eight years, you’d figure that state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who has thrived as the state’s self-appointed fiscal watchdog, would object to the idea of forgiving the labor college debts. And you might expect Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who will undoubtedly seek labor support as he runs for president, to ratify the deal, talking in that lyrical way of his about the nobility of work and quoting verse, perhaps, from the Canadian labor poet Marie Joussaye: “His hands may be both rough and hard/His clothes and speech be plain/But you will find his manly heart/Without a spot or stain.”

But you’d be wrong. O’Malley asked sharp questions about the state’s investment in the property, and the labor college’s apparent inability, even with the sale to the ATU, to pay its debts.

“Why can’t our $2.7 million ride with that sale?” the governor wondered. “Why can’t ATU take that on and make that part of their shtick?”

O’Malley later questioned why the labor college settled for a $31.4 million sale price when the property’s valuation is about $46 million. “It’s not like that land is going to depreciate in value, given its proximity to an interchange [of the Beltway] in the heart of that population,” he said.

State officials and representatives of the labor college told O’Malley why they thought the deal was prudent for the state, why it had to be signed off on quickly, and that there was precedent for the state government forgiving grants and loans on property sales.

But O’Malley was not satisfied, even after some of the details of the transaction were laid out for him. “So everybody gets whole except the state?” he asked.

Franchot said he sympathized with the governor’s position. “Unfortunately, this is something that we just probably should move forward on,” he said.

Franchot was fairly upfront about one of the reasons why he favored the sale. He represented the area during his long tenure in the House of Delegates, and was part of the group of state and county officials that brokered the deal to give the AFL-CIO some financial backing and expand the mission of the Meany Center. So while he has grown farther apart politically from his old and highly liberal Takoma Park-Silver Spring district since he has become comptroller, he’s not immune to a good old-fashioned wave of nostalgia.

“I recall then Gov. Glendening complaining to me once,” Franchot reminisced. “‘If you bring back any more money to the National Labor College the whole place is going to sink.’ And we loved that place.” Franchot later called himself “a recovering legislator.”

So it’s easy enough to comprehend Franchot’s stand. By why was O’Malley so vehement in his opposition? Could it be because the Amalgamated Transit Union is a major opponent of P3’s, the public-private partnerships that are being touted to fund major transit projects in North America – including the proposed Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties? Although the rail line won’t be built – or even started – before O’Malley leaves office, it remains a legacy project for him and his administration.

The transit union has not specifically opposed a P3 for the Purple line. But it has recently questioned the promised savings for the state if it runs the transit line with a private entity, and has also pointed out the potential difficulties of having separate entities co-manage a transit line.

If O’Malley and Franchot essentially switching roles at the Board of Public Works meeting wasn’t interesting enough (and it should also be pointed out that Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted with Franchot, even though she sides more often with O’Malley), an added twist was the presence of Sue Payne, an aide to Del. Pat McDonough (R), who also spoke against the labor college sale.

Payne called the deal “peculiar,” and questioned the wisdom and fairness of forgiving the labor college debts. She noted that the ATU is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and said “what Del. McDonough is concerned about is that we have a situation here where it is almost an inside contract to two parties affiliated with the same umbrella organization.”

OK, a legitimate enough point. But what does Pat McDonough, whose district includes parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, care about a parcel of land just outside the Capital Beltway? It’s downright bizarre. Could it be that one of the state’s top crusaders against illegal immigration fears the largely vacant labor college could become temporary home to an influx of Central American children?

Last Wednesday, one week after the Board of Public Works meeting, the Amalgamated Transit Union officially announced its purchase of the National Labor College.

“Today, the ATU has stepped up and assumed a greater leadership role in the molding of minds, values and progressive reform for both Canada and the United States, where we represent more than 190,000 workers,” union President Larry Hanley said in a statement. “The state of the art conference and training center will again be a hub of activity for ATU and the entire labor movement.”

And once again, though it’s brick and mortar, the National Labor College becomes a Rorschach test for all who regard it. 

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.