Candidates push jobs message even though it's mostly beyond power of local offices

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Surrounded by local labor chiefs at a campaign rally last week in Landover, Rushern L. Baker III, a candidate for Prince George's County executive, made a bold promise:

"We need to make sure that Prince George's County puts people back to work, and that's what we're going to start doing today," Baker (D) said to applause as a campaign staffer distributed his three-page jobs plan.

Baker is one of several Washington-region candidates who have made "job creation" a pillar of their platforms this election year, piggybacking on the recession-era strategies of presidential and gubernatorial candidates who have tried to let voters know they feel their pain. But economists and political observers say that jobs rhetoric is, for the most part, just lip service and that candidates will find they have little power to actually make a dent in the unemployment crisis if elected to city and county posts.

"The simple answer is: Local government officials, short of the mayor -- even mayors have a hard time -- generally can't do anything to generate jobs, unless they hire public employees. . . . But there's no money for that, so that's sort of silly," said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "To actually create jobs, you need to create demand, and local government can't do that."

Nevertheless, talk of job creation persists, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the local unemployment scenario. In April, D.C. saw 11 percent unemployment, while Maryland's rate was 7.5 and Virginia's was 7.2, and the national rate has hovered close to 10 percent, according to federal labor statistics. Baker said in an interview that job growth was polling as the number two issue in the county, behind education.

One of Baker's rivals in the race, Del. Gerron S. Levi (D-Prince George's), says she has a plan to create "thousands" of jobs by the end of her first four-year term as executive, largely by improving schools to spur businesses and workers to move to Prince George's, and by helping to forge partnerships between local, high-tech research outfits and entrepreneurs.

Levi, who offered no math to support her jobs projection, said she doesn't "completely agree" with experts who say local officials have little power to create jobs. "You do have some tools in your quiver that you can use," Levi said. "Talent generally starts locally, somewhere. We have to cultivate that talent."

D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), running for council chairman, and Prince George's Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), running for county executive, both highlight job creation on their campaign Web sites. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), sparred over the issue at a debate last week, both emphasizing training as the key to employing residents.

And former television reporter Leo Alexander (D), also running for mayor, has argued that cracking down on illegal immigration will free jobs for legal residents.

But the details of some of the candidates' job proposals are often much less definitive than their promises on the stump. Baker's written plan, for example, says his administration would "pursue" state and federal funds for public works projects and "seek" state legislation for tax breaks to lure businesses. In other words, some proposals are dependent on the cooperation of other officials and governments, which is not guaranteed.

Asked to respond to experts who say local officials can do little to create jobs, Baker's spokesman, James Adams, said in an e-mail that, "The county executive has to massage and manipulate whatever the economy serves up to create opportunity."

Baker also suggests streamlining the approval process for development -- something Anne Arundel County executive candidate Joanna Conti (D) also says will entice businesses -- and investing in the community college to bolster training. But Baker declined to put numbers on how many jobs his plan might create, or how much it would cost.

Although some of the measures can create a more attractive business environment, they don't address much larger factors inhibiting job growth, said Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at Moody's

"You can make your county more competitive than other counties," Faucher said. "You can't do much about the price of labor. . . . They can't do much about the price of office space."

Faucher said officials could "improve the schools so they could have a better trained workforce" but "that impact is not going to show up for five or ten years." He said it is not surprising that candidates were not forecasting specific numbers of jobs, a complex mathematical undertaking. "To expect a county-level candidate to be able to do it, they don't have the sophistication, to be blunt about it," Faucher said.

Despite the limitations of the offices they seek, those who shy away from the issue do so at their own electoral peril, said Ronald Walters, a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"Right now, [Baker is] in campaign mode, and it would be disastrous for him to be off-base, singing a different tune," Walters said. "People are hurting."

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