Spending, taxes are focus of Montgomery primaries

Saturday, July 10, 2010

CANDIDATES FOR the Montgomery County Council, as for local offices nationwide, are grappling with an awkward dilemma: how to craft a positive message in an era of budget-cutting, furloughs and layoffs. Ahead of primaries set for Sept. 14, voters are being treated to the unlikely spectacle of Democrats -- all the contested primaries are among Democrats -- packaging themselves as paragons of austerity, braced to say no to new spending. That testifies to the new reality in municipal government: There is little choice but to tighten belts.

Unlike the council primaries of 2006 and 2002 -- fought over growth and traffic, respectively -- this year's contests are about spending and taxes. Montgomery, closing in on a million residents, remains one of the wealthiest, best-educated places in America. But in a county where prosperity gave rise to bloated budgets and unsustainable programs and contracts, the overriding question now is how to trim Montgomery's ambitions to fit its reduced means. For that, the council needs lawmakers of sobriety, character and judgment.

For the first time in memory, public spending in localities is shrinking. Furloughs have been imposed on county government employees (except teachers and a few others). In the schools, class sizes are increasing. The next council must reckon with a growing shortage of affordable housing; a demographic shift that has turned a mostly white county into one where minorities comprise half the population; and sharply curtailed outlays for libraries, parks and some social services. Council members, who for years rubber-stamped unaffordable labor deals for firefighters, police, teachers and other employees, will have to show some spine.

Democratic primary voters will choose four at-large candidates as well as five individual district representatives, a total of nine candidates. In the at-large group, we favor three incumbents running for reelection -- Duchy Trachtenberg, Marc Elrich and Nancy Floreen -- plus one promising challenger, Hans Riemer.

Ms. Trachtenberg, who can be cantankerous, is not winning popularity contests on the council or with public employee unions, with whom she has tangled. But she distinguished herself as the first of the at-large council members to sound the alarm on the county's grave fiscal problems and has been a tough and consistent voice for trimming spending and budgeting responsibly. That took courage, and she deserves reelection.

Mr. Elrich, a first-term member and former teacher, has been a pleasant surprise, a left-leaning iconoclast who has also become one of the more independent-minded, detail-oriented and constructive members of the council. His dogged advocacy of an express bus network in the county has galvanized support, and his proposals to streamline government and procedures for new development are serious and substantive.

Ms. Floreen did herself no favors last year by elbowing aside a colleague to grab the rotating council presidency, which she currently holds; she ended up presiding -- without finesse -- over painful budget negotiations and a bitter standoff between the council and the school superintendent, Jerry D. Weast. Still, Ms. Floreen, completing her second term on the council, is seasoned and pragmatic, and she has been smart to stress the need for a broader tax base and longer-term fiscal planning.

Mr. Riemer, who ran President Obama's youth vote operation in the 2008 election and then worked with seniors on behalf of the AARP, is an experienced organizer. Low-key and strategic-minded, he has sensible things to say about prioritizing public transit and the risks of a tax structure that has gotten out of whack with neighboring jurisdictions. He has the makings of a capable public servant.

The one at-large incumbent we do not endorse is George L. Leventhal. A two-term council member, he has prodded the county to extend primary health care for uninsured and low-income residents and pushed other worthwhile initiatives involving transit and job growth. However, by pandering to public employee unions, he has also played a key role in fostering a culture of entitlement that led directly to unbridled spending, outrageous perks and irresponsible budgets. He was not alone in coddling the unions, but he led the charge.

There are two Democratic primaries in district races for the council. In District 1 (which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac) Roger Berliner, the hard-working, knowledgable first-term incumbent who has concentrated on energy issues, is a better bet than Ilaya Hopkins, a bright community activist. The winner will face Republican Rob Vricella, who has no primary opponent.

In the open seat race for District 2 (which includes Germantown, Damascus, Olney and Montgomery Village), Royce Hanson, a nationally renowned authority on land use and planning, has served twice as chairman of the county Planning Board, for a total of 13 years, in addition to having had a distinguished academic career. He would make a formidable member of the council and a far more consequential one than any of the four other Democrats on the primary ballot, who are novices by comparison. The winner will face Republican Robin Ficker, an anti-tax activist.

There are three Republican candidates running at large -- Robert Dyer, Brandon Rippeon and Robin Nixon Uncapher -- all of whom will advance to oppose the four Democratic primary winners in the general election in November. Three Democratic incumbents face no primary challenge. Phil Andrews, in District 3, has a cakewalk to reelection, as he should: He is the most principled and fiscally responsible member of the council, and a leader by example. In District 4, Nancy Navarro will advance to the general election against a lone Republican challenger, David W. Horner. In District 5, Valerie Ervin will face Joseph M. Russek, the lone Republican, in November.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company