Strip away the differences in style and temperament between Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Doug Duncan, and you have the same package, County Council member Phil Andrews contends. “They’re traditional interest-group politicians.”
Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) is running for Leggett’s job in next month’s Democratic primary, positioning himself as a reform alternative to both the incumbent and Duncan, his predecessor, who together have held the job for the past 20 years.
The four-term council veteran, who accepts no real estate or union contributions, said his opponents are creatures of a “broken politics” that caters to influential insiders at the expense of taxpaying citizens.
Although Andrews has successfully shepherded legislation on such thorny issues as a restaurant smoking ban, he has staked out an often lonely position as an outspoken critic of the county’s taxing and spending policies.
If Montgomery is going to reduce the tax burden on residents, he says, the all-Democratic council must limit the growth of employee pay and benefits, which represent about 70 percent of the operating budget. That means taking a harder line on what he calls overly generous collective-bargaining agreements negotiated in the Duncan-Leggett era.
“The money is in the labor contracts. That’s the ballgame,” Andrews said.
Last week, Andrews voted against the part of the fiscal 2015 budget that provides negotiated wage hikes and longevity increases ranging from 6.75 percent to 9.75 percent for police, fire and non-uniformed employees.
“County employees work hard, do an excellent job delivering important services, and deserve a pay raise,” Andrews said in a statement after the vote. “But the raises need to be reasonable and sustainable, not excessive and unsustainable.”
It’s not a mainstream message in Montgomery, where public employee unions are a cornerstone of the Democratic electorate. And it makes Andrews a decided long shot in the June 24 primary, where Leggett enjoys a better than 10-to-1 fundraising advantage.
The budget protest was one in a long list of solitary no votes that Andrews has cast on fiscal issues. They include a Duncan measure, passed by the council in 2005, that allowed career firefighters to retire with benefits after 20 years of service instead of 25.
Andrews also stood alone in 2009 when he opposed Leggett’s proposal to award union employees larger pension benefits that would take into account cost-of-living adjustments that they had not received because of belt-tightening during the recession. Andrews later led the effort to repeal the “phantom COLA.”
Last year, Andrews was the only vote against groundbreaking legislation establishing the county’s own minimum wage, which is set to rise to $11.50 an hour by 2017. He contended that the minimum wage should be a state responsibility. (The Maryland minimum is scheduled to rise from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2018.)
If elected, Andrews said he would move to roll back a $100 million increase in the county energy tax that was passed by the council in 2010 as a temporary measure to help deal with a revenue shortfall related to the recession. He said he would make up the revenue loss by holding the line on labor costs and pressing the state for a larger share of funding for school construction and other needs.
Andrews, a former director of Common Cause Maryland, said he would bring pressure on state lawmakers by organizing support for the county’s agenda among their Montgomery constituents. “Being in their faces is not the answer,” Andrews said. “Being in their districts is the answer.”
Although some interest groups find Andrews’s positions heretical, he delivers his message without rancor or heated rhetoric. Still trim and boyish at 54, Andrews retains the earnest manner of the student body president he was at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. When council hearings drag into a fifth or sixth hour, and some members chat among themselves or restlessly thumb their iPhones, Andrews sits, smiling and attentive to whoever is at the witness table.
His user-friendly attitude extends even to his last name. He grew up on Plyers Mill Road in Kensington as Phil Levchenko. As a student at Albert Einstein High School, he tired of having his name misspelled or mispronounced. When he graduated, he legally changed it to the first name of his father, Andrew, a retired CIA analyst.
Despite his singular position on tax and spending matters, Andrews has led the council on other issues. He has unanimous support for his proposal to establish a partial system of public funding for county election campaigns. In 2010, he championed legislation tightening police eligibility for full disability retirement benefits. Last year, he wrote and pushed through a law that gives preference in county hiring to highly qualified people with disabilities. Earlier in his council career, he was lead sponsor of the bill to ban smoking in restaurants.
Council members generally like and respect him. Hans Riemer (D-At Large) described him as “persuadable, reasonable and rational” on land-use issues and social safety net programs.
But the uphill climb Andrews faces in the executive’s race is reflected in an almost complete lack of establishment support. None of his eight colleagues have endorsed his candidacy. Even some reliable allies — such as the Sierra Club, which backed his council campaigns because of his strong voting record on environmental issues — have remained mute on the executive’s race.
Leggett said Andrews’s hard-line position on labor contracts is “naive” and reflects a failure to grasp legal and political realities. The county charter requires binding arbitration if talks with police or fire unions reach an impasse, and in most cases, arbitrators have favored the union position. Leggett has also lost a series of court battles with unions in which the county challenged arbitrator awards.
“If he feels binding arbitration is flawed, he should be proposing reforms to it,” Andrews responded. “He hasn’t.”
Andrews proposed setting up arbitration panels that include members of the public, not just professional mediators. He said he would work to bring more transparency to contract negotiations by requiring the county and the unions to make public their bargaining positions.
Andrews is staking his hopes for victory on a grass-roots strategy and a relentless door-knocking effort he began last year. Late afternoons, early evenings and on weekends, Andrews has personally reached out to households with voters who, according to state records, have a history of turning out for primaries. He said he plans to appear on 30,000 doorsteps before the primary, representing about a third of the county’s likely primary electorate.
Andrews’s early history held few hints that he would become the scourge of the county’s public employee unions.
His mother was a county librarian and a member of the Municipal and County Government Employee Organization, which represents most of the county’s non-uniformed workers. He delivered the The Washington Post as a teenager during the Watergate years, an experience he said sparked his interest in public service and government reform. Although some Montgomery teenagers are rewarded with a special trip or a car when they finish high school, Andrews’s parents gave him a membership to Common Cause.
After graduating from Bucknell and receiving a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania, Andrews was hired to direct Common Cause Maryland, a job in which he lobbied the state legislature for open government and campaign finance reform.
He had union support in his successful 1998 campaign, in which he defeated District 3 incumbent William Hanna in the primary. During his first term, he supported a “living-wage” bill that required for-profit county contractors to pay at least $10.50 an hour. In 2003, he joined other members in supporting Comcast workers who were trying to organize a union.
Andrews said recently that his basic political leanings have not changed. “The council has changed a lot more than I did,” he said. Back then, “they were more moderate on fiscal matters. There was more carefulness about spending than there is now.”
And he warned: “You’ll have a spendathon if I’m not county executive or not on the council.”