Deep Pocket

Dear Readers,

Those developer’s pockets must be HUGE! How do they walk around with all those politicians in them? However big they are they must be terribly crowded. “Dammit, Steve, get your elbow outta my FACE!” “Shut up, George, you won’t even endorse me!’

Which brings us to incumbent County Council At-Large member George Leventhal – Takoma Park’s own, or in many minds, Takoma Park’s disowned.

Though he is not likely to lose his seat, George Leventhal is getting a good bashing in this campaign, even in his home-base. Neighbors for a Better Montgomery PAC has been a typical basher. For instance their “County Council Can-Can”, a political cartoon web-animation, portrayed Leventhal and other council members as being bought and sold by developer interests.

More recently a mailer from the same group shows an unflattering row of mug shots of councilmembers Leventhal, Nancy Floreen, Steve Silverman, Mike Knapp, and MIchael Subin. The bold-faced headline reads “WARNING! Developer-funded County Council candidates.”
So, is this fair, dear Readers? Or is this another one of those “gotcha” issues that so depressingly characterize just about every political campaign ever run? In this campaign season the worst local example of this is probably Ida Ruben’s “Seeking a Real Democrat” mailer in which she “edited the tape” of Raskin’s career to make it look like he promoted pro-life groups, the George W. Bush election campaign, and Ross Perot.

Raskin does not stoop to this ridiculous level, but like most other politicians he does indulge in a little “tape editing” himself. A recent mailer from him pins Ruben to the wall on one vote out of her entire career – a vote deregulating utility rates – which she now says she regrets. The mailer is short on information about the whys and wherefores of this vote. It must have passed the state legislature for SOME reason other than all the legislators were in the utilities’ pockets. REALLY big pockets!

Gilbert suspects there is a gray area here, that it is not simply a matter of politicians being in various pockets (and how does one reside in both the utility and developer pockets at the same time, anyway?) Alas there are no gray-areas in politics. Except here at granolapark, Dear Readers!

On an expedition into the previously unexplored gray area deep inside the developer’s pocket a granolapark associate interviewed councilmember George Leventhal about the charges in the Neighbors Pac mailer. He asked Leventhal just how contributions come to be made, what inspires contributors to donate, and what is the process? Are there meetings with shadowy, pocket-flapping figures who say “And if you pledge to support more sprawl and highways, Georgie-boy, I’ll write out a fat check right now!”?

For the record, Leventhal disputes the PAC’s allegation that he gets 56% of his contributions from developer interests. He notes that Neighbors PAC includes union donations to get that high percentage.

He says also that these folks are grinding an ax. They have not forgiven him for being part of the anti-Blair Ewing “End Gridlock” slate in 2002. Blair Ewing ran against Doug Duncan for County Executive in that election on a strong antidevelopment platform. Though Leventhal’s record has been strong on constituent service and though he is praised by some local environmental interest groups, the old Ewing camp has not forgiven him for being part of “End Gridlock.”

Leventhal stresses that he is NOT on any slate this year and that he has not endorsed any other candidates. He decries not only the Neighbor PAC attempt to lump him in with Silverman, Floreen, and friends, he rejects the attempt by The Committee for Responsible Growth PAC, which endorses those same candidates, to do the same.

But, enough of the usual political charge/countercharge and positioning/distancing, let’s get into the “gray area.”

Leventhal tried to “peel away some of the layers,” as he put it, on a subject usually depicted in good vs. evil, 2-dimensional terms.
Publicly financed elections would be better, he says, but as the rules are now, every politician has to raise money to reach constituents.
Any successful politician, says Leventhal, including those such as U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a hero and champion of the county’s progressive liberal wing, spend a great deal of time raising money for “communication” with their constituents. Communication is a nice word for campaign advertising, in Leventhal’s case advertising in the form of mailers, such as the ones procreating in your mail box right now as you read this.

He said he can’t make the process of fund raising appear clean and good to anyone who isn’t familiar with the realities of election campaigns. Politicians who are making such a fuss about it are being opportunistic, representing the connections between donor and politician to be more sinister than they really are.

Anyone who donates has an interest and Leventhal gets money from a wide set of interest groups and interested individuals, he says. Never has he taken money with the expectation that he would vote for particular legislation. “i would kick them out of my office!” if they hinted such a thing, said Leventhal. The one time it was suggested to him, he made a point of voting against the measure he was requested to vote for.
As for why people or interest groups contribute to him he says he is known as a fair politician who represents a wide range of interests found in his county, including those of the business community. He tries to be practical and pragmatic, and he thinks most of his constituents appreciate that

He understands the problems with growth and development – how they create traffic-choked roads, overpopulated schools, and strained public resources. The reality is, says Leventhal, that the population will grow, so we have to make intelligent decisions and accommodations.
He points out that the council has already set aside a third of the county from high-density development. Adding parkland it totals about half of the county which will retain its rural character.

As a “smart growth” advocate, Leventhal supports limiting population density to areas around Metro stops to encourage mass transit use. He says his opponents are so strongly antidevelopment that they don’t want any new homes built. They even oppose new development around Metro stations, and some want to restrict any new building to within the Beltway.

According to Leventhal, their motivation is not always environmental – in some cases it is “nimbyism.” Some of the antidevelopment crowd just don’t want any growth near them, even when they live in the sort of transportation hub where development would be best located.

Some politicians – he cited Takoma Park city Councilmember Marc Elrich who is running for one of the four at-large county council seats – have built a reputation opposing development. They refuse developer’s contributions (not that many are forthcoming) and that is their choice, but Leventhal is not willing to be as strident.

That does not mean he is “pro-development,”he says. It does mean he is open minded and willing to give everyone a fair hearing, even developers and other business interests. Leventhal counts them as constituents, too, he says, and listens to them as much as he listens to individual constituents or groups.

It is this fairness that attracts contributions from a wide number of people and organizations. It doesn’t mean he is in any interests’ pockets. Leventhal says he doesn’t know who writes checks to him until after they have been sent in and deposited.

There is no “tit for tat.” Individuals, groups and businesses make donations to people they like and who they feel are doing a good job.
“Is there a link between my votes on growth and development and my donors? Yes!” he says. But, that is not because he is pro-development, it is because he is not rabidly (and unproductively in Leventhal’s view) against any and all development.

When asked which of his specific votes or actions would inspire development interests to contribute to his campaign, he cites his pro-ICC stance, which he says was not an easy or popular position to take. While concerned with the environmental impact, he says given the reality of up-county traffic problems (which he says are difficult to appreciate down-county where we have easy access to Metro and interstate highways) he thought it was the most pragmatic solution. He had to weigh the environmental impact versus improved mobility, he says.
Developer interests are faced with a Democratic, liberal county council, so they support the ones they see as most open and realistic, not the ones who are likely to grandstand by opposing them.

So, Dear Readers, there’s a rough map of the in-side-the-pocket gray area. We liberals decry the conservative politicians who every election season drown out all intelligent debate shouting about gay marriage or flag-burning or some such. Could it be that our own politicians are not above such tactics, that they would exploit antidevelopment sentiments, and use overly simplistic rhetoric to gain office? Oh, the horror!

– Gilbert.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

8 Comments on "Deep Pocket"

  1. “Raskin does not stoop to this ridiculous level, but like most other politicians he does indulge in a little ‘tape editing’ himself.”
    I didn’t like the “Real Democrat” flyer by Sen. Ruben either. But, Gilbert, you’re more astute than to be bamboozled by Jamie Raskin. He more than just “edits tape” now and again.
    > Raskin implies that Ruben is beholden to gambling interests because she has received contributions from the owner of Ocean Downs Race Track. Ruben has always opposed slots at racetracks. Her opposition to gambling almost cost her her position as the highest ranking woman in the State Senate. Rather than being beholden to gambling interests she has steadfastly opposed them.
    There is at least one candidate who has voted for slots at racetracks (and who was endorsed by The Voice) — but its not Sen. Ruben.
    > Raskin accuses Ida of backing the Bush War in Iraq. She always has and always will oppose President Bush’s War in Iraq. The fact is she voted for a resolution unanimously passed by the Senate (including such progressive stalwarts as Brian Frosh) to support the troops and their families.
    In the world of real politik you do things like this because you value the lives of your countrymen, even if their commander in chief sends them on an wholly justified adventure. And you do so lest an explicit prowar resolution passes or debate over it is allowed to tie up the business of the state legislature.
    > Raskin says Ruben is one of the least effective senators. Ruben is President pro tem of the State Senate, heads the Montgomery County delegation and is an influential member of the Tax and Budget Committee. She was cited by Washingtonion Magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington.
    I decided to vote for Ruben because Raskin lacks substantial, demonstrated concern for local and state issues. He is a brilliant lawyer doing good work; and I support him in those endeavors.
    But he’s discredited an otherwise fine campaign with his bogus attacks on Ruben.
    Just my two cents.

  2. I found your post, as I generally do, well written and informative. But I’m surprised at your naivete!
    Surely none but the most idealistic among us, and few businesses fall into that category, give to politicians unless we expect to see a return on our investment. While I doubt that anyone offers George Leventhal or others bribes or otherwise makes clear implications that they will give him money if he supports them, few should doubt that only those who give special interests what they want (often at the public’s expense) get the special interest money. It’s that simple.
    It is hardly “gotcha” politics when public interest groups point out how money influences politicians.
    Raising funds from the general public is hard and requires getting out and talking to average voters. That’s good. Getting big checks from special interests in exchange for access is easy, but it’s not what we want from our politicians.
    The problem with politicians like Leventhal (also Duncan, Silverman, Floreen, etc.), who consider special interests their “constituents” and raise huge chunks of their money from developers is that they don’t necessarily listen to the average citizen as much as to those businesses with fat checks in hand. That’s not fairness, that’s buying influence.
    I don’t know about others, but I don’t care whether Leventhal, Silverman, Duncan, Floreen, etc. ran together four years ago, what I care about is what they did in office and what they’ll do over the next four years on the Council. The County Council should serve residents and taxpayers of this community first and most importantly.

  3. MoCoPolitics | September 6, 2006 at 7:20 pm |

    Did somebody twist George Leventhal’s arm and force him to be part of the End Gridlock team in 2002? I must have missed all the pictures of him with his arm in a sling from that injury.
    In 2002, George used End Gridlock to get elected. Now, with sentiment running the other way after four years of pretty ineffective leadership from all concerned, George wants us to forget 2002.
    Considering the sorry state of affairs with respect to development issues that has arisen since 2002, that’s asking a little too much, IMO.
    Vote for George or don’t, but I find it condescending that he feels he can blow with the wind on who his friends are and what his issues are.

  4. What is “bogus” about pointing out the voting record of a 30 year incumbent?
    It’s getting a little tired listening to Ida supporters claiming that Raskin is “attacking” Ida and behaving in some sort of “negative” fashion.
    Pointing out a record is not negative, unless “negative” is used in the sense of “displeasing to Senator Ruben.”
    Pointing out the consequences of a disastrous vote (we’re all paying $500 more a year as a result) is not an attack, unless “attack” is used in the sense of “makes Senator Ruben look bad.”
    This is the problem. Ida Ruben supporters are disturbed, nay, OFFENDED, at the mere idea that Senator Ruben is being forced to defend herself. They then become outraged when the defense falls, shall we say, a little short in the persuasion department.
    And Mr. Gagliardo, it’s not Jamie Raskin who says that Ida Ruben is “ineffective.” It’s the Gazette — their election year poll of Annapolis insiders (released in January) rated Ida the 7th least effective senator.
    And responding with the statement that Ida is President Pro Tem of the Senate is not a very good response. That position is purely honorary, and carries no power or authority whatsoever.
    I would also point out that in over 30 years in office, Ida Ruben has NEVER chaired a committee, either in the House or the Senate. That is perhaps the most telling point on the question of effectiveness.
    Vote for the candidate of your choice, folks, but don’t listen to the whining and complaining of the Ida Ruben supporters. Look at the facts and then judge for yourself.

  5. So, everyone’s talking about what special access for campaign cash means in this election. According to one local blogger, apparently it means that Councilmembers Silverman and Knapp take secret meetings with developers that are against the rules. Hey Gilbert, still think there’s nothing wrong with taking big bucks from big business? See

  6. Gee, Gilbert seems to have hit a progressive sacred cow!
    Let’s double back and hit it again!
    The point of the post, other than engaging in Gilbert’s favorite sport, devil’s advocacy, is that [shock horror] liberals are not above simplistic, selective-editing, “gotcha” politics. It’s more complicated and nuanced than some of you make out when a politician takes a campaign contribution. And maybe it’s not quite so sinister! Omygawd, Gilbert just ran over the sacred cow AGAIN – and with a BULLDOZER this time!
    Your Rebel Without A Cow,
    – Gilbert

  7. jsmdlawyer wrote: “Vote for the candidate of your choice, folks, but don’t listen to the whining and complaining of the Ida Ruben supporters. Look at the facts and then judge for yourself.”
    Dear jsmdlawyer,
    My name is Tom Gagliardo and I’ve lived around here and been in local politics for a while.
    “Whining”, “complaining”, moi? Let’s see:
    1. I started by stating I didn’t agree with Senator Ruben’s mail piece criticizing some of Professor Raskin’s work as a lawyer (the “Real Democrat” piece).
    2. I never said criticizing an elected official’s record is “bogus”.
    3. I set forth facts in response to Mr. Raskin’s criticisms and charges.
    4. And I’m not disturbed or offended. I just disagree with Jamie’s spin . . . and yours.
    5. Please stop whining and complaining.

  8. Tom Gagliardo | September 7, 2006 at 8:48 pm |

    From the Gazette article cited by Jamie Raskin to criticize Ida Ruben as “ineffective”. Note that Senator Rubeb has been endorsed by The Gazette, as have Hixson, Hucker and Mizeur for District 20 delegate:
    “This is neither a definitive nor scientific survey; it’s meant for
    fun and to spark debate.”
    * * *
    “We sent ballots to a cross-section of about 100 State House insiders — lobbyists representing a wide range of interests, members of the Ehrlich administration, Democratic
    and Republican operatives and, yes, reporters — to rank the legislators based on how effective they are.”
    * * *
    “About 30 percent of the ballots were returned.”
    It sure has sparked debate.

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