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!