The mayor sent his helicopter for us at once. The moment he read our interview of his former challenger Roger Schlegel he dispatched the whirlybird to granolapark’s corporate headquarters. It picked up our staff person (the one least likely to get air sick), and whisked him to the community center. There he was ushered into the mayor’s presence. His Honor was seated at his massive table set before windows that overlooked his domain – his domain for two more years, at least.
There he recounted his victory, revealed his campaign stumbles, spoke of his impressions of the electorate, and outlined future plans.
“It should have been better, but I’ll take it,” he said of his Nov. 3 win with 60% of the votes. He was caught flat-footed by his opponent’s nomination, he admitted. At the time of the Sept. 29 nominating caucus William’s main helpers were out of town for a few days, so “i was slow getting going,” he said.
Campaign of One
For a while “it was just me.” He described how he went out on his own to campaign door-to-door, and ran into Schlegel with a couple of his helpers. The mayor went off alone in one direction, Roger and campaigners went in the other, he said.
The Mayor claims he predicted the 60/40 percentages ahead of time, and was not surprised by the outcome. He said there were some days when he thought the election would be even tighter, “others when it was, ‘I’m gonna lose!'” But, the prediction he “kept coming back to” was 60/40. Narrowing our eyes to skeptical slits, we asked for proof of this amazingly accurate prediction, but all he would say was that it was quite a drop from the window, it would be a shame if somebody slipped.
Williams attributes Schlegel’s good showing to the votes he got from the “busy majority.” That is the name Schlegel gave his own cohort, people interested in civic affairs but too busy with child rearing, work, home maintenance, and school/neighborhood affairs to get involved in city committees or politics. The challenger struck a chord with that group – who tend to be recent arrivals in the city, have young children and high mortgages, and are feeling the squeeze from the economy and from city taxes.
All Politics Are . . .
He says his opponent’s campaign tells him that he needs to pay more attention to local issues. “Lesson taken” says the mayor.
He explained how he lost touch. He said that the mayor’s job has changed since he first took office two years ago. Then he anticipated doing constituent service, dealing with local issues, and attending city meetings. The mayor’s portfolio has become broader, he says.
But he found that consituent service is more the province of councilmembers. Many of those local issues lead him to agencies such as Council of Governments (COG) board staff, Montgomery College, Washington Adventist Hospital, Montgomery County City Council, and the state legislature in Annapolis.
This sort of work takes him out of the city where city residents don’t see his efforts, so they, especially the newcomers, don’t understand what he does and they “don’t know me from snow water.”
Though his supporters know he has connections that are invaluable to the city he says, that’s too abstract for a lot of people.
He eagerly adopted Schlegel’s suggestion that some council meetings focus on individual wards, and even hold council meetings in different venues around the city. The first ward to be so honored will be Ward 3, he says.
As the mayor went door-to-door campaigning, he got an impression of what’s on voter’s minds that differs from the impression his opponent got – described last week in granolapark.
Former challenger Schlegel said that city taxes and the budget were residents’ top issues. Mayor Bruce Wlliams says the number 1 concern on people’s minds is public safety – in other words, crime. He found this concern “overwhelmingly” in Ward 1, a “fair amount” in Ward 6, “it was there” in Ward 3, and to some extent, but “less “in Ward 2. He found it was of strongest concern in areas along the city’s border next to the District of Columbia, Prince George’s County, and, Silver Spring.
He did find that the budget and public safety were often twin concerns.
It was common, he said, that people told him taxes were too high. Occasionally, however, he ran into people who felt taxes were necessary to pay for services, hinting that this was his own view.
Old-timers vs. Newcomers
He noted a division between long time residents, and younger, newer homeowners. The long time residents (like himself) tend to be older, past child care or college expenses, may no longer have a mortgage, and are “less dinged” by taxes because of the 10% yearly tax rate cap*. Younger, newer homeowners tend to be paying closer to the top of their tax rate (not benefiting from the 10% yearly tax rate cap) and paying high mortgages on their $400,000 – $500,000 homes.
Williams tackled the issue head on, if people didn’t bring it up, he did, he said. He agreed that taxes were high here, and residents say they can’t afford them – but they also want and need the services.
The biggest city expense, he pointed out to them, is the police department. it accounts for a third of the budget. If the police department were disbanded and city policing handed back to the county, he claimed there would be a 40% reduction in coverage. One reduction he claimed was that residents victimized by less serious crimes would be dealt with via a phone call, not a personal visit by the police.
He found that people did not want to give up the police under those terms.
Another service that could be cut is the library, said Williams, but to many the library is a sacred cow. At a candidate forum Williams suggested rhetorically that the library be closed – and the crowd gasped. One man, appalled, said it was one of the best benefits the city offers. Williams assured, “I’m not going there!”
Going door to door he heard several times that the library is the most important thing, especially to young parents. And folding the city library into the county system is not possible. In 2000, he said, when the city looked into handing it over to the county library, the county said they would close it rather than adopt it as a county branch.
That Eight Minute Line
He agreed with former candidate Schlegel’s observation that citizen alienation with city governance grows the farther one gets from Old Town. Schlegel said city loyalty starts declining “an eight minute walk from Old Town” in any direction.
Williams said one example of this alienation is in the Pinecrest community where he’s “always seen it.” He said that Pinecrest, which is Roger Schlegel’s neighborhood, has had a prickly relationship with the city. The majority voted to leave Prince George’ county, but with mixed feelings. Sentiments turned sour when, after annexation, the city tried to hit them up for the rest of the year’s-worth of taxes, resulting in a lawsuit. One result of this episode may be that Pinecrest often supports candidates who challenge incumbents in mayoral and ward elections.
The mayor said that Pincrest’s sour feelings have slowly sweetened as the city installed sidewalks and made other improvements in the neighborhood, such as locating a community garden there. Newcomers to the community, such as Schlegel, have also helped mellow the area’s attitude.
Out of Touch Renters
During the campaign last month Williams had the same sort of experience Schlegel had trying to reach renters. It is hard to get into large apartment and condominium buildings. Victory Towers, for instance, doesn’t allow even door-hangers, much less door-to-door campaigning.
It is a chicken and egg question, he said. Is the low voter turnout among renters due to an innate lack of interest, or is the lack of interest due to the fact that candidates can’t reach them?
Pragmatically, campaigning in rental buildings is not worth the time and money, he said, and the mayor was a very pragmatic campaigner. Though he got literature to every household in the city, when he went door-to-door he carefully picked areas, blocks, and even houses with a strong history of voter turnout.
What the Future Holds
The Old Town business district is suddenly the “issue du jour,” he said, because of the sudden and unexpected demise of the Savory cafe on Carroll Avenue. There are already a number of empty storefronts on Carroll Avenue from Old Town to the Takoma Junction, and this latest closing jacked the public’s anxiety up a few notches. The city’s neighborhood discussion lists have generated scores of posts, some of them flaming, on the subject.
Not to worry, he said, there are other businesses about to move into some of those empty spaces. A hardware store is planned for the former Taliano Pizza’s space, and there are “things brewing” already for the Savory location. “The new mix may be better!” he says.
At their next meeting (November 23) the city council will discuss the latest proposal to fund the Public Works renovations. Instead of picking up $1 million of the cost from tax revenue and the city’s contingency fund, and combining that with a $2 million bond loan, the city would get the full $3 million from the bond loan.
That way, the mayor said, the city would preserve the contingency fund , and take advantage of current low bond interest rates and the “good bidding environment” on contractors.
In addition, the mayor said, once a loan and construction bid were secured, the city would strive to delay the actual construction until the city settles a couple of issues that would impact it. The Task Force for Environmental Action, it has been speculated, might make recommendations that would change the Public Works Department. Also, since the council will be considering ways to cut spending, it is possible that the Public Works Dept. might hand over some of its functions to the county, changing the requirements of the renovation.
There might be some changes to how the department deals with solid waste, for example, or the city might discontinue leaf collection, he said.
Discontinue leaf collection? Sounds like another sacred cow to us.
* 10% yearly tax rate cap – This has to do with property tax which is based on the estimated value of a home. Property values have soared over the last two decades. Homes that were worth $90,000 or 120,000 twenty years ago could be worth $400,000 to $500,000 now. But those homeowners don’t pay their full property tax because it is only allowed to rise from what it was when they bought their houses at the rate of 10% a year. Newer buyers pay based on what the houses were worth when they bought them, amounts much closer to their current assessed value. So their taxes are higher.