07.17.10 Progressives’ Dilemma in District Two

What’s an environmentally minded, good-government advocate to do?  The race for Montgomery County Council District 2 presents a horrible dilemma.  And the outcome is crucial, because control of county policy hangs in the balance.   With the retirement of End-Gridlocker Mike Knapp, the good guys have a chance to pick up a fifth seat — and a majority.

Of course, there’s the little problem of defining “good-guy,”  not to mention the challenge of picking a potential winner to swing the council towards intelligent planning and responsible budgeting.

Progressives were excited when community activist Sharon Dooley announced early for the seat.  She ran better than expected against Knapp in 2006, despite being at a huge disadvantage in terms of funding and institutional support.  Even better, rumors of Knapp’s impending retirement held out the tantalizing possibility of an easy win.

Alas, politics abhors a vacuum.  As soon as Knapp’s retirement became real, State Delegate Craig Rice (D-15) threw his hat in the ring.  And within seeming moments of his announcement, he had the endorsements of what Maryland Politics Watch called “Planet Earth” (see this impressive list).

So, Dooley’s cakewalk was dead.  But, according to the company-you-keep school of analysis, there was still no dilemma for progressives.  Four of the five council bad guys top his endorsement list: Valerie Ervin, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, and, yes, the outgoing councilman himself: Mike Knapp.  (Only Nancy Navarro is missing at this point.)  It’s apparent, then, whose side Rice will be on if he joins the council.  He’ll vote with the remnants of Doug Duncan’s and Steve Silverman’s End-Gridlock team – and their more recent friends — to support a pave-it-all approach to development and irresponsible giveaways to the unions.

So much, seemed so clear.  Then, at the last possible instant, outgoing Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson jumped in, blowing away the simple dynamics of the race.  This is a man with decades of recognition and respect in the county: a heavyweight, by anyone’s standards.

Is Hanson’s candidacy a lifesaver for progressives worried about Dooley’s perceived weakness against Rice?  Or is he the spoiler who is going to split progressives’ votes and hand victory to Rice?  Is he a reliable partner for a new majority on the council? Or a wolf in sheep’s clothing who poses dangers for everyone?
Leaders in the environmental movement have apparently made their choice.  They seem to have nothing against Dooley, except seeing her as a loser.  Their enthusiasm about Hanson varies, but they want other progressives to coalesce around him as the only way to beat Rice.  Other good-government types tell me pretty much the same story.  And, all these folks sound nearly certain that Hanson would align with Phil Andrews, Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, and Duchy Trachtenberg, swinging the council back to the good guys.

On the other hand, some political insiders respected by county progressives describe Hanson as lacking integrity, combative, and unable to work with others.  Furthermore, they believe that his commitment to the Agricultural Reserve comes at the expense of responsible development policies down-county.  (Hanson was the visionary behind the creation of the Ag Reserve in the early 80s.)

There is no question that Hanson’s relationship with the council during the past couple of years has been stormy.  There is a question, though, about whether this means he would be unable to work with council colleagues now.  Some suggest that a different role – where Hanson is not obliged to defend a particular institution (the Planning Board) – will lead to different behavior.

As for Dooley, she was shaken and discouraged by Hanson’s entry into the field.  But she is determined to fight this out.  Her good heart and progressive policy positions are apparent. What I worry about is her ability to inspire or tell a forceful story about why she’s running and deserves to win.

(Full disclosure: my wife, Marty Ittner, is designing some printed materials for Dooley.  This piece does not reflect her opinion.)

I would love to endorse Dooley.  But – just as I find myself unable to support progressive 3rd-party candidates when the probable result is GOP victory – fear may well win out for me this time.  The bottom line is that Craig Rice must be stopped.  If Dooley can’t do it, then Hanson must.

I’ll make endorsements in this, and other, races around Labor Day.

©2010 Keith Berner

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