08.02.10 Riemer Battered at Election Forum
Last Thursday, Progressive Neighbors and the Silver Spring Democratic Club sponsored a forum for the Montgomery County Democratic at-large candidates. All the serious contenders took part:
- Incumbents: Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, and Duchy Trachtenberg
- Challengers: Jane de Winter, Hans Riemer, Becky Wagner
The most interesting take-away of this lively and engaging forum was the shellacking Hans Riemer took from all the others on the stage.
Early on, Riemer beamed with pride as he announced a his shiny new innovation: six-year budgeting. One after another, the incumbents pounced, pointing out that the council adopted this approach some time ago. Elrich scowled at Riemer and said, “You are not allowed to reinvent history.” Riemer’s come-back amounted to: Well no one told me you guys were already doing this, so it still counts as my idea.
On public-employee union contracts, all the candidates pretty much took the same line: I’m pro-labor, but we just don’t have the money to promise full funding. Riemer – who claims he will bring a fresh fiscal responsibility to the county and explicitly blames the incumbents for profligacy – joined this chorus. He described how intimidating it was to sit with union leaders and how he’d gathered the courage to stand up and tell them that budget reality might require contract adjustments.
Hearing that, Leventhal said: “That’s not what you wrote in your response to the AFL-CIO questionnaire.” Leventhal was right: it turns out that Riemer answered “yes” to the AFL-CIO’s question about full funding (see question 23). Riemer, back on his heels, tried to take refuge behind the AFL-CIO’s yes-no question format: “there was no room for ‘yes, buts,’” he pleaded. Elrich made clear that no one is forced by format to provide facile responses: he used another spot in the survey to communicate a commitment to honoring contracts, in principle, while stating explicitly that the money for full funding just isn’t there (see question 16). (This jibes with Elrich’s almost unique ability among county politicians to communicate nuance and avoid either-or conflicts. More on that in another post.)
Adding insult to injury, de Winter piped in: “I met with the same union leaders Hans did and didn’t find them so scary,” drawing laughs from the room. Finally, Leventhal went after Riemer’s hypocrisy in riffing on a county that is out of control and mismanaged, while making unsustainable promises to the unions. Riemer’s retort? “Well, I was endorsed by the Post, nyah, nyah, nyah!”[“nyahs” inserted by blogger to properly convey the tone]. Leventhal — whose non-endorsement is clearly smarting — blustered, “That’s a right-wing, anti-union rag!”
What good theatre!
Every candidate on stage, incumbent and challenger alike, treated Riemer with open derision. Afterwards, one of them joked with me about Riemer’s claims to have “organized the opposition” to W’s social security privatization scheme, as if it were his finger in the dike that saved us. It all makes me wonder about another of Riemer’s constant themes: that he has the power to “change the chemistry” on the council. For some reason, I lack confidence in that outcome.
It has to be noted that Wagner is the other hypocrite on union contracts. She, too, is running against the current council’s financial mismanagement and she, too, told the AFL-CIO she would commit to full funding. What sets her apart from Riemer is that she is sophisticated enough not to highlight her disingenuousness in a public forum. Riemer – notwithstanding his claimed deep involvement in politics – is clearly learning on the job here: he still doesn’t get that contradictory public statements not only can be compared, but inevitably will be. If you’re going to pander to every audience, you have to know who’s watching. Very amusing.
Here are a couple of other highlights of the forum. . .
Elrich has become is everyone’s best friend. Both of his erstwhile enemies, Leventhal and Floreen cited him in their opening statements. And, when the topic turned to transportation, there was pushing and shoving to be first aboard Elrich’s acclaimed bus rapid transit plan for the county.
On whether they have established limits on contributions on corporate and developer funding:
- 0% limit: Elrich, Trachtenberg
- 30% limit: Riemer
- No limit: de Winter, Floreen, Leventhal, Wagner
On what they think of Doug Duncan’s legacy:
- Not a Fan: de Winter, Elrich, Riemer, Trachtenberg
- Big Duncan Fan: Floreen, Leventhal, Wagner
In answering this question, Riemer said that “anyone could see” that Duncan had put us on an unsustainable spending path. Leventhal retorted that Riemer only lived a year on MoCo under Duncan and doesn’t know a thing about him. For my part, I first met Riemer in late 2005 at a meet-n-greet for then-gubernatorial candidate Duncan and Riemer was so publicly and ostentatiously obsequious to Duncan that several of us present remarked on it.
A final note on the substance of the evening. Though I have been a consistent critic of Leventhal’s actions on the council, his forthrightness impressed me at this forum. His willingness to takes stands (like support for Duncan) in front of an audience he knew would disagree was impressive and refreshing, especially with Riemer as the contrary example. I wanted to be able to support Hans Riemer this year, but his performance has gone from disappointing to nauseating and there is not a chance he’ll get my vote. Leventhal rose in my esteem on Thursday. As a Progressive Neighbors member put it to me after the forum, many of Leventhal’s positions — especially on policy toward the have-nots — are attractive. If only he weren’t so angry, divisive, and scheming on the council — if only he weren’t so tied to the developer community — it would be so possible to support him. I really wish I could.
* * *
I have attended one previous at-large candidates forum this year, sponsored by the Kensington Democratic Club in May. Maryland Democratic Party Chair Susan Turnbull gave a truly embarrassing performance in moderating the event. She attempted to combine, on the fly, multiple questions submitted on cards by audience members, resulting in nearly incomprehensible queries. She then asked the questions to random selections of candidates, meaning some folks hardly ever got called on and some got passes on the most important issues. This reminded me of another Party-sponsored forum four years earlier where the “moderator” was Windbag-of-the-Night and his sidekick tried to time 45-second answer periods using a wind-up kitchen timer!
It is always wondrous to behold the utter incompetence of the Maryland Democratic Party!
Progressive Neighbors tried to make Q&A fairer by choosing audience questions at random and posing each question to every candidate. The problem was that about half of the questions were on topics that aren’t under the council’s purview, things like Metro safety, Pepco responsiveness, and alcohol taxes. This meant that more worthy topics, like growth and environment, factionalism on the council, etc. never got addressed.
I think that sponsors and moderators need to take responsibility for stage managing the questions at these events, rather than choosing completely at random. But such management has to avoid bias and include coherence. Sadly, I doubt the Party has the fundamental capacity to be organized and fair – I would never trust their hacks – er, officials – to select questions. Ideally, third parties (League of Women Voters?) ought to run these things.
* * *
Here is how all Democratic County Council candidates (not just at-large) who completed the AFL-CIO’s survey responded on whether they would commit to full funding (question 23):
- Roger Berliner* (District 1) – no
- Ilaya Hopkins (District 1) – yes
- Sharon Dooley (District 2) – yes
- Craig Rice (District 2) – yes
- Nancy Navarro* (District 4) – no
- Valerie Ervin* (District 5) – no
- Jane de Winter (At-Large) – no
- Marc Elrich* (At-Large) – yes
Elrich additional explanation under question 16: “I want to comment on the question regarding funding contracts. I believe that if I enter into a contract I have a responsibility to fund it. That said, this recession/depression has left us unable to honor our contracts. We simply do not have the resources for the negotiated agreements. If I answer yes, it’s in contradiction what I, and all my colleagues, did last year will have to do this year. If I answer “no”, then it could be construed that I consider the agreements meaningless and without any weight. I find these budgets and choices very painful. I’m not voting to alter the contracts lightly. I regret that we have been forced to do this.”
- Nancy Floreen* (At-Large) – no
- George Leventhal* (At-Large) – no
- Hans Riemer (At-Large) – yes
- Becky Wagner (At-Large) – yes
*Asterisks indicate incumbency
If you count Elrich’s reply as “no” (which is the import of his explanation), it is striking that every incumbent refuses to commit to full funding of union contracts. Every challenger except de Winter says “yes.” Guess who are the ones who have had to make the actual, excruciating budget decisions this past year?
©2010 Keith Berner
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