09.07.10 George Leventhal: My Respect, but Not My Vote

Cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

George Leventhal and I had one of our periodic long telephone conversations recently. It’s one of the things I respect about the two-term, at-large council member: He’s willing to engage in civil, constructive conversation with a non-supporter. A major reason for Leventhal’s outreach this time was to set the record straight about some things I’ve written about him.

For one thing, Leventhal rejects out of hand an accusation I made that he had been actively trying to knock off Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg, two of his competitors in this year’s at-large field (full disclosure: I worked for Trachtenberg during the 2006 campaign, when I was serving briefly as a political consultant in the county, and I hosted a fund-raiser for Elrich earlier this year, so it should be clear why I was so concerned about this point). He says that the excruciating work on this year’s budget led him to conclude that it’s better to “work with rather than against my colleagues.” He denies that the present comity among the incumbents is tactical and temporary. On the contrary, he describes an atmosphere of increasing respect and cooperation that he would very much like to see continue.

Leventhal also objects to my having characterized him as “angry” and a “schemer.” He doesn’t deny his share of responsibility for the antics on the council this term but says he is working to improve his behavior. He cites the Hillmead controversy as something he would handle differently next time.

There’s a county park in Hillmead, where there was a large abandoned house. In 2008, the councilman championed the cause of turning that house into an abode for a homeless family, and this incident embodies my ambiguous feelings about him. On the one hand, his deep-seated commitment to doing something about homelessness — and his outrage at bigotry in the surrounding community — led him to stand up for a noble idea. On the other, the situation was much more complex than he made it seem, and he turned it into a public morality test that created enormous ill will on the council (in other words, he demagogued it). It’s nice to hear Leventhal express regret about this now – it demonstrates learning, a good thing, indeed.

His other defense of his behavior is the classic: “I wasn’t the only one!” Of course, he’s right. I have no doubt that council members like Nancy Floreen, Valerie Ervin and even Trachtenberg can give Leventhal a run for the money when it comes to unpleasantness. But my conversations with several council insiders reinforce the view that he has been first among equals in this regard. These same people, though, report that Leventhal has gotten easier to work with this year, which jibes with his own report of lessons learned and leaves turned.

I remain torn about George Leventhal. Regarding his commitment to make a difference for Montgomery County’s poor, I’m sold. I think he cares about the disadvantaged about as much as anyone on the council. Regarding his work to improve his communication style, it sounds genuine. But only time will tell if we’re witnessing an election-year remission or lasting cure. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt about it, for now.

Where I remain opposed to Leventhal, and why I will not endorse him this year, is because we disagree on important stuff, such as:

  • His unwavering support for the ICC.
  • His support for the “coup” last December that broke long tradition and put Floreen in charge of the council.
  • His support for Craig Rice, the least progressive candidate for the open District 2 seat.
  • His continued allegiance to former county executive Doug Duncan and former council member Steve Silverman, whose fiscal irresponsibility and shilling for the development industry got us into our current mess.
  • His accepting unlimited (within the law) contributions from the development industry and other corporate interests.

Given how recent the coup and the Rice endorsement are, I simply don’t see any signs of “reform” in the aspects of George Leventhal I like the least. Until or unless I do, the councilman from Takoma Park may get my respect, but he won’t get my vote.

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