Josh Kurtz: A Change Is Gonna Come (And The Audacity of Nope)

Hey Montgomery County leaders and voters: Tired of being the ATM for the rest of the state? Then it’s time to start electing a delegation to Annapolis that actually looks like the county.

Montgomery County has gone through profound demographic changes over the last several years, and continues to do so. But you’d never know it beyond the county’s borders.

Yes, Montgomery County, on the whole, is wealthier than much of the rest of the state. The median income in Montgomery County, according to the 2010 Census, was $93,000, compared to $71,000 for all of Maryland. Only 6 percent of households are living below the national poverty level, compared to 8.6 percent in the entire state.

But drill just a little bit deeper and you get a dramatically different picture.

The population, in the county, according to the 2010 Census count, is now majority-minority: 49 percent white, 17 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian, and 4 percent who reported they were two or more races. Maryland, by contrast, was 55 percent white in 2010, 29 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, and 3 percent two or more races.

Then take a look at the Montgomery County Public Schools student population for 2010: 37 percent white, 23 percent African-American, 23 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian. Almost one-third of all students were receiving free or reduced meals in school – and 41 percent of the student population had received free or reduced meals at some point in their academic career.

Thirteen percent of Montgomery students are enrolled in ESOL programs, meaning they primarily speak a language other than English at home. Montgomery students come from 164 different countries and speak 184 languages.

Go to certain schools and neighborhoods in Montgomery County, and you could be anywhere in Inner City U.S.A. – or in San Salvador or Ho Chi Minh City. Sure, Montgomery County still has Potomac and Chevy Chase and Bethesda, but it also has pockets of abject poverty – and also great diversity.

Even those income and poverty level statistics are skewed by Montgomery’s high cost of living relative to the rest of the state.

Yet the misconception persists around Maryland that Montgomery County’s streets are paved with gold – which can be mined at will by the legislature whenever the state is in a fiscal jam. That seemed like a fresh slap in the face to certain Montgomery legislators during last week’s special session – especially those who didn’t live through the tax-raising extravaganza of the 2007 special session.

Montgomery voters, like the politicians they elect, are generally liberal, and don’t mind paying more if certain services are going to be maintained. They also recognize that state policymakers are regularly going to ask more of wealthier Marylanders.

But perception is reality in politics, and something needs to be done to erase the perception that everyone in Montgomery County is being ferried around in a limousine, enjoying their Grey Poupon and Veuve Clicquot.

Because Montgomery County’s 32 state lawmakers can’t bring all 156 of their colleagues on regular tours of Wheaton and Gaithersburg and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads, Montgomery leaders and voters need to do something to change the face of the county that their colleagues see in Annapolis.

Plain and simple, it’s hard to make the case to the rest of Maryland that Montgomery County is a place with huge swaths of poverty and innumerable needs when so many members of the delegation the county sends to the State House look like they’re fresh out of an Ivy League fraternity – and counting the days till they can run for Congress.

In the past two elections, Montgomery voters have done a decent job of clearing out some of the legislative deadwood. But they haven’t done much to speed up the dismally slow process of diversifying the county delegation.

This majority-minority district currently sends just one African-American lawmaker to Annapolis among its delegation of 32, plus one Hispanic, one Chinese-American and, in an anomaly, three Indian-Americans. But you can’t say there’s a growth trend there when the lone Hispanic legislator, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, who is 70, could wind up retiring in 2014, and one of the Indian-Americans, Del. Sam Arora, is already being targeted for defeat for his vote against same-sex marriage.

The county’s eight-member Senate delegation is, and always has been, 100 percent white. The two legislative districts in Montgomery County with less than 50 percent white population, according to state figures – District 20, in inner Beltway Silver Spring and Takoma Park, with 57 percent minority population, and District 39, which covers Montgomery Village and much of Germantown, with 53 percent minority population – have all-white representation.

Something needs to change – if this wasn’t liberal Montgomery County we were talking about, the feds surely would be swooping in, filing lawsuits and trying to force Orval Faubus out of the schoolhouse door.

At the county government level, Montgomery County is doing slightly better. Three of the nine County Council members are minorities, and of course, County Executive Ike Leggett has been a trailblazer for his entire political career.

Yet until early 2002, when Susan Lee was appointed to the House of Delegates, the only minority member of the county’s House delegation was Kumar Barve.

But does the onus lie just with the voters? Organizations that recruit and endorse candidates need to do more to promote and nurture minority candidates. Community groups need to encourage their own leaders to run for office. And minority candidates themselves need to step up, in every sense of the phrase.

Montgomery County, at home and in Annapolis, deserves no less.

The Audacity of Nope

Say this for Comptroller Peter Franchot: He’s not afraid to express his views. And the state tax collector continues to score political points as the anti-taxman.

Franchot’s latest anti-tax screed, though hardly a surprise, was delivered with exquisite timing, just as legislators were returning to Annapolis last week to raise taxes. Though he had no say in the matter, Franchot’s statement drew far more attention than any Republican pronouncement on the budget and taxes.

But is there a danger in what Franchot, who surely is now in version 4.0 of his reinvention, is up to?

It’s one thing for Republicans to be for tax cuts and against higher taxes. Their governing philosophy, to quote one of the most influential non-officeholders in the GOP galaxy, Grover Norquist, is to drown government in a bathtub.

But Franchot’s a Democrat – albeit not the same Democrat he was when he was whipping up hysteria against Bob Ehrlich and organizing progressive summits – and he’s preparing to compete in a Democratic primary for governor in 2014. At some point, he’s going to have to articulate a vision for paying for the programs that so many Marylanders continue to hold dear.

To be fair, none of Franchot’s putative opponents for the Democratic nomination have weighed in much on this subject, either. But by putting himself out there, Franchot is doing nothing if not inviting the question. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if he augmented the easy to dish out rhetoric with some hard substance as well?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Say Cheese

Taxman

Generally Speaking (Part 2)

Generally Speaking (Part 1)

Charm Offensive

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act