Josh Kurtz: Union Powerbroker Taking New Role

By Josh Kurtz

A major power in Montgomery County politics is stepping aside this campaign season.

Jon Gerson, the longtime – and controversial – political director of the county teachers’ union is no longer serving in that capacity. While he remains employed by the union, serving on its School Assistance Team, focusing on new teachers, he will no longer be part of the political operation.

In an email Thursday to Center Maryland, Tom Israel, the executive director of the 12,000-member Montgomery County Education Association, said Gerson’s reassignment is part of a broad staff reorganization, prompted in part by the departure of two veteran staff members.

“I know there are folks out there in the MoCo political class who are asserting that Jon was ‘forced out’ of the position by politicians who complained to MCEA about him,” Israel said. “That is simply not true.”

In an interview Thursday, Gerson – who, like most of his colleagues at the union, wears many hats – said he sought the change because he had grown tired of the “transactional relationships” in politics and was deriving more satisfaction from working with teachers.

“I love the authentic interaction with those who work in our classrooms,” he said.

But for longtime Montgomery County politicians and political observers, it is hard to imagine an election cycle without Gerson playing a critical role. He’s been on the scene for more than 30 years, the past dozen as the union’s political director. He was the political gatekeeper for union officials, crafting their endorsement strategy and campaign tactics and helping chart their political and legislative course in Rockville and Annapolis.

The county’s public employee unions are very much in the spotlight this week, as they organize a politically explosive picket of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee’s annual spring ball on Saturday night.

A shrewd political operator, Gerson, 55, knows where all the political bodies are buried in Montgomery County and how to work the levers of power. He was a top aide to the late Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter (D), and was also associated with other county political reformers like Norman Christeller, Don Robertson and Lucy Mauer. Gerson has served as executive director of the Gaithersburg-Upper Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and as public affairs director for Washington Gas as well.

But Gerson became an increasingly divisive figure during his time at the union, with an enemies list topped by, but not limited to, the editorial writers at The Washington Post, which has a long history of hostility to organized labor – and to public employee unions especially.

Despite MCEA’s occasional hardball tactics, a recommendation on the union’s “Apple Ballot,” which Gerson trademarked, remains highly coveted in Montgomery County races – rivaled only by the Post’s endorsement – and the union’s preferred candidates always prevail at an admirable rate (44 of 47 endorsed candidates won their primaries in 2010).

Israel said any enmity toward Gerson was institutional, not personal.

“When certain elected officials pledge their support for teachers when they want our votes, but then act against the interests of public education after the election – it is our job to hold them accountable,” Israel wrote in his email to Center Maryland. “Clearly some folks are unhappy about that – and they were unhappy with Jon because he often was the messenger.”

Israel said that as MCEA leaders work to fill the union’s staff vacancies they will also devise a plan for retooling the political operation in Gerson’s absence.

Gerson said he’s confident he’s helped build a well-oiled political operation that will thrive no matter who is in charge.

“It’s somebody else’s turn,” he said.

But Gerson won’t be getting out of politics completely. He remains, as he has been for 30 years, a Democratic precinct chairman in his hometown of Kensington.

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:

Why the Rush (Hour)?

House Cleaning

Reality Check (in Four Parts)

Winners and Losers

Filing Deadline Quietly Changed to Early January

Stations of the Cross and the Station That’s Become a Cross to Bear