Archive for October 2010
In every election, candidates are bombarded with endorsement questionnaires from a variety of special interest groups and the media. In turn, candidates who receive endorsements use them to tout their legitimacy to voters, often with advertising, robocalls, and mailings paid for by the special interest groups that endorsed them. Prior to wading into the political arena in 2010, I actually found it helpful to receive the “apple” ballot that indicated who teachers supported, the robocall letting me know who my local police officers endorsed, or the opinion of the Washington Post.
What I have learned, however, is that endorsements are usually not made based on a thorough review of a candidate’s platform or their record of results. Special interest groups make endorsements based on what they believe the candidate will deliver to their members. The Washington Post made recommendations based upon short telephone interviews in which the candidate who delivered the best “talking” points won.
Let’s take the case of the local race in District 9, and let’s look at the long list of endorsements that Mr. Franklin received. The Professional Firefighters endorsed him in June, and he touted this endorsement through robocalls, a mailing, and any public forum where he could claim it. It’s ironic that the professional firefighters chose to make an endorsement in the race, considering all fire stations in District 9 are primarily staffed by volunteers, not professionals. Additionally, voters may not know that while the Professional Firefighters sent out a questionnaire and interviewed all the candidates in the spring of 2010, they had already contributed $500 to Franklin’s campaign in January 2010. No other candidates in the race had received campaign contributions prior to the endorsement process. It appears that Franklin had an inside track for receiving the endorsement before any other candidates were even considered.
There’s even more proof that my assertion is correct if you follow the money trail a bit further. After the firefighter’s public endorsement of Franklin, they gave him an additional $5,500 in late June. Two other Council candidates received $6,000 from the Professional Firefighters in other districts at the same time, but each received all of their $6,000 after the endorsements were publicly announced. I can only conclude that Franklin had lined up his endorsement from the Professional Firefighters Association long before the group made an “appearance” of thoroughly reviewing each candidate’s platform a few months later.
If you review the campaign finance database thoroughly, it is also evident that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) had made up their minds about endorsing Franklin well ahead of their public endorsement process. Vince Canales, the head of the FOP, contributed $125 to Franklin’s campaign in December 2009, but made contributions to no other candidate in the race. I’m quite confident he had a major role in deciding who the FOP would endorse before they interviewed any other candidates, so it’s no surprise that Franklin is who they chose later on.
The Washington Post also endorsed Mr. Franklin. They based this endorsement upon a very brief, 10-minute telephone interview about his platform. I would hope that informed voters took more time than that to review and vote for the most qualified candidate. Unfortunately for the Washington Post, while Franklin won, no other Council candidates that they endorsed in contested primaries won their elections. So I’m not sure their endorsement really “turned the dial” for voters.
While endorsements may have little to do with the final outcome of the local races, it gives candidates some of the momentum they need to win. Special interest groups can rally their members to vote for a particular slate, work the polls, and fill candidate’s campaign accounts with the money they need to win. Since voters do not take the time to become informed about the machinery that puts preferred candidates in front of them, they may make their choice without really understanding that the candidate they voted for is not for them, but for the groups that got them elected. I think we all understand that, but we need to be more outraged about how the endorsement process really works.
On October 19, the Prince George’s County Council voted 4-3 to increase their salaries in December 2011. Each member currently makes $96,417, and they are the highest paid council members in Maryland. Their salaries exceed that of neighboring Montgomery County, and far surpasses all others throughout the state (the next highest paid members in Baltimore City make $58,000).
This begs the question: what is a County Council member’s work worth? In the Gazette, Councilman Dernoga rightly points out that the work can be demanding, with 70 to 80 hour work weeks (depending on the amount of effort put into it). However, we all know that each Council member’s work is not equal, and I don’t really believe that my representative in District 9, Councilwoman Bland, is giving us our money’s worth or dedicating 80 hours a week to the business of District 9. I’m not convinced that the majority of our Council is doing that either. The Washington Post reported that Councilwoman Harrison and Councilwoman Turner did not even show up for the Council meeting to vote on the matter. If they cannot prioritize attendance at the regular Council meeting to vote on their own salary, I am hard-pressed to believe that they are busy with other Council business for 80 hours each week.
However, even if they were busy doing their job as public servants for 80 hours a week, do they deserve the highest salaries among all elected officials in the state of Maryland? Their salaries aren’t just a bit higher, but far exceed those of other elected officials. If we were to adopt the popular “pay for performance” policy that has been instituted in many local governments, the performance of our elected officials compared with our neighbors would definitely not merit a pay raise, and instead would probably be worthy of a significant pay cut. Representing a county with the worst schools and the highest crime rate in the state of Maryland does not merit the compensation they currently receive.
The excessive salary that is paid to our Council members encourages the aristocratic mentality of those in elected office. Because of their flexible Council schedule, many also “pad” their Council income with other part-time work as attorneys, consultants, and business owners. They can afford to live in gated communities and send their children to private schools. If they earn so much more than their constituents, then they have less of a reason to empathize with the struggles of most residents, such as crime-ridden neighborhoods, persistent unemployment, and underperforming schools. They can’t possibly be interested in changing their regular Council meetings from the day to the evening, when most of their constituents could actually attend and participate in the legislative process. That would be outside of their “work” hours.
While that assessment may seem a bit harsh, I harshly criticize because I know that the county has an image problem that is exacerbated by embarrassing decisions such as the one our County leaders recently made. I am also keenly aware that a different type of leadership would emerge in our County if the position weren’t partially motivated by pay. For many years, I have worked in another local jurisdiction in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where our Council members make one-quarter of the salary that our leaders make in Prince George’s County. They all hold regular jobs during the day, and most make a tremendous sacrifice to serve in elected office. They must attend Council meetings that are held in the evenings and public hearings on weekends, when the public can actually attend and provide input on important matters. They are out nearly every night of the week at civic group meetings, work sessions, and community events. They all serve the entire community and they view their Council work as public service, rather than a job deserving of compensation. Many contribute their salary back to various local charities. Imagine the type of county we could become if our own elected leaders viewed their positions as public service rather than a job. I challenge the incoming Council members and County Executive to consider these issues after they take office, and not just rescind the pay raise, but take a major pay cut and make their compensation match the median pay of elected leaders around the state.
I’m on vacation now, so it has been a little difficult to motivate myself to blog. I consider this time an escape from the campaigning I did for the past few months, so I don’t want to spend time reflecting on the discouraging thoughts that have floated through my mind since September 14. However, I want to make sure I capture some important lessons that I learned before they fade from memory too!
Campaign signage along our roads is the first clue that an election is coming. The first signs popped up in early May: Michael Jackson, Charles Lollar, Rushern Baker, Melvin High, Rafael Hylton, and Mel Franklin all made sure to place their signs in prominent locations near my neighborhood.
In the past, I had never thought much about campaign signage, other than the fact it was annoying that so many signs littered our roadways for so long. I did not realize that there were actually laws that govern when campaign signage can be placed, how it should be placed, and when it should be picked up. I’m sure that most voters are equally unaware of the rules, but our candidates certainly are not.
People for Change posted an excellent video on YouTube during this election season, which pointed out candidates’ blatant disregard for the rules about campaign signage, but I doubt the vast majority of voters were exposed to it. The law states that signs cannot be placed in the public right-of-way more than 45 days in advance of election day. That means signs should not be placed along roadways and intersections before that time. Do some quick math, and posting signs in early May breaks that law by nearly 90 days.
So why do candidates persist in breaking this law? The answer is easy: there is no fine attached to it, and unless a resident lodges a complaint, state and local governments do not enforce the law. It costs money and staff time, which is scarce these days, to remove the signs from the roads. Most signs would be quickly replaced anyhow.
I attended a forum in June in Fort Washington, and another in Baden in late June, where candidate and future District 9 Councilman Mel Franklin was asked by voters about his blatant disregard for the law. He skirted the issue by claiming that his sign in front of B&J Carryout was placed on private property and another on 210 and Farmington Road was not in the public right-of-way. He conveniently avoided mention of his signs on Woodyard Road, Route 5, and Route 301. He was also wrong about the one on 210, as it was definitely placed in the public right-of-way and eventually removed.
Franklin, along with Ron Fisher, Juanita Miller, and Sydney Harrison, were all informed of the law at the Baden forum by an attendee who read the rules to them, but clearly decided they did not have to obey it. It may seem like a small thing to ask candidates to abide by a law that is not actively enforced and for which no penalty exists, but I believe it demonstrates whether or not they have the integrity to follow the law after they are elected.
In these tough economic times, what is even more infuriating to voters is that the candidates also ignore the law following the election. Candidates are required to pick up their signs within 15 days after election day. Did you see signs still littering our roadways, posted to fences, placed on the lawns of foreclosed properties, and posted in vacant lots? Well, guess who picked them up? If you guessed that it was your tax dollars paying for government employees to do that, you are probably right. Most of the signs began to disappear at the end of September, and that was not because the candidates all decided to go pick them up at the same time. It was because the state and local government had to send employees to collect and dispose of them.
The bottom line here is that we need more accountability from candidates and our elected leaders. We need to push state lawmakers to impose a fine (which they are unlikely to do because they would be punishing themselves) or spread the word to voters about their egregious behavior, and let the public outcry fix the problem.