Category Archives: 2018 Elections

The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

According to The Washington Post’s editorial board, “balance…has eluded” Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland whose campaign I managed during the primary. This allegation is based largely on Elrich’s written commitment, if elected, to “invite the [president of the county’s major labor union] to the interview and selection processes for all of [the county’s] department heads,” which the Post calls “an extraordinary promise, even for a pro-labor politician — and one without precedent in any area jurisdiction, as far as we can ascertain.”

It is true that local officials do not typically give labor a voice in government decision-making. But it is strange to say the promise to do so is less “balanced” than the more common practice of giving employees no input whatsoever on the managers who will be overseeing their work. In fact, giving workers substantially more control over private companies’ operations by allowing them to elect a portion of a company’s board of directors may be “among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics” right now. That practice, called co-determination, is already widespread in Germany and Western Europe. Elrich’s proposal, like co-determination, would help ensure that employees are assigned productive work that advances the mission that both managers and workers share.

Perhaps the Post’s confusion about the meaning of the word “balance” stems from the complete absence of it in their coverage of the Montgomery County executive race. “Marc Elrich’s lurch toward labor” was not the first, not the second, not the third, but the fourth explicitly anti-Elrich piece the editorial board published. They even wrote a fifth piece about ranked-choice voting (a policy that Elrich strongly supports) that subtly attempted to delegitimize Elrich’s primary victory before the votes were officially counted. While the Post’s editorial board is of course welcome to support or oppose whomever they please, the sheer volume of negative copy they’ve devoted to Elrich appears to be without precedent in their commentary on previous Montgomery County executive candidates (not to mention executive candidates in other area jurisdictions) – at least, as far as I can ascertain. The editorial board also violated some basic journalistic principles in their anti-Elrich advocacy.

Even more concerning, the Post’s anti-Elrich bias and journalistic malpractice weren’t confined to the editorial pages. The paper’s news coverage also suffered from a serious slant, casting a misleading narrative pushed by a few powerful developers and their allies as objective reporting.

Between when I started as Elrich’s campaign manager in October of 2017 and early February of 2018, the Post reported on pretty much every major event in the executive race and did so more or less neutrally. They covered county executive forums in October, November, and December, the decisions of former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair to enter the field, the first major campaign finance filing in January, and the organizational endorsements of CASA in Action (Elrich), SEIU Local 32BJ (Elrich), the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO (Elrich), the Montgomery County Sierra Club (Roger Berliner), and Progressive Maryland (Elrich). In stories about important county issues like the government’s budget shortfall, the minimum wage bill Elrich co-sponsored, and the departure of one of the county’s major businesses, the Post also quoted Elrich and the other sitting members of the county council who were running for county executive while mentioning their candidacies.

In February, a new reporter took over the Post’s Montgomery County beat. And as major endorsements for Elrich continued to roll in, the Post stopped covering them. They did report on a racial justice forum on February 25, their piece on the crowded field in the county council race a few days later mentioned the county executive candidates in passing, and their article about whether to prioritize funding for the school system’s proposed capital budget or for road projects noted the candidacies of Elrich and Berliner, who were on opposite sides of that debate. But the Post mostly went silent on the executive race for a while, not carrying another news story about it until April 19.

That story, entitled “In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, contest for county executive seen as anybody’s race,” quoted two “experts,” both of whom – Keith Haller and Steve Silverman – sat on the four-person candidate interview committee for a group called Empower Montgomery. Purporting to “effectively represent all Montgomery County residents – and avoid having political decisions influenced by narrow special interests,” Empower Montgomery actually represents the county’s most powerful special interest group: wealthy developers. Blair has been listed among the organization’s co-founders (Silverman has, too, though neither man currently appears on the Empower Montgomery website) and Elrich was the only county executive candidate who refused to take developers’ campaign contributions, insisting he would hold them accountable for paying for the school construction and transportation infrastructure necessary to support new development. So it wasn’t too surprising when Empower Montgomery launched a series of attack mailers against Elrich right before the election.

While calling Haller and Silverman election experts, the Post’s April 19 article did not mention either of their affiliations with Empower Montgomery or the county’s developers. The article did, however, give Silverman space to downplay the significance of Elrich’s endorsements and characterize his candidacy as occupying “the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane.”

Then, on April 27, for the first time in two months, the Post finally covered another candidate forum. This forum – the last the paper would cover before the primary election on June 26 – was co-hosted by none other than Empower Montgomery. Referencing the report Empower Montgomery commissioned to be unveiled and discussed at the forum, the Post’s title warned that the “Montgomery Co. economy is stagnant, and leaders are ignoring job creation.” Among the solutions Empower Montgomery recommended to this ostensibly dire situation? As the Post summarized: attracting Amazon’s second headquarters (that “would help to solve pretty much every many [sic] of the economic problems the county faces,” the Post gushed); “reduce energy taxes and impact fees on new development; and increase economic development resources” (emphasis mine). The article referred to Empower Montgomery as a “nonprofit advocacy formed by business leaders,” making no mention of Blair being listed as a co-founder or the very narrow business interests – developers – that the organization actually represents.

When the Post’s editorial board endorsed Blair on May 12, they linked to this April 27 news article as justification, calling the Empower Montgomery-commissioned report “the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary…The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” In addition to endorsing Blair, the editorial board made sure to note that four of the other candidates would be acceptable. The only exception was Elrich, “whose popularity owes much to his reflexive opposition to innumerable local projects — including the Fillmore, a beloved live music venue in Silver Spring. Mr. Elrich would be the wrong person to broaden the county’s tax base and revive its prospects.”

This editorial prompted a flurry of angry letters to the editor from Montgomery County residents, one of whom reminded the editorial board of something they should have already known: “Mr. Elrich was not opposed to the ‘beloved’ Fillmore music venue but to the $11 million in public funds given to Ticketmaster.”

In an apparent attempt to justify their pro-Blair, anti-Elrich position, the Post’s editorial board doubled down with a follow-up piece on June 5. This second editorial inaccurately accused Elrich of “declar[ing] he’d rather divert jobs to neighboring Frederick County than attract them to Montgomery,” relying on a dishonest claim from a developer-funded blog that proudly asserts: “[d]evelopers are part of the solution and we welcome their support.” Elrich wrote a letter to the editor to correct the record, and the Post published it on June 10. But less than a week later, the Post highlighted the allegation again in a feature on Elrich that they published as part of a series on all six of the Democratic candidates. The feature linked the inaccurate blog post and – until I emailed the author and the piece was edited post-publication – failed to include a link to Elrich’s response.

Unlike the features on the other candidates, which focused on why those candidates were running and what they wanted to accomplish, the Elrich feature centered around criticisms and Elrich’s responses to those criticisms. “Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist,” it began, following up with “rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall” and claiming that “business leaders” felt “unease” at the prospect of an Elrich-led county government. Whereas other candidates’ endorsements were all described positively, Elrich’s much more extensive and diverse endorsements list was mentioned briefly and then qualified with a less overt version of the critique in the Post’s most recent anti-Elrich editorial (see below). Prior to my email to the author, the feature didn’t even mention that Elrich would appear on the teachers union’s “apple ballot,” which is quite possibly the county’s most coveted endorsement prize.

Endorsement Paragraphs - Post Features

Though it’s hard to fully appreciate how much of an outlier the Elrich feature was without reading them all (those interested can do so here), the graph below provides a quick illustration. Each bar represents the percentage of paragraphs in the feature that paint the candidate in a positive light minus the percentage of paragraphs that portray the candidate negatively. As the image shows, Elrich is the only candidate who received a net negative portrayal. (The categorization scheme is somewhat subjective, of course, but I tried to categorize conservatively; anybody interested can download and play with the categorizations here).

Positivity - Post Features

To be fair to the Post, they did cover the teachers union’s endorsement on June 6. They also covered candidates’ and progressive groups’ attacks on Blair for trying “to buy the election” in two separate pieces. Yet even there, the paper was less credulous about attacks on Blair than it was when evaluating attacks on Elrich. For example, the paper asserted that the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC “does not offer any proof that its accusations [about Blair’s business record] are true.” Not once did a Post news article put a similar note after “business leaders’” unfounded critiques of Elrich.

The combination of the bias in the Post’s main feature, their elevation of developers’ narrative without proper citation, and the editorial board’s blatant mischaracterization of Elrich’s positions surely influenced the primary vote. While Elrich won anyway and we’ll never be able to quantify the impact the Post’s misinformation had, it’s hard to imagine Elrich wouldn’t have won by a larger margin if residents had received more accurate information.

Moving forward, Montgomery County residents can feel confident that they’ll continue to get balance from Elrich. It would be nice if they could also expect balance from the paper of record.

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Media

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System