An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Friday, October 28, 2005


People who put themselves forward are an odd breed. Some are really selfless advocates for what they think are policies that will help the public, improve society, or just satisfy a particular problem. Others have clearly always wanted to get into politics and see their big chance. Some crave the approval of the public or want attention. Over the last few months candidates have been coming out of the woodwork for local and state positions. I’m not talking about those marquee names you here bandied about for Senate or Governor. What kind of characters put themselves forward for the Maryland legislature, or for local office like county council? Let’s see. This is not a voter guide and I don’t work for the League of Women Voters, so it’s just impressions and no, I’m not putting names with profiles.

Now this next comment is not about one candidate. It’s not about a first term county councilman looking to move up, former candidates for state legislature, a long-time congressman in a secure district dreaming of another open senate seat, or a former city councilwoman hoping for a seat in the state house of delegates. In case this point has not been clear, the first thing you’ve got to do to move up is to secure your base. This isn’t the same thing as winning election, it takes more work! You have to stay in touch with people after the election, keep working to be sure your grassroots believes you have served them well, and never take anything for granted. So just because your district is secure doesn’t mean you have enough support there to take it for granted.

One local professional who has been active on federal policies has recently started putting himself forward as a potential successor for the anticipated opening a county council district. The candidate is certainly well versed in federal policy, has a good head on his shoulders, and is probably politically fairly in sync with the rather liberal district, but was surprisingly unable to put forward a rationale for his candidacy or for why people should vote for him. Ooooooooooooooh! That can’t be good. Montgomery County is surely one of the most politically savvy places in the nation, so if you think you can garner support from people without having a decent pitch, maybe this isn’t the ball game for you.

The recently completed 18th legislative district replacement process (for retired Del. John Hurson) that featured nine declared candidates produced a new delegate, but may well have encouraged a number of competitors to get into the race next year for a full four year term. Of the several young candidates who were never seriously in competition for the seat at least a couple can be assumed to have been planning for the future, and one expects to see them gearing up for 2006 any day. They join a bumper crop of young democrats running for the legislature in Maryland. The older candidates who didn’t win the replacement process are also reasonably likely to take another shot, maybe their last shots.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Memo

Wal-Mart has been on the run recently, coming out for a raise in the minimum wage, sponsoring ads in the big newspapers about its environmental initiatives, and agreeing to marginally better health care programs for its workers. In most cases the steps are hollow attempts at getting PR that will stem the tide of criticism it has faced. Despite Wal-Mart's efforts to portray itself as a big family that treats its employees well, a recent memo shows how the company is willing to push its staff to the wall to maintain profits...

Sunday, October 23, 2005

What's Happening???

Recent articles have mentioned where dollars come from for local races. There's a great chart that shows developer money flowing to the Montgomery County Council (hat tip to quidmoco).

Everyone is focused on the biggest races, so word that Kweisi Mfume is stepping up his fundraising by hiring a big gun consultant to help him get some traction in the Senate race should probably be the first note. No predictions or endorsement, just info that he's shifting up not down.

Second, Del. Anthony Brown (D-PG) is jumping into the AG race, hiring staff to get him in place for a race against MoCo Council Pres. Tom Perez, MoCo State's Atty Doug Gansler, and possibly a Baltimore candidate. Same goes for Del. Peter Franchot (D-MoCo) who is hiring field and finance staff for his prospective run for Comptroller against Willie Don.

Of course, with Tom Perez talking about moving on people are starting to jockey to run for his safely Democratic 5th district council seat. Names like previous candidate Donnell Peterman and TP City Councilman Marc Elrich, as well as the names of less well known folks are being bandied about. And Gansler has already drawn at least one challenger in lawyer Dan Fox.

Franchot's clear interest in statewide office, the virtual invisibility of Del. Gareth Murray in the district, and the ages and performance of Sen. Ida Ruben and Del. Sheila Hixson means that the 20th will be busy next year. Already TP City Councilwoman Joy Austin-Lane is raising money, Heather Mizeur is actively talking to people, fmr County Councilman Blair Ewing mentioned his own interest in the Post a couple of months back, and others like Progressive Maryland Executive Director Tom Hucker, lawyer and professor Jamie Raskin, Democratic activist and Silver Spring Citizens' Advisory Board leader Jose Vazquez, and others are mentioned as being interested.

Monday, October 17, 2005


One of the toughest things to teach would-be campaigners when they come out of school or other professions is how to write so that readers will be persuaded to keep reading, to believe what you want, and to help you accomplish your goals. Too many write too directly or too academically.

To that end, take a look at the web site of the conservative campaigners in Montgomery County calling themselves Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum? They’re the group that wants sex education to just be about abstinence. You know, the reactionaries. But they’ve got a very slickly put together web site (word is that national conservative groups sent money because they are so excited to be winning in a liberal stronghold) with even slicker language that makes the sex education pilot program the county was supposed to start sound radical. It twists the facts and the wording so that readers who don't know the issues might be persuaded that the school system is discriminating against so-called "ex-gays," people of faith, etc.

While this is hardly a textbook example of how to write effective copy because it is too manipulative and dodgy -- statements by the likes of the Surgeon General are taken out of context and facts are played with far too loosely -- it does give future progressive campaigners an idea of how even wacky viewpoints can be portrayed sympathetically if you think them through.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Differentiate or Die!

The under 50 crowd that grew up in the US has been saturated with marketing since we were tiny. That's why we know all about brand differentiation -- you've got to show why your cola is different from your rival, or why your laundry detergent cleans better than its competitors, or why your investment counselors are nicer and will get customers a better return on their money.

One area where the principle is often forgotten is in the nonprofit world. Why should rich people or foundations give money to your environmental, human rights, or arts organization? What are you doing better, more efficiently or creatively than everyone else? What makes you special? Too many organizations occupying the same terrain, operating in the same way, fighting the same battles means costly duplication of services, inefficiency, and foolish competition for the same scarce resources.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the environmental field. There are obviously some incredible advocates doing great work to protect human health and nature. There are also far too many national groups with similar issue portfolios, indistinct goals and identities, identical strategies, and a wasteful duplication of some efforts while others are ignored. The surprising thing is that foundations continue to fund these groups without requiring greater focus, efficiency, or strategies that might actually lead to success.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Do you ever feel like your legislator or other political leader is out of touch? Do you have any idea of how many people write to them expecting answers to their questions? Thousands. No, tens of thousands. If you include mass mail, your U.S. senators are probably getting hundreds of thousands of letters, faxes, and emails over the course of a year. They can't respond to even a fraction of these without their staffs (much smaller than you think, but that's another day's tale). They also can't do it without automating the process.

So, most of what you get from your politicians is a waste of time to be sent and to be read. But for many citizens, a letter is the only contact they may have with their lawmakers. Since the taxpayers pay for the staff to write these letters and the postage to mail them, today many members of Congress use these as another tool in their constant campaigns for reelection.

One congressional letter writer (a low level staffer not long out of college), frustrated with the meaningless criss-cross of form mail and her role in the process, sent the following, based on the usual form but telling the truth, for your enjoyment:

Mr. Joe Hick
1234 Main Street
Uretown, MU 36543

Dear Joe:

Thank you for your communication nagging me about some petty problem you have that has little to do with my work here in Washington. I would appreciate it if you would not bother me again.

I don’t really understand or care about what you wasted your time (and that of my staff) calling about. Nonetheless, I’ll babble on inanely below in a vague effort to convince you that I do, and that I am addressing your problem. Blah blah, blah blah, HR something something, referred to House Committee on the Pointless which will never be heard from again.

May I also suggest that you bother your state legislators, the Department of Inane Blather, and especially your Republican U.S. Senators (all of whom will probably make even less effort to address your concern than I do).

Rest assured, that I will try to forget your opinion as quickly as possible and will do little should an opportunity come before Congress to address this issue.

I would also like to ignore your thoughts on other issues that may be considered in Congress. Please take a moment to visit my website where you can complete a survey on-line so that I can effectively target you with mass mail to keep you voting for me. In addition, please feel free to throw away any further correspondence you might have the urge to send.


Joe Pol
Your Representative
Washington, DC (from which I will never return to hickville)


Excerpted from a post here from June:

More of us should share in efforts to make a difference, by donating our time and resources. Some of those who do so get little recognition despite making huge sacrifices in an effort to make the world a better place. I'm talking about the people who work at nonprofit organizations that help the poor and struggling; who fight against racism, sexism, and abuses of human rights; who protect the environment and human health; who struggle for justice and a better world. Many of those individuals (including, at times, this writer) earn far less income than their skills would fetch in the open market. They are often sacrificing half or more of what they could be earning, because they believe that things can be better and that we have a responsibility to work to make them better.

The classic hero stories are about things like a firefighter rushing into a burning building to save a child. The day to day efforts of most nonprofit professionals are not usually that exciting, but in the end they do save lives through their work, like by making sure our food and water are safe to consume. They fight for the things we all need and most of us want, but are often too busy with our daily lives to deal with. So let's recognize hardworking folks and try to help them out when we can.

Office-Seekers: A Breed Apart

Just so we're clear, the focus of this blog for a bit is going to be as stated on the previous piece -- an anonymous but honest take on the sausage factory that is the law making process, and the chaos of politics and advocacy that surrounds it.

So, let's talk about candidates for a minute, shall we? Let's talk about that tiny sliver of Americans who never outgrew the urge to run for class president, who truly believe they can make a difference, who somehow believe they can win, who put themselves forward when the rest of us focus on our jobs and our lives, who it seems will say or do whatever is necessary to win office, who are willing to brave our scorn, criticism and various barbs. Who are they?

One would-be office seeker I met not too long ago was so full of his ideas and himself that he never stopped speaking, on the phone or in person. He talked on and on, with little concern for my interest, my ideas, or even politeness. Eventually I realized he wasn't talking to me or for my benefit, he was just enjoying talking. I stopped listening. When he finally stopped talking, sometimes even before he stopped, I ended the conversation. Needless to say, he didn't get my support.

Now listening one of the most important abilities of a successful leader. Listening gets you the intel you need to understand the swing vote, potential donor, supporter, information leaker, power broker or friend. Listening also makes the person you're talking to think you really care about them, their ideas, their needs, and the group they are part of. We are told that Bill Clinton is a master of making you feel listened to, cared for, and for a few seconds the most important person in the world. Surely that is a power to be envied and emulated.

Ooh, here's another important lesson for the would-be politicos in the room. And this is one of the one's you wouldn't think you'd need, but obviously you do. Keep track of people who help you, who contact you, and who you know, and keep in contact with them. Nothing pisses off a former donor, door knocker, or supporter more than having you forget them after you get elected, get your bill passed, or finish whatever effort it was you initially asked them for. I know more than one political activist who has actually worked against their former friend just because they felt used and forgotten.

And campers, this doesn't just happen when you are the President of the United States gets 20 billion letters or the long serving legislator gets to old to play the game. No, right here in Maryland there is a young local leader who neglected people who walked for her in her rush to move up, so now her foundation is crumbling from neglect. Another Maryland officeholder still looking up the ladder for his next position seems to have left behind even members of his steering committee when they needed his help. Don't let that happen to you boys and girls; your foundation is your strength for the future if you keep it solid, but no foundation is so secure it can be forgotten.


So you probably send a few dollars a year to, or volunteer with, a consumer group, environmental lobby, labor union, the ACLU, NARAL, or some other activist group to work to protect your rights, health, living, environment, etc. You read the political news in the paper about what Congress is doing, watch the West Wing with interest, hear about local political campaigns, or at least try to be an informed voter.

But what really makes things happen? How is public policy really made and campaigns won? Are some of our political figures really as zany as they seem or as programmed by staff? Let's take an inside look into one professional's experience in election and issue campaigns, nonprofit policy advocacy, organizing and communications, and government. No promises, just insight.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Do it!

Excerpted from a March post by this writer on The American Street:

Your donations alone do not and can not change the direction of the country. It is not the average supporter of $10, $25, or even $50 that enables movements for social change, environmental justice, civil liberties and civil rights to succeed. If you really feel that we have fundamental rights that should not be infringed upon, that preserving a healthy environment for our children is the moral course, that everyone should have a chance to succeed and no one should starve in the richest country in history, that people should come before profit, or that real change is needed for our society to be just, then you have to do more. We have to join the movement for change, not just send a few dollars each year and then ignore the problems. We have to give a bit more, yes, but not just of our money.

Vital organizations and movements are built through the efforts of volunteer activists who give money, but who also organize, who learn about and vote conscientiously, who spend their money and their time responsibility, who talk to their friends, neighbors, family members, contacts, and political leaders about how best to create the society that we want to live in and want our children to live in.

Otherwise, our efforts are weak and easily coopted. More on the cooptation in the full article: http://www.reachm.com/amstreet/archives/2005/03/09/your-money-is-not-enough/.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Brown for AG?

In anticipating who will get into important races in Maryland, sometimes job ads are the best leads. After all, you've got to get staff if you want to run for something (unless you're Senate candidate Alan Lichtman...). According to an online ad for a fundraiser for a PG County-based African American considering a run for statewide office, we may have more fun in store. While Al Wynn is listed on the consultant’s web site, that doesn’t seem likely. He and Wayne Currie have pretty much indicated that they’ll pass for now. Could this be for the rumored Anthony Brown run for AG? Stay tuned.

The race to replace Delegate John Hurson in the 18th legislative district of Montgomery County is heating up, with a decision by the local Democratic central committee coming on Tuesday. There are somewhere between 8 and 11 candidates in the race. The biggest difference between the candidates is surely not one of ideology none stand out as being obviously moderate or significantly progressive – the broad statements they make seem to put most of them well into the category of “pretty liberal.” Instead the biggest difference is between candidates who have been around for quite a while and are in their sixties, and energetic young people with little policy experience in their twenties or early thirties. In between there are a couple of people who have both experience and energy. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

And locally, civic activists scored a win when the county executive agreed to try to fully fund the new civic building in downtown Silver Spring. Wonder when the new Montgomery County blog featured by the Post will hear of it...