by Washington Post Staff Writers for The Washington Post

March 6, 2006

Action in Montgomery, a coalition of religious congregations considered by some to be the county's most powerful grass-roots organization, announced its 2006 agenda at a rousing meeting at Woodside United Methodist Church in Silver Spring last week, and the politicians turned out to hear it.

The event drew 708 religious leaders and congregants.

It also attracted an impressive number of candidates running for office this year. As well it should, as the group has recruited 174 campaign workers who are each expected to brief 20 county residents on major campaign issues such as affordable housing and immigration. AIM organizers expect to have 220 campaign workers by May.

In the audience were the two Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive, 19 candidates for County Council and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele , a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

Steele joined U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) to announce their effort to open a full-service immigration center in Montgomery County, a goal on AIM's agenda. Van Hollen said he would seek a $3 million federal appropriation for the center. Steele said he would send letters in support of it to several members of Congress.

"Tonight, I want to reaffirm my commitment to see this to the end," Steele said to cheers.

The other candidates were each given 45 seconds to introduce themselves to the audience but didn't get a chance to say much. Even County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) and former council member Isiah Leggett , both seeking the Democratic nomination for county executive, had to rush through their remarks.

Indeed, the night belonged to AIM, as organizers presented their agenda.

On the housing front, they said they would urge construction of 1,000 affordable and workforce housing units on public land by 2009. They promised to push for each high school to have one counselor dedicated to helping students get into college. They would also seek scholarship aid for any student who graduates from high school with at least a C+ average and a 90 percent attendance rate.

"It's a true grass-roots agenda," said Russ Louch , AIM's co-chairman. "We're tired of the politics of pollsters and lobbyists. . . . We will not allow politics to continue as it has in the past."

Weast Returns the Favor

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has more than doubled spending on Montgomery County schools since taking office in 1994, which has made Superintendent Jerry D. Weast 's job a lot easier.

Now, with Duncan running for governor, Weast appears to be paying Duncan back.

At a news conference Monday to announce that Duncan's plans to fully fund the school system's $1.8 billion operating budget and its six-year $1.2 billion capital budget, Weast proved why many in the county government say he is one of the best politicians around.

Weast, who generally shies away from controversy, was Duncan's right-hand man during the event.

When Duncan was asked a tough question, Weast frequently stepped in -- unsolicited -- to bolster or clarify the county executive's response.

Duncan was asked whether Montgomery County residents pay too much in taxes. The county executive responded by noting that he cut several taxes when he came into office.

Weast then chimed in, recounting how his colleagues in more conservative jurisdictions frequently gripe about their tax rates.

"They say, we got low taxes, but we have poor schools," Weast said.

He quickly added, "Whatever the taxes are here, they are being spent as wise investments."

Later, Weast came to Duncan's aid after the county executive criticized his opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley , for his record on education.

Duncan said O'Malley hasn't made much progress on the city's schools because he was too busy "picking fights with everyone" and didn't spend enough money on education.

Weast, who shook his head in agreement as Duncan spoke, stepped up to the podium a few minutes later and reinforced Duncan's remarks. "Fights don't solve anything on the playground or the board room," he said.

Duncan's Progress Report

The chilly ballroom at American Legion Post 42 in Hagerstown might have been unbearable if not for the heat generated by state correctional officers who met there last week.

Many of officers -- and there were more than 50 -- were angry. Their list of grievances was long.

"We've got, like, one officer to 100 inmates. Is that fair?" one officer asked.

And there listening to the complaints was Duncan, attending the meeting to ask the officers for their votes as he campaigns for governor.

Duncan promised them that if he were elected, he would make their lives easier.

"I believe if you make a promise, you keep a promise," Duncan said. Someone in the crowd wanted to know whether his promise was of the election-year variety.

So Duncan told the officers they should not just take his word for it. Check his record, he told them.

So we did.

We called Gino Renne , president of the UFCW Local 1994, Municipal & County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO). The union represents most county employees, including correctional officers.

What kind of boss has Duncan been? we asked.

"It depends on what topic you want to select," Renne said.

Wages and benefits?

"Under Doug Duncan's leadership and our local union's bargaining team . . . we have negotiated some of the most competitive wage and benefit agreements in the state of Maryland," Renne said.

Duncan's administration also agreed to a broad reclassification of jobs, to ensure that all county employees -- including personnel in Montgomery County's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation -- receive fair pay for their duties, Renne said. New opportunities for promotion were created, such as adding the rank of sergeant. Retirement benefits also improved.

What about working conditions in county jails?

On Duncan's watch, Renne said, the county has built the state-of-the-art Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg and moved to renovate the Montgomery County Detention Center on Seven Locks Road.

What about staffing?

"The staffing levels for the jail are probably much, much better than you'll find in other jurisdictions," Renne said.


"I must say, in all honesty, that the Duncan administration has helped transition Montgomery County Correction and Rehabilitation into a model department," Renne said.

Mr. Renne, are you working for Mr. Duncan's campaign?

"I'm a pretty fair guy," Renne said, adding that his first duty is to the union. "If you've got a good employer, you've got a good employer. Generally speaking, he's been a very good employer."

The union has not yet endorsed a candidate.

Staff writer Frederick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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