Josh Kurtz: The Washington Post goes to war

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The two most powerful voices in Montgomery County at election time are the Washington Post and the teachers union. So it’s been breathtaking — if not altogether surprising — to see the Post take after the teachers union with unbridled ferocity over the past few weeks. So much for the myth of the liberal media.

The endorsements of both the Post and the union are highly coveted by candidates for the legislature and county offices, and they can literally alter the outcome of certain Democratic primaries — because even in a highly-educated, hyper-political place like the D.C. suburbs, how many people really know or care who the candidates for the House of Delegates are in District 19?

The union, the Montgomery County Education Association, usually makes its choices known a few months before the September primary. Its trademarked “Apple Ballot,“ listing candidates who are “teacher recommended,“ lands in tens of thousands of mailboxes before primary day. The slick literature is also handed out at every polling place in the county, the apple shiny and red and wholesome-looking. Maryland is one of the few states in America whose teachers are not only given Election Day off, but primary days too, so they can man the polls in places where Democratic primaries are tantamount to election.

Who wants to vote against teachers? And more important, what candidate doesn’t want to be on their side? In 2006, 42 of 47 “Apple Ballot“ candidates won their races in Montgomery County. That’s a success rate any interest group would envy.

And what candidate doesn’t want the imprimatur of the Washington Post? The newspaper usually doles out its recommendations in local races just a week or two before the primaries — and candidates almost instantaneously trumpet the endorsements on their campaign yard signs and in mailings (some candidates even have “endorsed by Washington Post“ literature made up before the paper makes its endorsements, just in case, to ensure the fastest possible turnaround).

So what are we to make of the Post’s three editorials this month attacking the MCEA with a fury the paper usually reserves for foreign despots, pedophiles and opponents of the Intercounty Connector highway?

The first, on Feb. 5, was titled, “In Montgomery County, the teachers union and its toxic influence.“ The editorial basically called the union too powerful, its “success in squeezing unaffordable concessions from the county in contract negotations“ a bad thing for taxpayers — who include, it must be pointed out, many of the Post’s top brass. The teachers are able to get their way, even in recessionary times, the paper argued, because politicians are too chicken to cross them.

Six days later, with the Mid-Atlantic reeling from a history-making blizzard and most residents pondering their governments‘ response to it, the Post saw fit to devote its local editorial to the MCEA again. It was headlined, “In Montgomery County, scare tactics by teachers union are the norm.“ This one accused the MCEA of “thuggery“ — which is laughable to anyone who knows Maryland well.

Thuggery in Montgomery County? Where, in the view of the rest of the state, the streets are paved with gold? Where you understand why the roots of the words “politics“ and “politesse“ are so similar, because that’s how politics are practiced in Montgomery? Tell the residents of Dundalk, of Park Heights, of Suitland, of Cumberland, that there’s thuggery in Montgomery County and they’ll wonder what you’ve been smoking.

But maybe that’s how the MCEA’s tactics look to the denizens of Bethesda who work at Post headquarters in downtown D.C. Of particular concern to the Post’s editorial writers: the union‘s desire that candidates it endorses contribute money to the MCEA’s political action committee. The Post, quoting politicians who demanded anonymity, called it a shake-down — which it no doubt is. But an investment of a few thousand bucks for maximum exposure in MCEA literature hardly seems like a losing proposition for Montgomery County pols.

The last editorial, "Cash on the barrel" published on Feb. 22, was a compilation of the previous two, plus a jab at the former union president, Bonnie Cullison, for hitting up Montgomery County politicians for contributions when she was running for a seat on the national teachers union board. The Post, while reiterating how valuable teachers are, blamed the union and cowardly pols for teachers’ high pay.

The Post editorials went out of their way to praise Montgomery teachers and the county school system. So why shouldn’t the teachers union advocate for its members?

Contract negotiations are just that — negotiations. If the union’s demands are too great, county leaders have the right to tell them to go to hell. Aha! the Post would argue, but the MCEA, with its success rate at the polls, has gamed the system so that, in effect, it’s hiring its own bosses. But how is that different from what every public employee union in America tries to do? I’m shocked — shocked! — that there’s gambling taking place at this establishment.

The Post’s attack on the teachers union, while unusually strident, is hardly surprising. Post editorials have been uniformly negative about the role of public employee unions in local government and politics for years. Coincidentally or not, the Gazette, the Post-owned chain of weeklies in the D.C. suburbs and exurbs (where I once worked), has been equally hostile to public employee unions, if not more so.

Then again, the Post, in its everyday business practices, has a long history of hostility to unions. In the mid-1970’s, it famously broke the pressmen’s union following a protracted strike of pressmen and printers (someone who crossed the picket lines is now a top business executive at the Gazette). And according to the valuable Maryland Politics Watch blog, whose impressario, Adam Pagnucco, is a union man himself, four of the newspaper’s seven collective bargaining agreements have expired.

So really, the Post is just reverting to type here. And with another political season upon us, as it tries to reassert its power over Montgomery County elections, the newspaper’s strategy seems pretty clear: to tear down the institution it sees as its biggest rival for winning the hearts and minds of county voters.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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