Guest Commentary: To Move Montgomery Forward, County Must Find Common Ground
By Bill Conway
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series. More than 25 candidates are running for four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council in 2018 – and the number could grow. In an attempt to sort through the confusion and enlighten voters, Maryland Matters has asked the candidates to submit an op-ed piece introducing themselves and making their case. Subsequent articles will appear over the next several weeks.
I am a Democrat running for an At Large seat on the Montgomery County Council. In this piece I’ll share with you a little about myself, my reasons for running, the approach I would bring to the job, and my policy priorities.
My wife Diana Conway and I have lived in Montgomery County for more than 27 years. We live in an old farm house in Potomac, and our three children are proud graduates of Montgomery County Public Schools. Diana and I met on Capitol Hill, and she is fond of saying that our relationship began with policy. It’s definitely true that our dinner table conversation sometimes sounds like “Washington Week in Review.”
Both of us have been continuously active in civic and political affairs – she a bit more visibly than I because of my work demands. I am president of our homeowners association, was a GOTV manager and member of President Obama’s Mid-Atlantic Finance Committee in 2008, led home improvement projects for years with Rebuilding Together, have served on non-profit boards, and provided pro bono legal services – mostly recently representing two non-violent drug offenders in federal clemency petitions.
In my free time I love kayaking, hiking, gardening, fishing and beekeeping.
I didn’t plan to run for political office, but like many of you I was shocked out of my complacency by Donald Trump and his politics of bigotry and hate. I retired from my law practice last April, intending to accept an attractive job offer from a solar company. But the realization that some of Trump’s policies would play out at the county level – notably with respect to undocumented people – made me feel that I had to do more than complain.
And so here I am. I’ve chosen to participate in Montgomery County’s public campaign finance program because I want to protect access to democracy for every voter.
Early in my legal career I served as Senior Counsel to the Democratic staff of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In that capacity I was substantially responsible for conceiving, drafting and negotiating the last major rewrite of our federal electricity laws which produced competitive electric markets, brought down prices for consumers, and enabled the rise of renewable energy. While it sounds quaint today, back then we debated policy issues on the merits. During my eight years at the committee, I saw at most four partisan votes. That model of governance remains my ideal.
Since my days in the Senate I’ve been chief legal officer to a Fortune 500 electric utility company, an entrepreneur trying to develop innovative ways to generate electric power and a lawyer in private practice. Most of my work in the last five years has focused on developing and financing wind and solar projects.
I have made public policy, and I’ve had to make a payroll. I would bring substantial legislative and business experience to the County Council, but I’ve also learned basic lessons along the way that are just as important.
First, I maintain a healthy respect for my own ignorance. The longer I live, the more I appreciate how little I know. Second, the value of listening to people is very underrated. It’s remarkable what you learn when you actually try it. Third, what seem like intractable disagreements often turn out to be less so when the discussion is refocused on facts rather than emotion. These lessons underlie the motto of my campaign: Finding Common Ground.
Our politics are increasingly divided – including within the Democratic Party in Montgomery County. One would think to listen to local conversations that the world is composed of black and white issues, but even a shallow look at the challenges facing our county shows conflict among valid considerations.
We want development density near mass transit, but we don’t want neighborhoods disrupted. We want more people to use mass transit, but we find it difficult to give up our own cars. We’re concerned about segregation within the public schools, but resist boundary changes to our own schools. And looming in the background of almost every issue is the question: Where will we find the money?
In the face of a complicated world whose politics tend toward slogans and invective, I want to work for a culture of evidence in a climate of civility. This is not the absence of conviction or a suggestion that we cut every loaf in half, but simply an insistence that we see the world as it is (rather than how we imagine) and approach governance with what the Declaration of Independence called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Solutions to our challenges require judgment and a sense of balance from elected leaders and voters alike. For me, all of this is embodied in Finding Common Ground. While I accept the role of passion in politics, I also want to make policy wonks great again. We cannot afford anything less.
There are many important issues facing our county, including addressing poverty, providing more affordable housing and protecting our environment. But in my view there are three interrelated areas that are fundamental to the quality of life of all our residents: bringing more and better jobs to the county, addressing our transportation situation and ensuring that our public schools provide a quality education.
Job Growth: We need to focus on growing high-paying jobs because without it we will not have tax revenue sufficient to pay for the government functions we expect. Our population is aging and increasingly low-income, both of which create increased demands for county services. The County Council was recently forced to reduce planned issuances of general obligation bonds which would have threatened our AAA bond rating, and now fiscal 2018 income taxes are coming in at lower levels than projected. These are indicators that our tax revenues (both income and property) are not keeping pace with our needs.
There are many things that should be done to attract new jobs. In particular, we need to ensure that: 1. our new economic development corporation aggressively markets the county as an attractive place to locate new businesses and grow existing ones; 2. the county streamlines its regulatory processes to provide a welcoming business environment; 3. the county is attractive to young people (because businesses tend to follow young workers and not vice versa), and 4. we play to our strengths in the sciences, especially in workforce development. Montgomery College’s two-year biotech program is a world-class example of the last point.
In addition to growing jobs, we must also take a hard look at our expenses. In a $5.4 billion budget it would be odd if there are not significant savings and spending reductions to be found.
Transportation: We are choking on traffic, and my transportation prescription is for an all-of-the-above approach. Road congestion is not a linear function, so relatively small reductions in the number of cars on the road can have big effects on traffic flows. For that reason and to protect our environment we need a continued focus on mass transit solutions, including permanent Metro funding, well-designed bus rapid transit, and enhanced Ride-On and MARC service. All transportation projects should include pedestrian and bike transit components where practical. I support the Purple Line because its route goes through some of the poorest parts of our county and because there is a high correlation between access to mass transit and getting out of poverty. And we cannot ignore roads. We need intersection improvements and advanced traffic light technology, and we should commit to building two new reversible lanes on I-270 and widening the American Legion Bridge.
Education: Our children are the foundation of our future, and we owe every student in our public schools an education geared to 21st-century jobs. We face two big challenges in accomplishing that goal. First, MCPS is currently receiving approximately 40 percent of all new students in the entire state of Maryland – between 2,000 and 3,000 each year – but not receiving school construction funds from Annapolis proportionate to that growth. With our schools already overcrowded, the County Council must work with our state delegation to ensure that we get our fair share of capital dollars. Second, we must do everything we can to address the gap in performance between our low-income students and those from more affluent communities. Establishing comprehensive pre-K education should be a priority.
The challenges we face with respect to jobs, transportation, schools and a host of other areas are daunting, but I am optimistic about our future. Pope John XXIII, a great humanitarian, gave this advice for dealing with a world of seemingly insurmountable problems: “See everything. Overlook a great deal. Correct a little.” At first, this guidance does not inspire. But if we are constant in working to make incremental progress, one day we will look back along the moral arc of the universe and realize we have traveled very far indeed. I think I can help to improve things a little in this great county of ours, and I would welcome your support.
To read earlier commentaries from the at-large candidates, click here.