Roger Berliner got his first job in politics from Jerry Springer. Yes, that Jerry Springer.
Berliner, who lives near Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac and is planning a Democratic run for the District 1 County Council seat next year, grew up in Cincinnati, where Springer was a city council member and then mayor long before he became the king of trash TV.
BERLINER’S WORK in city government in Ohio keyed off a more than 30-year career in politics. He worked as legislative director for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) in the 1970s — Metzenbaum was appointed after William Saxby became U.S. Attorney General in 1973 then lost to John Glenn in 1974, but bounced back winning Ohio’s other Senate seat two years later.
Berliner, 55, has also worked for U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at the federal level and as a consultant at the state and county level in California. He is an attorney and energy policy expert for the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
That resume could probably land Berliner another job in state or federal politics, but Berliner is focused on making a change in local politics.
“I’ve done the national, I’ve done the state,” he said, “[but] this is where you can get things done. This is the government that affects people's lives more than any other. … You have the opportunity to get progressive ideas implemented.”
With close to a million residents in Montgomery County, sitting on the Council is tantamount to setting policy in some of America’s largest cities. The District 1 council member represents the likes of Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts and a host of federal legislators.
“How many places in the world, when you think of the communities in the world that have as much influence as Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Potomac? It isn’t just are we influential in Montgomery County … it’s not are we just influential in the country. Hello. We are influential in the globe,” Berliner said.
Berliner will likely announce his candidacy in November. He could face Maryland National Organization for Women President Duchy Trachtenberg in the Democratic primary in September, 2006, though Trachtenberg might instead make an at-large run against Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee Chair Karen Britto. No Democratic candidate has announced a bid, nor has the presumptive Republican candidate, incumbent Howard Denis (R-1), yet announced he will seek reelection.
Ken Hartman, an aide to Denis, said that the elections are too far away to comment on and that Denis is keeping his options open.
Denis won the District 1 seat by seven percentage points over Democrat Patricia Baptiste in a special election in 2000, following the departure of Republican Betty Anne Krahnke in January of that year. Krahnke, who had Lou Gherig’s disease, died in 2002 at age 60.
Baptiste defeated Berliner in the special election primary by more than 20 percentage points.
Denis defeated Trachtenberg in the 2002 general election by less than two percentage points.
BERLINER SAID he felt he made a good showing in 2000 for a first-time candidate and that he believes it’s time for a Democrat to win in a Democratic district that has elected Republican councilmembers for more than 10 years.
“I think, yes, the Democrats will take that seat” in 2006, said Britto.
Britto pointed to the high-profile County Executive’s race and other races that she said will generate a high Democratic turnout that will benefit all of the Democratic nominees.
Still, the Democrats do not consider any office, even in heavily Democratic Montgomery County to be a slam-dunk, Britto said. “We take every single race seriously, no matter what the district no matter what the race. We definitely want to build on the gains that we have already [from the 2004 elections],” she said. Council [District] 1 is a very important race and it’s a place where the Democratic party is going to mount a very, very strong campaign.”
“If you look at the Democratic turnout and the Democratic vote, it’s a good time for a good Democrat to step up to plate,” said Daphne Bloomberg, a Potomac resident and Democratic Precinct Chair for Precinct 10-13, who has known Berliner for several years as a district coordinator for the Democratic Central Committee. “I like his ability to mediate, his environmental stance. He cares about education.”
Berliner said he has plans to focus on energy policy, transparency in the planning process and quality of life issues in his campaign.
A critic of federal energy policy, Berliner said he would support legislation to impose the standards of the Kyoto Treaty on emissions at a local level — as more than 100 other local jurisdictions have done.
“The county has a lot more control over energy issues than one would normally surmise. So there is a link between the failure of the Bush administration to adopt an energy policy, between Ehrlich’s anti-environment policy, and what we at the county can do,” he said. “I do believe there is opportunities at the local government to in effect take the leadership that’s been abdicated by the federal government and state government. … We can’t drill our way out.”
Berliner also supports the Inter-County Connector, the proposed highway linking I-270 near Gaithersburg with I-95 near Laurel, though he called supporting it “literally the most painful choice that I felt I had to make.”
“Do I believe we can build our way out of this? No. Are roads the answer? No. Are they part of the answer? Yes. Are they part of the answer where we set aside a road 50 yeas ago in our master plan. … How many more opportunities do we have like that?” Berliner said.
But Berliner said it was a failure of the Council and Executive not to link the now nearly certain construction of the ICC to a mass transportation project such as the proposed Metro Purple Line.
“To let the one go without leveraging it in favor of the other I felt was unfortunate,” he said.
Susan Turnbull, Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, has known Berliner since they both worked in Ohio politics in the 1970s, When Berliner moved to Washington, he lived with friends of Turnbull in an apartment on Capitol Hill.
Like most party officials, Turnbull usually remains mum on candidates before the primaries, but said she is stepping out of the box of neutrality to support Berliner because she knows him so well.
“He’s very sincere, he’s very serious,” she said. “His legal background and his government background give him good ability to know how to get things done. … It’s across the board, it’s not limited to any specific area, and that’s what our County Council has to be. It’s a group of generalists.”
In 2000, Turnbull chaired the Gore campaign in Maryland, and Berliner chaired the Bradley campaign.
“Basically it was a big joke because I knew and we all knew that Gore was going to win in Montgomery County and in the state,” Turnbull said, but “Roger I think because he was so committed to the issues that Bill Bradley spoke about, he was a really good advocate for Bradley.
“He met and got involved with many, many people in our local community, which is why I think he is a good choice now.”