"Why You?": Gerron Levi in Prince George's
With 2010 around the corner, candidates in Prince George's County at all levels of government are beginning to sculpt their campaign messages. In a semi-weekly series --"Why You?" -- we sit down with the county's political hopefuls to ask about who they are, what they've done and why they're the best ones to lead.
Gerron S. Levi
"I'm in the race because I don't feel as if there is the kind of vision to address what I consider to be the pressing issues for the county. At least I haven't heard it." -Levi
Current Job: Maryland State Delegate; lobbyist/assistant director of the legislative department of the AFL-CIO.
Running For: County Executive
Former Jobs: Intern and legislative correspondent for former Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.) and legislative counsel to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. (Levi's Official Bio.)
Residence: Woodmoore, Md.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I'm originally from Chicago, and I grew up between Chicago, Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles. I lived with several different family members. I went to most of high school in Los Angeles, I went to Berkeley undergrad. I lived with my grandmother for most of my years growing up, and then I lived with my brother. ... I didn't live with my parents growing up. I lived with various relatives. But they were in my life the whole time.
Q: When did you arrive in Maryland?
A: 1991. I came here for law school. I've lived in Prince George's for seven years.
Q: How did you get into politics?
A: I got into politics...during law school. I worked for a member of Congress. ...[Doing] legislative correspondence. ... Then I worked for Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein. ... I was one of her key staff on a couple of her signature bills. That was the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. We did the actual initial draft of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill.
Q: Tell me about your campaign for state delegate in 2006. What made you want to run?
A: A lot of my motivation comes from watching and studying global trends. I feel somewhat the same way now as I felt then--that we are in the global challenge of a generation. I felt as if, in many respects, our community was not prepared to meet that global challenge.
Q: Was it a tough race?
A: I was running against the incumbents. ... It was an enormous challenge. The Bowie Blade [newspaper] at the time, they called me Gerron "Sore Feet" Levi, because of the number of doors I knocked on. About 8,000 doors. [The biggest hurdle was] getting my name out there, getting known with voters. I was an unknown. Whenever you run against the machine or against the slate, there are a lot of inside politics that really test the mettle of any candidate. ... I was on my own, with my volunteers and the money I could raise.
Q: Do you still feel like an outsider?
A: My ideas sometimes make me an outsider because I always seek to pave new ground, find new solutions, novel approaches to old problems. And sometimes it's a challenge for people to embrace that.
Q: For example?
A: My truancy and driver's license bill. ... The law currently, as it stands, denies learner's permits to students who are truant. ...If you miss ten or more days in the prior semester then you can't get your learner's permit. The way I had it drafted originally was much broader, but the way it passed ... was narrowed.
Q: What other ideas of yours have ruffled feathers?
A: I had this other novel concept to tie school suspensions and absenteeism to tax policy, and that's another thing that challenged people. ... It would restrict tax benefits to parents if they do not ensure two things: school attendance and compliance with state law; and no more than one suspension per year for disrespect, insubordination or classroom disruption.
Q: Did that pass?
A: It's been introduced the last two sessions. We've had riveting hearings, it's been covered in the media but it has languished in committee. It has not come to a vote.
Q: Anything else in your record as delegate you want to highlight for voters?
A: The other thing I did was I put together a collaboration of churches, schools, business that won a $1.1 million grant to build advanced math skills in the county. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. ... It's funded to do summer math camps and booster sessions during the school year. ... My goal is to expand that model across the entire county.
Q: So now you're running for County Executive. Why?
A: As I said, we're in the global challenge of a generation and there are certain urgent, pressing problems that must be addressed. I think the county has a wonderful foundation to build upon, but we need to be more advanced, we need to be innovation-oriented, and more job creating. So I developed ten steps that I think will move us in that direction.
Q: Can you briefly explain the ten steps?
A: I have a record of action already on five. ... Step one is we've got to cut school suspensions in half. Step two is we've got to cut chronic absenteeism and truancy in half. Step three is we've got to produce 50 percent more students who are .. in the advanced category [in terms of state test performance]. Step four is to focus on successful criminal prosecutions, namely...[to combat] witness intimidation, which is scuttling crime prosecution. Step five is to have focused polices around returning ex-offenders and juveniles. Both populations drive crime...when they come back into the community. Step six is to spur job creations, namely through technology transfer from federal labs and research institutions to small businesses and entrepreneurs in Prince George's County. Step seven is specific approaches around redevelopment inside the Beltway. Step eight is putting down a footprint on geo-thermal energy. I think we have an opportunity to cultivate a geo-thermal industry in the county... in the same way that Frederick is identified with solar energy. Step nine is to incorporate public accountability and transparency in government. ...Being data driven in how we perform in government. ... All agencies--submitting them to performance measures. Step ten has to do with managing the current fiscal crisis. How do we do it? ... Reviewing duplication in government, how we procure services and...building capacity on the ground among our non-profit and community partners so that we can compete for other dollars.
Q: You've only served part of your first term in elected office. Why run for the big seat now?
A: Because I think the problem is urgent. I think time is of the essence. I'm in the race because I don't feel as if there is the kind of vision to address what I consider to be the pressing issues for the county. At least I haven't heard it.
Q: What do you think your chances of winning are?
A: I think I have a great chance. I'm definitely an underdog. ... People don't really know me outside my district. ... I think my biggest challenges will be to get my message out--to be known by the voters, and to get my message out. But we do have an historic opportunity as a county, for example, to perhaps, perhaps elect the first female executive in the county's history.
Q: What do you think a woman would bring to the job that men have not? Or is it just important for the sake of breaking barriers?
A: It's more important for breaking a barrier. Each individual candidate is really defined by their own unique abilities, and their platform. It's really just a barrier to be broken.
Q: Why are you the best qualified person for the job?
A: Many people might see me as a first-term delegate, but it's important to know that I have something like 18 years of government relations experience. I have experience in seeing federal programs through many cycles--what worked, what didn't work. And I can bring that experience...to bear on governing in Prince George's County, as well as having developed all those relationships. ... I've served a term in the state legislature and in the Prince George's delegation. I can bring all those skills and qualifications to bear upon this job in addition to having a vision for the current crisis that confronts us.
Q: Speaking of the economy, why would anyone sign up to be County Executive now? Even if you have great ideas, there is very little money to implement them. It has the potential to be very frustrating, I would think.
A: Because if we as Prince George's County, as a state of Maryland and as a nation do not take the right steps right now.. we could under-perform for years to come. ... We've got a responsibility not only to the residents of the county, but we have a responsibility to our state, to our region, to our nation, to deliver the next generation of prosperity.
Q: As you know, anyone who assumes an elected office inherits the situation left by their predecessor. What's your opinion of the job County Executive Jack B. Johnson has done? What has he gotten right, and what has he gotten wrong?
A: I think he has helped to build and bolster the great assets of the county. He brought the National Harbor project to fruition. Konterra, in the Beltsville area, is moving ahead. The M Square project at the University of Maryland College Park, which could potentially-- I mean if estimates hold--yield 65,000 jobs. He helped to build a fiscal climate that provided a AAA bond rating. ... The perception of crime continues to be great, but in fact, crime has declined over the last several years.
So, you know, whatever [the] criticism of the Johnson administration, the fact is the county has advanced over the last eight years. Unfortunately however, the perception of the county continues to languish. ...The perception of our school system, the perception of crime, the perception of transparency in government."
Q: is it all just a matter of perception or are there real concerns there?
A: There's some perception and some real.
Q: Are there any things Johnson could have done better in your view?
A: Perhaps we could have dealt better with some of the perception issues, and, I mean, you know, I'm not going criticize the Johnson administration. This is a tough job, and think a great foundation has been laid by both the Curry administration and the Johnson administration and if you want to reach back to the Glendening administration. The county is, in my view, a beacon on the hill, and it is now for the next generation of leaders to accelerate where it can go.
November 12, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: 2010 Elections , General Assembly , Jonathan Mummolo , Prince George's County
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