By Glynis Kazanjian
Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin and Lee Development Group of Silver Spring are under attack by a local government employees union for their alleged collaboration to bring the non-unionized retail giant, Wal-Mart, to eastern Montgomery County.
In a recently launched Internet attack campaign called TheRealValerieErvin, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO) suggests Ervin and Lee — which it calls “one of Ervin’s biggest campaign contributors” — would benefit from a land deal placing a Wal-Mart store in the Aspen Hill area. This would require rezoning a commercial property owned by Lee Development Group, whose CEO is Gazette columnist and radio commentator Blair Lee.
“How much does Valerie Ervin, the Lee Development Group and Wal-Mart stand to make from their special deal?” the website asks.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is a lightning rod for organized labor because of its controversial history surrounding low employee wages, limited health benefits, and gender discrimination complaints. There is currently only one Wal-Mart store in western Montgomery County.
LDG CEO Blair Lee said the basis of the attack is as simple as unions not wanting non-unionized companies in the county. He also said he and his cousin, LDG President Bruce Lee, were scratching their heads trying to remember any large donations made to Ervin.
“If we are one of her largest contributors, I’d say she has a fundraising problem,” Blair said. “We looked at our records from the last five years, and we can’t get to $2,000. We think that is a minor amount. It sounds like the [Internet] ad was pretty puffed up. We’re not a major player in political campaign contributions.”
According to the state campaign finance records, the Lees have contributed a combined $1,975 to Ervin during the two election cycles since 2006, a small percentage of the maximum allowed. UFCW Local 1994 Executive Director Bob Stewart said the Lee contributions are some of Ervin’s largest outside of her contributions from political action committees, but that isn’t the biggest story.
Union says it’a “pay to play”
“From our perspective, the real story is what will emerge as our campaign goes on,” Stewart said. “Valerie has a ‘pay-to-play’ attitude towards public policy. Overtime you will see more of a connection between business interests and specific legislation she fights for on council.”
The Local 1994 Internet ad is part of a larger attack campaign against Ervin by Local 1994.
“We have a consultant partner that’s leading that new tool bar,” UFCW Local 1994 President Gino Renne said. “We intend to use this more frequently when we believe there are matters of public interest, issues that are potentially damaging to the community at large.”
Ervin has been under fire as council president since fiscal 2012 budget negotiations began, resulting in reduced health care benefits and retirement plans for county union employees. The County Council had to close a $300 million budget gap.
The same Local 1994 also recently posted an attack ad on their website accusing Ervin of playing the race card following a complaint to the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Council from the Montgomery County NAACP branch on her behalf. The complaint followed a mailing by Local 1994 (MCGEO) to NAACP members condemning Ervin for betraying her constituents.
State NAACP sends backlash to local complaint
The complaint generated a backlash from a state NAACP official, who criticized both Ervin and the county chapter.
“I have seen the materials that MCGEO circulated and I found them to be factual,” wrote Elbridge James, political action chair of the Maryland State NAACP, in a letter to the Montgomery County NAACP Branch President Paul Vance. “You are correct that Valerie has a ‘long and proud history of fighting for the rights of working people,’ but that is all that it is now – history.”
“With her and the council’s current position on collective bargaining she is throwing the County’s union-represented workers under the bus; many of these workers are Black and Latino,” James’ letter continues. “It is one thing for a politician like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, or Chris Christie in New Jersey to run against workers and attack them once elected; it is quite another to run on a pro-union platform and then betray labor once in office, as Ms. Ervin has.”
Wal-Mart officials said the new store location would bring 300 jobs to the area, and last week they had their “first conversation” with Ervin about the store.
“Wal-Mart would bring 300 – mostly full-time – jobs that offer a competitive wage and health benefits as inexpensive as $11 per-pay-period for individuals and $33 per-pay-period for families,” said Steve Restivo, senior director of community affairs at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart did contribute to several high profile politicians in the last election cycle, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, ($1,000), Comptroller Peter Franchot, ($500), and Attorney General Douglas Gansler ($500), but not to Ervin, according to the state campaign finance records.
Council President Ervin did not respond to several phone calls and conversations with her staff about this story.