Congressional candidate Maggie Brooks almost never refers to the "people" of Monroe County; they are "taxpayers," even when the context seems to demand another noun. The subtle bit of messaging aligns with Brooks' signature and much-touted accomplishment as county executive: freezing the property tax rate.
Similarly, Brooks' opponent in the 25th District race is never "Congresswoman Louise Slaughter." Always, according to the Brooks campaign, she's "entrenched Washington insider" Slaughter. The triple-modifier is savvy, considering that people's opinion of Congress is generally somewhere below their affinity for skinny jeans and public bathrooms.
What happens when unstoppable force Maggie Brooks (an affable, intelligent, confident, articulate local luminary) meets immovable object Louise Slaughter (an affable, intelligent, confident, articulate national figure)? For the first time in a good long while, one of these women will lose an election.
The conventional wisdom had been that Slaughter, who typically faces only token opposition, would stay in Congress until she's damn well ready to leave. But an ambitious, term-limited county executive and a redistricting process that handed Monroe its own Congressional seat have conspired to give the incumbent Slaughter her first real race in two decades.
Brooks' strategy so far has been to cast Slaughter as a tax-and-spend liberal, the face of the unpopular — though that seems to be changing — Affordable Care Act, a past-her-prime example of everything that's wrong with an historically unpopular and paralyzed Congress. Meanwhile, Slaughter's camp is milking the many scandals that have occurred in county government during Brooks' time in office, though it's clear from previous elections that the public doesn't blame Brooks for those problems.
The records of both candidates are fair game, of course, and when you peel back the layers, you see that although Brooks has accomplished some good things as county executive — for example, she's embraced alternative fuel vehicles and energy conservation measures at county buildings — her history does not warrant a promotion. Even her signature property-tax accomplishment doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Brooks has failed to address Monroe County's structural budget problem, has done nothing to end the "ruling class" mindset of Republicans in the County Legislature, has continued the troubling use of local development corporations — pushing millions of dollars in debt off the county's books — and has continued her predecessor's habit of treating the City of Rochester as a poor relation.
The bigger consideration, though, is Brooks' place in the context of the next Congress. She says she has no desire to be a standard-bearer for the national Republican Party. But Brooks would almost certainly be powerless to buck a party in the grip of extremists clamoring to turn back the clock on women's health and to destroy the social safety net for everyone but the fortunate few.
Brooks opposes abortion rights except in the cases of rape, incest, and life and health of the mother; supports repealing the Affordable Care Act; opposes same-sex marriage; and demonstrates a lack of knowledge — or a calculated evasiveness — on climate change and personhood legislation.
Slaughter says a recent Rochester visit by House Speaker John Boehner on Brooks' behalf is proof positive that Republicans expect Brooks to fall in line.
"It means that she's expected to vote with him," Slaughter says. "This notion that she would not vote on the Ryan budget or vote for that Medicare [voucher plan], don't believe it. They vote in lockstep over there."
For that reason and because of Brooks' record as well the present political climate, Monroe County should not send Maggie Brooks to Congress.
It's important to look at Monroe's property tax rate, not only because Brooks talks about it so often, but because she's made financial stewardship a structural issue in her campaign. It's what she means, for the most part, when she says she wants to "bring Monroe County to Washington."
It is true that in Brooks' three terms as county executive, the property tax rate has not risen above $8.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. And that's a reduction: from 2005 to 2007, the property tax rate was $9.10. But that doesn't mean taxes haven't gone up. They have. For starters, the property tax levy — the total amount the county collects in property taxes — has risen every year that Brooks has been in office. The current number is approximately $352 million. When Brooks took office in 2004, it was about $279 million. We're not complaining about the increased levy — the county should take advantage of growth — but it is disingenuous of Brooks to say that taxes have not gone up.
Another way Brooks has gotten around her promise to not raise taxes is by raising fees instead. An example: MCC chargebacks, a funding system that punishes Monroe's poorest communities and goes against the principle of a community college as a place of inclusiveness, equality, and community buy-in. The amount that residents in each town and the city pay depends on the number of MCC students who live there. And who do you think sends the most students to MCC? The City of Rochester.
Former Democrat and Chronicle reporter Jill Terreri crunched the numbers in a 2011 story. When you combine the property tax rate with the service fees, she found that tax bills in Monroe County have gone up. In Rochester, she reported, "the combined bill went from $962 to $1,044" from 2007 to 2011. In Webster, "the combined bill went from $794 to $831," to cite two examples. (The increases were based on a home assessed at $100,000.)
And Brooks has not been able to find a permanent fix to the county's ongoing budget shortfalls. The county's 2012 budget book projects a cumulative gap of $106.2 million through 2014. (The book blames the gap mainly on the increasing costs of mandated services.)
Brooks did propose a couple of different ways to address the problem. The first approach was an increase in the sales tax, which died a quick death. The second was the FAIR Plan, which took some of the sales-tax money traditionally given to the suburban school districts. The districts sued and won. As a result, the county is still paying back the initial $29 million — plus interest — it took from the school districts when it first implemented the FAIR Plan.
But Monroe County cannot have a budget deficit; it must balance the budget each and every year. So how have we gotten there? One way is by selling or trying to sell things, including tax liens — a not uncommon practice by governments, including the City of Rochester — and the Edwards and Gateway buildings. (Brooks has included $2 million from the sale of those buildings in recent budgets, even though they haven't yet sold.) And she has used other one-shot money sources, including stimulus funding, to close budget gaps.
Brooks has also cut services, including ending the county's contribution to the downtown police patrol, and cutting funding for the pre-trial release program, a short-term solution that could cost the county more money in the long run.
The police cut is troubling on its surface, of course, but also because it's a tacit acknowledgment that the county considers itself separate from the city, and not part of the "Community of Monroe," even though suburbanites come downtown to eat, to catch concerts and other events at the Blue Cross Arena, to see theater, and for many other reasons.
Another issue: child care. While the county has maintained the eligibility level for child care over the past few years, it has increased the parent co-pay to the maximum amount allowable by New York State, says Carrie Andrews, Democratic county legislator and ranking minority member on the Lej's Human Services Committee. It has also frozen enrollment in some child care programs, she says. As a result, if you look over the past decade, the county used to help more than 13,000 families annually with day care subsidies. That number is now between 7,500 and 8,000, Andrews says. And it's not because of a lack of demand.
The county, under Brooks, has also cut funding for indigent burials and for a program that helps runaway homeless youth.
In some cases, while not technically cutting funding, the county has shuffled money around, Andrews says. When additional funding for the widely praised Nurse-Family Partnership Program became available through Medicaid, instead of growing the program, the county withdrew some of its own funding and replaced it with the Medicaid money, Andrews says. (The county's chief financial officer, Scott Adair, said he couldn't confirm Andrews' claim about NFPP. He said he didn't remember the county changing the funding stream.)
Brooks regularly talks up the county's support for Nurse-Family Partnership, a health program in which nurses pay regular home visits to low income, first-time mothers and their babies.
Summary: Your tax bill has gone up. The county does not have a long-term plan to address yearly budget deficits. Services have been cut.
LDC's are quasi-governmental bodies typically formed for a singular purpose. The Civic Center Monroe County LDC, for example, was set up by the county to purchase the Civic Center parking garage. The LDC then contracted with a service provider to run day-to-day operations at the garage.
For Brooks, LDC's are innovative public-private partnerships that allow the county to do things — upgrade technology, for example — it couldn't afford to do otherwise. But LDC's are also unencumbered by competitive bidding requirements and are not "specifically required to comply with open meetings and Freedom of Information laws," says the Center for Governmental Research. The rather unique powers afforded LDC's create fertile ground for abuse, a concern that has been repeatedly raised by CGR and the State Comptroller's Office.
Monroe County has been using LDC's to essentially keep operating. Here's how it works: The county creates an LDC to buy an asset, like the Iola power plant. The LDC borrows money to buy the asset, and the county uses the money for operations.
That practice has been criticized by the state comptroller as "backdoor borrowing." It has also hidden stunning amounts of debt off the county's books and out of the public eye. The total amount owed by Monroe County-created LDC's as of December 2011 was a whopping $333 million. A big chunk of that is debt accumulated by the Monroe Tobacco Asset Securitization Corporation, which the county set up to borrow against future tobacco settlement funds. (There's a separate story to be told about what happens if that money doesn't materialize — a very real concern.)
"So there's a lot of thin ice in my judgment that is holding the county afloat," says Democratic County Legislator Paul Haney, a former budget director for the county. "If this is the background Maggie would take to Washington, I don't see in her background any skills or interest in solving the financial legerdemain that goes on in the federal government."
Haney's point is particularly salient considering that Brooks often touts her financial leadership as county executive. And Brooks lacks credibility to hammer Washington for overspending when county-created LDC's have racked up more than $330 million in debt.
Monroe County's use of LDC's has been criticized in three audits this year by the State Comptroller's Office. The comptroller examined Upstate Telecommunications Corporation, which was created to upgrade the county's phones and computers; Monroe Newpower, which bought the Iola plant; and Monroe Security and Safety Systems, which received a $212 million public-safety contract from the county.
The Monroe Security audit is particularly critical. It says that the process was rigged to favor a single vendor, Navitech. Navitech, as it turns out, is run by Monroe County's former financial officer, Stephen Gleason.
Because of the irregularities, the deal will cost the county millions more than it should have, the audit says.
"County taxpayers are likely overpaying for public safety and security system and services, and will continue to do so over the 20-year life of this $212 million contract," the audit says.
Brooks says the comptroller's wrong and that the deal will save money.
Meanwhile, the state attorney general is also investigating Upstate Telecommunications and Monroe Security and Safety Systems, though no one's sure what will come of those examinations.
Technically, Monroe County is not responsible for LDC debt, because the LDC's are independent entities. But it's unlikely that the bondholders on that debt would be OK with losing millions of dollars should the LDC's go belly-up, though it's unclear what the ramifications would be for Monroe County.
The Brooks team has dismissed the audits as flawed, baseless, and partisan; Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is a Democrat. But that rebuttal seems simplistic and improbable. Even if there were evidence that DiNapoli is somehow skewing the audits — and no such evidence exists — you'd have to believe that all of the auditors in the comptroller's office are in cahoots to bring down Maggie Brooks, a Kennedy-level conspiracy.
Summary: Brooks has used LDC's to hide enormous debt. The use of LDC's has, according to the state comptroller, cost county taxpayers. There are allegations of serious impropriety in at least one audit.
>Brooks says she wants to go to Congress to help change the tone in Washington. It's an admirable ambition, and few would argue that Washington overall and Congress in particular would benefit from an infusion of congeniality.
"I know how critical it is that you find common solutions to extreme challenges," Brooks said during our interview with her. "Both sides need to take ownership of that. And the time is right to have some common-sense voices in Congress. I'm a big believer that you can change the dynamic of the public discourse in Congress one seat at a time. That's why I'm running."
Brooks often says she believes in bipartisanship and that she's known for reaching across the aisle. But how accurate is that claim?
When you ask city officials about the city-county dynamic, they say it's mostly a passive relationship, like jointly funding the library system and the crime lab, or lobbying for state and federal funding together.
City residents are also the biggest users of the social services provided by the county.
One city official, who did not want to be identified, says the problem is that the county sees the city as a foreign nation and that any cooperation with the city is considered charity or foreign aid. That's how you're able to eliminate funding for the downtown police patrol, for example, without so much as telling the city ahead of time that you're doing it.
Another issue: the behavior of Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature. It's not just that they squash almost every Democratic proposal to come their way — effectively denying representation of the city's interests in county government — but that they feel perfectly justified in doing so. They've been in charge so long, they see themselves as a ruling class, and if one or two Democratic proposals get through every decade, well, then, that's just the way it is.
Brooks spokesperson Noah Lebowitz says it's unfair to attack Brooks for the behavior of the Legislature, because the Lej is an independent branch of county government with separate powers. Nobody blames Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, when Republicans can't pass legislation in the Democratic-led State Assembly, Lebowitz says.
But much of the legislation considered in the County Legislature comes from the Brooks administration, not individual legislators. And Brooks is much more than the highest-ranking Republican in Monroe County; she's a rock star. If Brooks explicitly told Republican legislators to work more closely with Democrats, there's little doubt they'd do it.
Similarly, Brooks might have made a difference in the 2007-2008 public defender search, when Republicans ignored precedent and rammed through a favored candidate. But she chose not to intervene. Nor did she offer any leadership when county Republicans tried to rig the search to find a new MCC president during that same general timeframe.
Lebowitz did provide several examples when asked to illustrate Brooks' commitment to bipartisanship. Those include the county executive's work on pension, Medicaid, and mandate reform through various state efforts, and her work on the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. She was president of the New York State Association of Counties and County Executives of America, and she joined New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bipartisan pension reform movement last year.
Lebowitz also cited the county's bipartisan budget review commission, and legislation regarding protests at veterans' funerals as local examples of Brooks' bipartisanship. But the commission accomplished little, and a Republican put his name on the funeral legislation, which was introduced by a Democrat, before the GOP-led County Legislature approved it. It's doubtful the legislation would've passed without the addition.
Summary: Bipartisanship is rare in Monroe County.
There are broader implications to sending Maggie Brooks to Congress. Monroe County would lose Representative Louise Slaughter's influence and seniority, but the bigger issue is the alarming direction of the Republican Party. It's unlikely that Brooks, as a freshman member of the House, would be able to do anything but follow the wishes of party leadership — or risk her political career.
That's troubling, given the extremists driving the Republican agenda.
Brooks says she'd vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, although she says she supports the parts of the law dealing with pre-existing conditions and letting children stay on their parents' policies longer.
She says the ACA is a partisan plan and should be repealed so a new bill can be drafted with broader input — a bill that creates competition and keeps a real eye on cost. But like her counterparts at the national level, Brooks offers few specifics when asked what the ACA should be replaced with.
And when making the case for repeal, Brooks also repeats some thoroughly debunked claims, like the Republican assertion that the ACA cuts $700 billion from Medicare. The fact-checking website PolitiFact confirms that "neither Obama nor his health care law literally cut funding from the Medicare program's budget. Rather, the health care law instituted a number of changes to try to bring down future health care costs in the program."
And the reductions in reimbursements do not affect Medicare beneficiaries; they are aimed at insurance companies and hospitals.
Brooks, by the way, says she does not support the Medicare voucher plan proposed by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and would not have voted for the Ryan budget.
Brooks says no one in the Republican leadership or in the Republican conference in the House has asked for her commitment to vote a certain way on anything.
"I don't want to go to Congress to become the standard-bearer for the Republican Party nationally," she says. "I want to be in Congress to be a voice for this community. And I have to reflect the values of this community, and that's everybody."
To illustrate her willingness to be independent, Brooks cites her opposition to House Republicans' reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, "because it placed unnecessary restrictions on access to domestic violence services," reports Liz Benjamin in her Capitol Tonight blog.
But opposing something from the safety and distance of the county executive's chair is much different than opposing it as a member of the House. And again, it's difficult to believe Brooks would be able to chart her own path in a party that does not tolerate disloyalty. And that's dangerous, since today's Republican Party seems hell-bent on attacking women's reproductive rights, attempting to destroy the social safety net — conveniently forgetting that in the days before Social Security and Medicare, many people actually did spend their "golden years" in poverty — and pushing draconian spending cuts that would inflict serious damage across a wide spectrum of the country.
Summary: No matter her personal convictions, Maggie Brooks would have difficultly opposing the national Republican Party's extremist agenda.
National governance is about more than health care, of course. But when we interviewed Brooks, she seemed reluctant to talk about some national issues — particularly ones that are important to progressives, like personhood legislation. VP candidate Ryan was a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which says that human life begins at fertilization and would criminalize abortion and, critics worry, some forms of birth control.
When we interviewed Brooks, she said she didn't know what personhood is, and that she'd want to study it before she gave an opinion.
Brooks has a track record when it comes to LGBT issues. Back in 2008, under Brooks' leadership, Monroe County appealed a court ruling that same-sex marriages performed outside New York must be recognized in the state. The county eventually dropped the appeal.
Brooks said she's a "traditional marriage person," but that same-sex marriage isn't as divisive an issue as it used to be. But she says civil unions, which she supports, provide same-sex couples equal benefits to those of marriage. They do not. Civil unions fail to offer many of the rights and protections given to married couples.
Brooks' most puzzling response came when asked about climate change: specifically whether or not climate change is real. Many Republicans openly express doubt about climate change and people's role in it.
"Dear, dear, dear," she said in our interview. "Oh, I don't know. Is it real? What do you mean? What does real mean? Our weather changes every year. Something's real. Something's changing the dynamic in our weather. When does Rochester, New York, go a whole winter without having a major snow season? I think there are a lot of things that impact our environment.
"When you get into that whole climate change, there are people who are a lot smarter than me who can tell you if that's real or not and what we need to do," Brooks said. "It's not something I've focused on, to be quite honest with you. I believe in good environmental stewardship. That's probably my answer to all of that."
On foreign policy, Brooks said it's important to maintain a strong defense, but that military action should be a last resort. She said she supports the use of drones, and that the US has to finish what it started in Afghanistan.
"We're trying to get these countries to a point where they are no longer a threat," Brooks said. "And as we have seen, we're not there yet. We're a long way from that. Nobody likes to see our troops overseas. Nobody likes to see us in military conflict. But we're there and we've got a program and we need to follow that through to completion."
Brooks said President Obama has not been tough enough on countries like Iran.
"I think generally as a country we've been very weak with our foreign policy," she said. "I don't think we've said to places like Iran, 'We're not going to tolerate you having nuclear capability.' We don't want to be the bully in the recreation yard, but we don't want to get walked on, either. I don't think people take us seriously." (An October 2 article in the Atlantic lists several instances of Obama talking about Iran and nukes, including this quote from 2008, "We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.")
But Brooks also talked about the importance of military spending as a job-retention strategy.
"When you talk about taking money away, put the national defense part of it to the side," she said. "You're talking about the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs — millions of jobs that support the defense industry. So it's a very, very viable portion of our national economy. If you look here in Monroe County, there are probably 12 to 15 companies that do a lot of defense work and would be severely impacted if we were to look at draconian cuts to defense spending."
Summary: We respect Brooks' intelligence and diligence, and the fact that she's had a difficult job dealing with the county's fiscal problems under severe restraints. But the scandals and cronyism during her administration are major concerns, as are Brooks' beliefs on issues such as marriage equality. If voters elect Brooks, they'll be trading an experienced, progressive legislator who has done much good for this region for a freshman whose biggest service would be falling in line with the increasingly conservative leadership of her party.