It was about an hour into Andrew Kleine’s book-signing and talk in Takoma Park Monday night when the former Baltimore City budget director was asked a question that was on many people’s minds. How, wondered ex-state Del. Saqib Ali (D) – one of several current and former local political leaders on hand – might Kleine’s patented brand of “outcome budgeting” work in Montgomery County?
“Hopefully, we’ll find out,” Kleine replied, somewhat cryptically. He quickly added, “I think this can fit in anywhere – any mission-driven organization.”
Officially, Monday night’s event at Busboys & Poets restaurant was a celebration of Kleine’s new book, “City on the Line,” an account of his 10 years at Baltimore City Hall working for three different mayors – “the most tumultuous decade in the city’s history, outside of war-time,” as he put it. The book is part wonky governing primer, part history of the city, and part loving anecdotes about some of the disparate characters Kleine encountered along the way.
But Kleine is now a fiscal management adviser to the campaign of Marc B. Elrich, the Montgomery County councilman who is the Democratic nominee for county executive. And there’s widespread speculation that Kleine will be in line for a high-ranking position in county government if Elrich prevails in two weeks – a notion Kleine does not dispel.
“I certainly would like to bring some of these ideas to Montgomery County,” Kleine said in a brief interview after reading from his book and answering questions from the 40 politicians, policy wonks, county officials, civic activists and friends in the audience. “But I don’t know that we want to get ahead of ourselves.”
Throughout his tenure in Baltimore, Kleine lived in Silver Spring and when former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D) resigned in 2013, a year before the end of her term, Kleine applied, unsuccessfully, to be the interim replacement.
Now, Kleine joked, “You get to the point where elective office doesn’t pay enough.”
But even though the event took place in Montgomery County – or literally just across the street, as the Takoma Busboys & Poets is in Washington, D.C. – the focus was on Kleine’s tenure in Baltimore from 2008 to the end of last year.
He became budget director under former mayor Sheila Dixon (D) after a long career in the federal government. In his telling, Dixon felt restrained by the budget process, complaining that the document was a “black box” that required almost no thought.
“I was ready to address her frustrations, and she was willing to do something different,” he recalled.
So, at the height of the national recession, the two worked to adopt the relatively new concept of “outcome budgeting” – aligning specific aspects of the city’s budget to the mayor’s priorities and calculating ways of adjusting on the fly and ensuring progress.
When he arrived at City Hall, Kleine recounted, “I was too embarrassed to ask [my boss], what are the mayor’s priorities?” He quickly figured it out.
Dixon and Kleine encountered institutional resistance, from political leaders and community leaders, bureaucrats, unions, and other stakeholders, and the city was buffeted in different ways during his tenure – first by the recession, then by a political scandal that forced Dixon’s resignation, then by unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, and finally by a soaring homicide rate.
“Of course, we were swimming against a lot of social ills – crime, blight, disinvestment,” Kleine said, conceding that the city’s most intractable problems remain challenges, especially crime and the public schools. But he said city and civic officials learned to count small but enduring victories – like a drop in the infant mortality, a steady increase in the city’s tree canopy, and a jump in the number of business startups, among other things.
“You go into this thinking you’re going to hit a lot of home runs,” Kleine said. “But you know, if you hit a lot of singles, you score a lot of runs.”
Now Kleine is working as a consultant to several city governments. Whether he winds up in Montgomery County government is up to the voters – and to Elrich, if he wins.
Elrich was listed as a co-host of Monday night’s event, though he was not there, speaking instead to a gathering of the Greater Olney Civic Association. Several of his political supporters were on hand.
“I would like to help Marc as he puts together his administration,” Kleine said.