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Understanding Lennie Thompson

April 7, 2006

by Jack Lynch

Since coming to Frederick, I’d liked Lennie Thompson and wanted to know him better.  By one of those internet email driven simple errors, I’d seen some interview notes on him, and because I wasn’t supposed to share in them, decided to sit down with him and get the story straight from the horses mouth, so to speak.  So from the Walkersville home the family bought in order to have a horse stable on hand, we sat awhile, Lennie wearing old bluejeans and barefoot – a trademark of his famed crackerbarrel style of talking politics.

What a lot of folks probably don’t understand about Lennie Thompson is that he comes from a background where up to eight generations of his family lived as farmers, and he is of the first generation that was not born and raised and spent much of its adult life on a local dairy farm.  And that from both sides of his family.  His mother left the farm for college & teaching, (until he came along) and his father left the farm for college, the army, and 38 years of teaching in the Frederick County Schools.  But Lennie spent a lot of time on the family farms and understands that life from direct experience, you could say that it grew on and into him.

He has seen the adversity of living poor, and his family saw the depression and knew that a lard sandwich could be your only meal.  When the banks closed and failed, they lost their money.  Audit that alongside Middletown lands that got 100 bushels of wheat per acre and Roosevelt Republicanism.

While that may sound to some like the sort of typical hard times story that elder generations often foster on later generations as the burden of history, to hear Lennie speak of his past in relation to the changes of farming in Frederick County and the growth that has overwhelmed the community, you gain the sense that really he is speaking to changes of biblical dimensions and degradations.

So while his slogan, ‘If the Developers Win, You Lose!’ may sound punditish and spark voter turnouts, and engender developer attempts to disparage his character and vision, it must be hoped that the deeper import of his view will be maintained as the hordes of locust like county immigrants keep coming, and purchasing homes that many frankly find nearly unimaginable and unconscionable, all the while running out the folks with deep agrarian roots and a desire to retain the quality of life they’ve known for generations.

Lennie understands that the real forces of the destruction of Frederick’s agrarian life come from the economics of land and the proximity of jobs that bring highly educated and wealthy patronage to our local farce of rural living in mini-Mansions and farmettes.

That generational difference in fortunes and civic involvement could potentially wipe the past relationship of Frederick community life away, and leave a set of shared values that continues the spiral of costs for regional parks and soccer fields and paid fire companies.

Too much automobile driven spin off of population, and monied masses, are driving the growth and eating away the farms, as the county simply refuses to recognize its planning mistakes, the same ones that every county closer in to DC has already experienced, and it fails to adequately protect the farms and heritage and life of the county.

Lennie understands that the costs of the development are being passed on to the citizens, even with permit, water, sewer, and impact fee costs to developers.  The folks buying the new homes want services to come to them, but they are not reinvested in the community the way those former long settled generations participated and built the community through volunteerism and shared responsibility.

As the current Board of County Commissioners approves weakening the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances (APFO) protections, and accepts developer buyouts on school construction, and passes on road and infrastructure costs, blind to the tax deficit status of new homes versus services costs:  Lennie stands out as if he cried wolf and they don’t believe him.

Lennie talks about that born and bred Frederick style as his caricature Aunt Matilda.  She’s holding onto her land and not asking much of government, doesn’t believe in handouts, even when she is needy, that’s for folks worse off than her self.  She makes enough to live on and pay her taxes, in person, on time.

Lennie’s detractors call him a populist as if serving the interests and appealing to the voters was a gross error.  But apparently the voters don’t see it that way.

For Thompson must give the Republicans with a capital R fits when he opposes corporate welfare and unbridled growth.  I wish that I’d asked him about the political fallout within his own party, when they generally support business interests and growth.  But that’s a long tradition in Frederick County.  When officials don’t switch parties, they simply act like the opposing party members.  And Lennie likely wouldn’t ever consider a switch, he grew into his party, feeds off its margin, and basks in its ascendancy in Frederick County.

To paraphrase his political equation, ‘If a Democrat gets the school endorsement, then they’ll usually get through the Primary.  If a Republican gets the schools endorsement, they’ll usually be the vote leader.’

Lennie feels that the economic development folks ought to ask business owners looking at coming to Frederick County what they’ll offer or do for us, rather than go begging and proffering corporate welfare.  They’ll be impressed enough to book the first plane to Frederick County, he says.

 

 

 

 

He is serious about his ethics concerns.  He sees the rezoning cases oiled by campaign contributions.  He found it telling that only attorneys and land lobbying interests rose to oppose his recommended ordinances on undue influence.  He would find a bit more sunshine good for the community soul, and perhaps it would light the road to Damascus for a few of his colleagues on the Board.

Lennie said he’d like a campaign commercial from atop the mountain looking down at Middletown, first seeing it around 1906 as all farms, and then again – built out today, and then he’d turn to face the camera sideways, like that Indian in the old highway trash commercials, with a tear running down his cheek.

If Thompson runs again, he wins, and quite likely, the developers lose, for he sees a slow growth turn once again in the Board of County Commissioners.  He’s waiting for the green light from the family, and he’s got a new slogan, but as we sat and chewed over all the broad outlines of growth politics, it faded from my mind.  Count my vote for Thompson any time.