In May, after leading the Montgomery County Council to a unanimous vote on a controversial budget that ultimately ended in a public fallout with employee unions, Valerie Ervin began to cry.
It was a rare moment of public vulnerability for a woman whose one-year term as the council's first black female president was one of the more contentious in recent memory.
But the slip lasted less than a minute, before Ervin wiped the tears and stepped in front of a camera for a TV interview.
“There's no crying in politics,” Ervin said in a recent interview about her presidency. “I have to say that as a woman sitting in that position I think you're always challenged a little bit more. You have to be in a position where people still see you as a strong leader. Even where there were times when I wanted to fall apart, I really had to dig deep to get through it.”
Ervin's public persona has largely been defined by biting comments in the media, and a track record of spats with other elected officials that have become red meat for political junkies.
Then, there is the question of her political aspirations. Most observers believe she is eyeing a bid for county executive in 2014. Ervin says it is too soon to speculate.
But Ervin will enter into her next campaign without the support of the union that represents about 8,000 county government employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization. The labor group had endorsed Ervin in each of her two successful elections to the council.
“Her leadership from a labor perspective was an absolute disaster,” said Gino Renne, the union's president. “There is absolutely no way our membership will ever consider endorsing her again.”
Renne said while the council was adopting its fiscal 2012 budget, Ervin ignored the union's input and misled him. The council ultimately voted to require government employees to contribute more toward their health care and retirement benefits — proposals the union opposed. Ervin denies those claims and said she kept the county's union leaders informed.
“She doesn't honor her commitments,” Renne said. “We're going to expose that in every form or fashion for the remainder of her term.”
That includes a website Renne's union had a hand in creating — therealvalerieervin.com — that blasts Ervin's record.
Ervin, a former union organizer and dean of students at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, also has been criticized by the county's police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 35. The union organized protests at her home and invited clowns to a council meeting to impersonate Ervin and other council members.
Police officers cited her efforts to eliminate their ability to negotiate over management decisions — a change approved by the nine-member council.
Ervin said she was unprepared for the attacks.
“That was very hard on me personally,” she said. “I've had some relationships with these folks for years.”
For much of Ervin's career, she's been the person behind the person in charge — serving as Councilman George L. Leventhal's chief of staff, working for the president of the Labor College and serving on the county's seven-member Board of Education.
“You make a lot of friends, but at the same time you make a lot of people angry,” she said of her presidency. “That was a really hard lesson for me to learn. I didn't know where the hits were going to come from. I'm not naive, but some of it was a surprise.”
Behind the scenes, over the past year Ervin worked quietly to lead the county's nine-member legislative body to unanimous votes on the $4.4 billion operating budget, reforms in employee health care and disability benefits and a fiscal policy that Ervin describes as the foundation for stability.
“I think what we did this year was we laid the bricks for the foundation moving forward,” she said.
Perhaps her boldest move was spearheading the council's rejection of the state's school funding law — a turning point in the council's efforts to balance the budget this year. After initially seeking a waiver from maintenance of effort, the state formula for funding education, the council chose instead to defy it.
The decision allows the county to reduce the amount of money it gives to Montgomery County Public Schools this fiscal year — and potentially every year thereafter.
“We all believe that maintenance of effort is a good law,” Ervin said. “We all want an excellent school system. But nobody foresaw all those years ago that the world and the nation would be in such economic straits.”
Ervin said the council, under her leadership, also made strides in economic development — though the business community seems reluctant to give them credit, she said.
“I do believe the county has been sort of seen in this negative light,” she said. “And some of it I will put right back on the business community. They are trying to blame the economy on the nine-member council.”
She points to the council's votes on commercial-residential zoning and to delay some taxes on new development as good for business.
“The council has done an extraordinary amount of good that will benefit economic development this year, contrary to what the business community says,” Ervin said.
But Ervin's latest proposal — which would require big-box stores to enter into binding agreements with community groups — has not taken off. It appears to be stalled in a council committee, and despite having several co-sponsors, they have not supported it publicly.
Ervin said the legislation would give communities greater input in the operation and size of big-box stores, such as Walmart. Opponents worry it could deter such stores from opening or give too much power to unelected members of the community, opening the process up to fraud.
“I don't think anyone wants to touch that bill,” said Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park. “It doesn't make any sense. It's deeply flawed.”
As for what's next, Ervin is looking forward to returning her focus to issues she is most passionate about, including those that affect children and the poor and providing universal access to pre-kindergarten. She's also looking forward to spending more time in her district, which includes the eastern part of the county from Silver Spring to Burtonsville under a newly redrawn electoral map.
She's also being prodded, Ervin said, to consider the next election.
“I get asked a lot [about County Executive],” Ervin said. “I just think it's too early. I need some time to regroup after this year and think about it.”
Ervin said that her time as president showed her the toll that being the county's top elected leader could take on her personal life and health.
“If you do this job right, you spend a lot of time doing it,” she said. “You have to make the decision, is it worth it at the end of the day?”