Montgomery election: Incumbent Democrat Marc Elrich seeks re-election

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Marc Elrich, 72, had a 35-year political career. Yet for many of his supporters, the sitting county executive in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction has never been a traditional politician: He doesn’t care about wearing ties or cleaning up for pictures; he is nonchalant about fundraising; and he’s known for his ramblings and off-scripts, often to the surprise of his own communications team.

That authenticity has helped Elrich build a devoted army of supporters, even as it has made him a divisive figure in the deep blue of Montgomery County, a DC suburb teeming with political ambition. In 2018, that helped him stand out in a crowded Democratic primary and clinch the nomination by 77 votes.

But as he seeks a second term, under attack from many sides over broken campaign promises and his post-pandemic plans, Elrich is struggling to defend a record he says is misunderstood.

He is reviled as a ‘petty bully’ by conservative talk show hosts for pushing coronavirus vaccine passports and a ‘NIMBY’ by liberal activists for opposing new developments; he’s loved by unions, who credit him with raising the county’s minimum wage, and hated by “smart growth” advocates, who don’t understand why he so often opposes building housing near highways. public transport.

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“[Elrich] is not a seller. He’s not trying to sell you himself,” said Tony Hausner, one of his longtime supporters.

Scott Schneider, a retired labor organizer who volunteered for Elrich’s campaign, put it more bluntly: Elrich’s communication skills are a “handicap,” he said.

“He’s trying,” Schneider added. “But there are so many people shooting him.”

Some of the liberals who backed Elrich in 2018 say they are disappointed with his slow progress on climate action and criminal justice reform. His critics launched a campaign calling on voters to choose anyone but him in the election. His two main opponents – board member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and businessman David Blair – have outstripped him in fundraising. And this week, Blair got an endorsement from the Montgomery County Sierra Club Group, an influential environmental group.

Elrich, in turn, said he was publicly slandered. At candidate forums, he asked for more time to refute his opponents and sometimes confronted them after the event for statements they made.

“They just don’t know the job,” he said in a recent interview of his opponents. “A lot of what they say is a bunch of lies.”

Much of Montgomery’s political landscape will change in 2023, with three term council members, two new council seats and a new state governor. To address the county’s post-pandemic challenges, from deteriorating student mental health to shutdown-induced business closures, the next county executive must be someone “who can build bridges and bring everyone at the table,” the outgoing board member said. Nancy Navarro (D-District 4).

” I do not know if [Elrich] would be that proactive leader in a second term,” she said.

Others, however, say it is precisely because there are so many changes looming in Montgomery that voters should stick with Elrich.

“Absent a scandal,” said Gino Renne, head of the county employees union. “Montgomery County voters do not have a tradition of nominating incumbents.”

A former primary school teacher, Elrich got his political start on Takoma Park Town Council before being elected to the county council. In 2018, when Elrich said he would run to succeed incumbent county executive Ike Leggett (D), his critics were appalled.

Highlighting his affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America, they said he was a socialist who would spend wholeheartedly and “jeopardize the county’s economic and fiscal prospects”. The Washington Post editorial board endorsed Blair, a political newcomer, in the primary, and Nancy Floreen, a Democratic board member who ran as an independent, in the general election.

Carried by his followers, Elrich defeats them both.

The worst fears about Elrich failed to materialize during his first term: Montgomery still has his Triple-A bond rating and announced in March that he would set aside the equivalent of 10% of its budget in reserves for the first time since this objective. was set in 2012. Taxes haven’t been raised even as county spending has increased — depending on Elrich’s budget skills or the federal government’s generous aid programs, depending on who is told. request.

At the same time, however, Elrich broke many of his campaign promises, from shutting down a trash-polluting incinerator to building Bus Rapid Transit in east Montgomery. His efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and “reimagine” public safety have been mired in studies and task forces with little to show in tangible change, critics say.

In 2018, Elrich said Montgomery had “the worst business climate in…maybe the universe” and hoped to fix it by the end of his freshman year. There have been some improvements, say business leaders, but regulations remain onerous. “We haven’t advanced the needle much,” said Lori Graf, executive director of the Maryland Builders Association.

None of this is really his fault, Elrich said.

On the Dickerson incinerator: Leggett has extended a contract with the operator until 2026 and there are no good alternatives as to where the waste goes, he said.

On climate action: He sent the council legislation requiring existing buildings to reduce their emissions, but it took them a year to approve it.

On affordable housing: “I don’t control housing,” he said; the county’s planning board and county council decide on zoning laws.

In 2019, Elrich added, he inherited a budget deficit that left little room for new investment. Then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit. He maintains he has kept Montgomery safer than many other jurisdictions thanks to covid-19, although several county council members say he doesn’t deserve the main credit.

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Maryland Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who has known Elrich since the 1990s, said his “pattern” of blaming others for shortcomings in his first term is not an inspiring political strategy — or notified.

“When he was one of the nine, he could be an extremist…and let the others follow suit,” said Kagan, who supports Blair. “These skills don’t translate to a leadership position.”

Schneider, the Elrich supporter, said those disappointed with Elrich’s first term were “misguided”.

“Has he made enough progress or as much as we would like? Well, we need him to do more,” Schneider said. “That’s why he’s running for a second term.”

Arguably the deepest dividing line between Elrich and his challengers is what to do about Montgomery’s affordable housing crisis, which is expected to worsen unless authorities take significant steps to to intervene.

Riemer and Blair, along with a majority of the current council, believe there needs to be more housing across all income scales, including market-priced housing.

Elrich, however, believes that new housing should only be built if it serves the poor and if it has the proper infrastructure, i.e. roads and schools. It’s more important, he says, to preserve the affordable housing that already exists.

In 2020, he vetoed a bill giving tax breaks to developers wanting to build high-rise buildings above subway stations. The board overruled its veto, but Elrich argues the legislation, backed by the Sierra Club and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, was a mistake.

“There’s no other way to put it,” he said over breakfast one morning in March. “We were cheated by the developers.”

Sitting at Busboys and Poets in Takoma Park, Elrich said he was neither anti-development nor anti-business. He’s inviting developers to build affordable housing on county land and he plans to boost Montgomery’s economy, including investing in artificial intelligence research with the University of Maryland and waiving impact taxes. to attract business – an idea experts say is viable but complicated.

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“I really think we’re about to turn the corner,” Elrich said.

He acknowledges that Montgomery has a reputation for not being business-friendly, but it’s a rap he’s trying to fix.

As for his own political image, the way forward is not so clear, he said. as he finished a breakfast omelet he had requested without potatoes. Since the start of the pandemic, Elrich has been practicing intermittent fasting and observing a no-carb diet. He lost 45 pounds.

“You know,” he added, just before leaving to testify in Annapolis, “I’m more complicated than you think.”

Several weeks later, at the end of a candidates’ forum focused on social justice issues, Elrich was asked what he would prioritize if re-elected.

Climate and income inequality, he replied. Then he stopped.

“I really want to leave the world in a better place than the one I walked into,” he said. “How does life get so different when we all – literally – occupy the same space?”

Seated up front, Katherine McKenna of Colesville listened, unimpressed. She did not vote for Elrich in the 2018 primary and had come to see what he had to say after his first term.

“I wanted him to talk politics, but nothing happened,” said McKenna, who is 70.

“Oh,” she added as she left the forum, “And he mumbles.”

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