Elrich regrets some of the times he has played along. He cites the White Flint redevelopment plan, passed unanimously in early 2010, as an example.
“When my colleagues were under pressure from civic people, asking, ‘Why did you vote for that, it’s a really bad decision,’ [the response was]: ‘Even Marc voted for it. He thought it was OK,’ ” Elrich says. “I don’t want to provide that kind of cover.”
The flip side of that is that Elrich doesn’t shy away from occasionally using his legislative colleagues as a foil. Take the recent inaugural meeting of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, a group formed to push for protections for renters.
“I tried a couple of years ago: I circulated a [rent control] proposal to all of the council members,” Elrich tells a sympathetic audience of more than 100 at the Silver Spring Civic Building. “Not a single one wanted to talk to me about it.”
Urging listeners to attend a forthcoming county council committee meeting on the subject, he notes: “My colleagues need to see other people in the audience [rather than just landlords and land-use attorneys] so that they know there are other people paying attention.”
Elrich later concedes that he isn’t likely to meet with any more success on rent control than he has in the past with his colleagues. But “I want to have the discussion,” he says. “We are losing an enormous amount of affordable housing just to rent increases. There is no credible program anyone has come up with that will replace the number of affordable units that get lost every year to changes in rents.”
Privately, some of Elrich’s colleagues grouse about him raising a proposal assured of going nowhere. Furthermore, they worry that a high-profile debate of the issue could reinforce past perceptions of Montgomery County as unfriendly to business.
Tension over issues such as this perhaps explains why Elrich, unlike colleagues with similar or even shorter tenure, has yet to serve as president or vice president of the council or to hold a committee chairmanship. Given his interest in land-use and development issues, Elrich sought the chairmanship of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee in early 2011. But the council’s president at the time, Valerie Ervin, passed him over for Floreen.
“I got screwed,” Elrich said with characteristic bluntness at the time.
Ervin’s take: “At that time, I believed a majority of the council thought his views were pretty extreme, more extreme than the eight other councilmembers. And after talking to a vast majority of my colleagues, it was very clear that was not the direction people wanted to go.”
Though Ervin says she thinks Elrich has since “grown into his role as a more moderate member of the council, if I had to do it over again, I would still choose Nancy Floreen.”
For his part, Elrich says he’s probably more mainstream than his colleagues credit him with being. He points to his first-place finish in the 2010 Democratic primary for at-large county councilmembers. His championship of the BRT, which is designed to reduce traffic congestion, has brought him more in line with local business interests, as well.
Elrich began thinking seriously about the idea not long after first being elected six years ago. “It was apparent there was no way you could build an auto infrastructure adequate to support future development,” he says. “So I was curious to see if there were ways of moving people so that we’d continue to have ways to grow rather than shutting the place down.”
The future of the BRT proposal remains unclear. Many are taking a wait-and-see attitude, citing questions of cost and the ability to get riders out of their cars and into high-end buses.
But Stephen Elmendorf, a partner in the Bethesda-based law firm of Linowes and Blocher, praises Elrich’s “willingness to look for ways to solve the problem that has always been raised for not allowing more development to occur—which is the traffic issue.”
Just after his election in 2006, Elrich was invited to breakfast with attorneys at Linowes and Blocher. “He asked me if he had to bring his food taster,” Elmendorf recalls with a laugh.
Today, Elmendorf says, those in the business community “know Marc better, and they know they can talk to him. [But] I don’t think there is a belief that he has suddenly changed his core values.”
That’s why much of the county’s business establishment continues to regard Elrich’s future political intentions with a degree of nervousness.
Elrich is already taking swipes at one potential rival, Duncan, over development issues. “I can’t pay for anything if I don’t have a successful business community—but having a successful business community doesn’t mean that they get everything they want,” he says. “In fact, giving them everything they want doesn’t necessarily mean the government is going to have the resources to do the things that the government has to do.”
He continues: “Duncan’s years [in office] are a perfect example because we had all this growth in the county and we did no infrastructure—because nobody wanted to go after the residents and say, ‘We’re not making developers pay, you’re going to have to pay.’ So here we are: We don’t have the fire stations you need, we don’t have the police stations you need, you don’t have the libraries you need, and [we] let the schools get overcrowded.”
That said, Elrich also acknowledges that part of deciding whether he seeks the county’s top job is “what kind of council [I’d] be working with.”
“It’s not much good to be an executive in a hostile environment where you don’t think you can get things done,” he says.
The contest for Montgomery County’s next county executive includes a lot of wannabes and what-ifs
The 2014 race for Montgomery County executive could turn out to be the most wide open since the office was created more than four decades ago.
Or, it could turn out to be a Battle of the Titans, with the two men who have held the post over the past two decades—incumbent Isiah “Ike” Leggett and his immediate predecessor, Douglas Duncan—facing off.
Publicly, Leggett has been saying since 2011 that he plans to retire at the conclusion of his second term in 2014. But there’s rampant speculation both in Rockville and around the county that Leggett, who turns 70 next year, will decide to run again—reflecting, perhaps, a desire on the part of the political and business establishment to avoid uncertainty and head off any upheaval in the way the county is governed.
Leggett has left himself ample wiggle room to change his mind. Asked in an interview last fall whether he was still planning to retire, he responded: “I will have to say that a lot of people have asked me to re-evaluate that. But I haven’t found any compelling reasons as of yet to do that.”
Leggett left the door further ajar—saying he would announce a decision this year after meeting with supporters—following Duncan’s appearance before a group of business leaders at a Gaithersburg hotel last November.
“Make no mistake: I am running for county executive,” Duncan was quoted as telling the closed gathering. Such statements notwithstanding, he has since kept a low profile, prompting questions by some political insiders about whether he will indeed get into the race if Leggett seeks re-election. (Duncan did not return several calls seeking comment for this story.)
A poll commissioned by Duncan is said to have found that a race between him and Leggett—whose personal styles and governing philosophies contrast starkly—would be highly competitive. Some see that scenario as likely clearing the field of most other potential candidates, all of whom are Democrats (no Republican has been elected county executive since 1974).
If Leggett opts to depart, the focus would turn not only to Duncan, but to the prospect of a wholesale turnover in the Montgomery County Council—where a majority of the nine members appear to have some interest in moving around the corner in Rockville from 100 Maryland Ave. to 101 Monroe St.
One would be Councilmember Marc Elrich, an outspoken critic of county development policy who has said he would seriously consider running if Leggett does not. Other members of the potential field:
Councilmember Philip Andrews, who says he is “definitely” running regardless of who else enters the fray. A member of the council since 1998, he’s a former Maryland director of Common Cause whose reform image is bolstered by his refusal to take contributions from either developers or PACs. He has not been afraid to take on both developers and the county employee unions, whose contracts he considers “unsustainable.”
Councilmember Valerie Ervin. “I do think it’s intriguing that Montgomery County has never had a woman executive before,” Ervin says. At press time, she was reported to be in “serious discussions” about running, telling The Washington Post that “I’m getting a lot of incredible feedback that people want to see me move ahead.” She expected to make a decision by early March. Meanwhile, council observers say she has been working to repair relations with county labor unions that were damaged in an often nasty budget battle while she was council president in 2011.
Councilmember George Leventhal, who recently confirmed he’s in the race. A onetime aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, Leventhal has lined up with labor and pro-development forces during much of his council tenure. But he recently has found himself teaming with development skeptic Elrich on some issues.
Others expressing public or private interest in the county executive contest include Councilmember Nancy Floreen and former Councilmember Michael Knapp, an ex-congressional aide who left the county council at the end of 2010 after serving two terms from an upcounty district.
In addition, state Del. Benjamin Kramer, son of former County Executive Sidney Kramer—who served one term from 1986 to 1990—has been exploring a run. But the younger Kramer, who lost a run for county council in 2009, has been quoted as saying he would not take on Leggett.
Then there’s Steve Silverman, the county’s current economic development chief and a former member of the county council who lost to Leggett by a wide margin in the 2006 Democratic primary. But even if his current boss, Leggett, were to retire, it’s widely thought that Silverman’s political base would be largely pre-empted with Duncan in the contest.
As the political establishment awaits Leggett’s next move, the possibility of a crowded field has provided parlor-game fodder, even as it has created nervousness over future county governance. As one local developer put it, “If you get three or more candidates, that ball can bounce any way—because, all of a sudden, 30 percent to 40 percent [of the primary vote] is a winner.”
Louis Peck, a Washington-based journalist for three decades, has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level. He lives in Bethesda and is on the faculty of Boston University’s Washington, D.C., Journalism Program.