Editor’s Note: Today we are introducing MoCo Politics, a regular opinion column on the local political scene by Adam Pagnucco. The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s.
It’s an unusual event for a MoCo countywide general election to be contested, but here we are. Everyone is talking about the face-off between county executive candidates Marc Elrich (the Democratic nominee), Nancy Floreen (a former Democrat running as an independent) and Republican Robin Ficker. But what they should also notice is a fact written plain as day in Floreen’s campaign finance report: The business community is not accepting the result of the Democratic primary. In fact, it is revolting against the county’s Democrats.
For many years, conventional wisdom has held that the Democratic primary was the only MoCo election that matters, especially in countywide elections. That’s been true since District 1 County Council member Howie Denis and District 15 Del. Jean Cryor, MoCo’s last Republican officeholders, were ousted in 2006. So the business community has played in Democratic primaries, figuring that there was no alternative to doing so. Politicians including Ike Leggett, Doug Duncan, George Leventhal, Steve Silverman and Floreen were recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars in business contributions.
This year, the business community struggled to find a consensus candidate in the primary. In the early going, council member Roger Berliner looked like a more palatable choice than Leventhal. But then state Del. Bill Frick, former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow and businessman David Blair got in and business people were pulled in four (!) different directions. Tragically for them, Berliner wound up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative TV and mail against Blair, who turned out to be Elrich’s most serious rival. In large part, it was business money donated to Berliner that ultimately did in Blair and won the Democratic nomination for Elrich.
In a normal year, business folks would have accepted the result and tried—however grudgingly— to make their peace with Elrich. But nothing is normal about 2018. Floreen was ready to retire from the council if anyone other than Elrich had won the primary, but beckoned by business support, she dropped her party affiliation to run against a man she dubbed “a disaster.” Now, instead of accepting the Democratic nominee, the business community is openly trying to defeat him.
Floreen’s new campaign finance report filed with the state shows the story. She raised $342,040, of which $206,207 was spent to get her on the ballot. About 92 percent of her take ($315,550) came from business owners, executives or attorneys who represent them. Fifty-nine percent ($201,700) came from the real estate industry and roughly an additional nineteen percent ($66,750) came from the construction industry. Thirty-five of the 130 contributions she received were for $6,000 each, the maximum amount allowed by state law.
There are two big risks here. First, Elrich is a politician who has been running against developers for more than 30 years. The fact that his main opponent received more than three-quarters of her money from the real estate and construction industries will strengthen his message and bring out his supporters in a huge way. Second, in the event that Elrich wins, these business people will have to deal with him as the executive. In a remarkable post-election essay, Elrich’s former campaign manager opined the primary saw something resembling a conspiracy between The Washington Post’s editorial board, its beat reporter and a group of developers to generate negative coverage on Elrich. If the rest of Team Elrich—and perhaps the candidate himself—shares that view, those who contribute to Floreen and then need something from County Executive Elrich in the future are likely to leave with empty hands. And that says nothing about all the Democrats on the council, most of whom won with public financing and have no need for business money.
The business community is rolling the dice big-time. Will it pay off or go bust?
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.