Jul 13, 2022 - News

Town Talker: Affluent but in decline, Montgomery County to pick future

Headshots of Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer, and David Blair
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, At-large County Council member Hans Riemer, and businessman David Blair. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Cheryl Diaz Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Affluent and vast, you wouldn’t necessarily think of Montgomery County as withering.

Driving the news: New, glitzy Bethesda towers and urban-ish redevelopment along Rockville Pike have punched up the sprawling Washington suburb that's home to more than a million people.

But withering it is, say economists and opponents of its leader, Marc Elrich — who is running for a second term in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county executive.

Why it matters: Montgomery County has long been seen as the economic engine of Maryland, but the place home to armies of civil servants and diverse communities — from dense Silver Spring to farm country around Poolesville — is bleeding jobs and losing pace with the region’s economy.

Self-funded businessman David Blair lost to Elrich by 77 votes in 2018 and is back to challenge him. At-large council member Hans Riemer is another top contender.

  • Both criticize the incumbent for being too slow to embrace new businesses and development.

The election is also a stress test for progressive politics. Elrich hails from the liberal bastion of Takoma Park and is a proud Democratic Socialist. Yes, he is hemmed in by an oppositional county council — he admits he’s not “able to do socialist things, per se.” But the 72-year-old is the Washington region’s most high-profile leftist leader.

What I’m hearing: Elrich gets high marks for his handling of the pandemic, the kind of goodwill that incumbents nationwide have parlayed into electoral success. (95% of Montgomery County residents are vaccinated.)

But critics slam Elrich for having a NIMBY attitude toward new development, particularly market-rate units that would grow the county’s middle class.

  • The Washington Post editorial board wrote one of its harshest denunciations of a pol when it endorsed Blair over Elrich. Even one-time allies such as the environmental group Sierra Club and the Metro D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America declined to endorse Elrich.

Yes, but: “It’s Marc’s to lose,” says Gus Bauman, a former county planning board chair. “He has the edge because he’s the incumbent. People aren’t paying attention. Plus, it’s in July, which is doubly confusing.”

  • “There’s no burning-down-the-house issue,” adds Bauman, who says he personally abhors Elrich’s handling of the economy.

Recent polls show Elrich with a lead. Riemer and Blair appear to split the anti-incumbent vote. “If one of them had dropped out, then Marc Elrich would lose,” Bauman says.

  • Inside Blair’s campaign office across the street from Pike & Rose — the stylish live-play-dine development that was once a strip mall with a Toys R Us — the ex-business exec waves away the idea with a politician’s smile. “I think we’re going to win.”
  • Riemer takes a shot at Blair: “A lot of people don’t want a rich guy with a corporate background running Montgomery County.”

The term-limited council member Riemer shuns outside money; Blair is supported by a developer-funded PAC. Riemer has been at the forefront of supporting Thrive 2050, a planning document that has inspired passions for seeking more dense development.

  • “We need city centers up and down Rockville Pike,” the Oakland, California native tells me over lunch at Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda. “Marc’s been fighting against those plans for decades.”

But polls show him trailing Blair, the founder and former CEO of the Fortune 500 company Catalyst Health Solutions. Blair talks up his executive experience and wants a “business bill of rights” to improve the commercial climate. A number he often cites: over the past 10 years, the net tax migration out of Montgomery County has been $5.2 billion.

  • “This is our tax base that’s slowly been leaving,” Blair tells me. “The statistics are shocking.”

Steve Silverman, a former council member who advises the PAC backing Blair, says the county has to grow its tax base to pay for generous social programs. “I think it’s fair to say job creation has not been a priority of the Elrich administration,” he says.

Jacob Sesker, a longtime county economics expert, says its divergence with places like more successful Fairfax County — which is so similar in many ways that he calls the neighboring jurisdiction “bizarro Montgomery County” — is stark. “I feel that the economy of Montgomery County is nearing or even past a point of no return,” he says.

But David Lublin, an American University professor who blogs about county politics, credits Elrich for a practical, “cares-about-details” approach to governing.

  • “I don’t think he’s governed as a radical Democratic socialist,” he says.

The scene: I talked to Elrich on a campaign stop at a Montgomery Village strip mall last Saturday. He was far from his base, and it was rainy; Elrich admitted to a canvasser he was “kind of tired.” State delegate Gabriel Acevero was booming: “We’re fired up to get Marc re-elected!”

  • Without shedding his soft-spoken, grandfatherly mien, Elrich then railed against millionaire influence in the race. He denounced the Post: “Democracy dies when the press lies.”

He then defended his affordable housing record by invoking a 2017 incident when as a council member he said that a high-rise project amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of immigrant communities in Silver Spring. That characterization of displacement shocked many.

  • “I saved people’s homes,” he said. “There are thousands of people who would have been evaporated from Montgomery County if I hadn’t said that.”

💬 Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics and power. Tell me about feuds in your neighborhood: [email protected]

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