In Montgomery, at-large council vote nears

Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated a former job title for at-large Council member Hans Riemer. He was national youth vote director for the Obama campaign, not a youth coordinator for the campaign.


The Montgomery County Council meets on February 2 in the hearing room at the Montgomery Council Building in Rockville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The key question for Montgomery County voters in the at-large council race is this: Do they want incumbent Marc Elrich to remain what is often a lone voice of caution and skepticism when it comes to development?

On many issues, Elrich, the council’s top vote-getter in 2010, generally agrees with his three at-large colleagues. On land use and growth, however, the foursome usually becomes a threesome.

All four — Nancy Floreen, Hans Riemer, George Leventhal and Elrich — are up for reelection and are running in the June 24 Democratic primary. The major challenger is Beth Daly, an Upcounty activist who has aligned herself with Elrich.

“I’m on the same page as Marc,” said Daly, 51, the granddaughter of an Ohio Teamster truck driver and director of political ad sales at Telemundo.

She said she moved to Montgomery because of the “green spaces, good schools and responsive government,” and worries that the county’s amenities are jeopardized by jammed roads and overcrowded schools.

“I think they’re putting developers’ interests ahead of residents’, ” said Daly, who serves on the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board and Sugarloaf Citizens Association. She lived in Kensington and Bethesda before arriving at her current home, in the hamlet of Dickerson.

The other at-large challenger is retired Army nurse and Montgomery Democratic Central Committee member Vivian Malloy, who advocates expanded services for veterans and seniors. Her campaign has been hampered by a lack of fundraising.

The at-large candidates will be on the ballot in a primary that also includes four contested races for district council seats. Early voting begins Thursday.

Elrich, who spent years championing the bus rapid transit plan that the council approved in 2013, says he is not anti-growth but is an advocate of “responsible” growth. His views have placed him on the short end of many 8 to 1 council votes, including on long-term master plans for the Chevy Chase Lakes, Long Branch and Kensington neighborhoods.

Elrich was also the lone vote against the recent rewrite of the county zoning code, a process led by Floreen. He argued that the new code could allow excessive height and density in neighborhood shopping strips. Forecasts of development’s impact on traffic and schools are flawed, he said, skewed in favor of real estate interests.

“When push comes to shove, we’ll let anybody do anything. It’s all about density for everybody everywhere,” said Elrich, 64, a former elementary school math teacher and Takoma Park City Council member who is seeking his third County Council term.

After some debate, Elrich’s three at-large colleagues supported his 2013 bill to raise the county’s minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2017. He joined them in backing Riemer’s measure to increase the county’s supplement to the federal earned income tax credit for the working poor. All four lawmakers voted for bills to address climate change, including a measure that commits the county to purchase 100 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2016. Each council member places the school system’s achievement gap at or near the top of his or her long-term concerns.

But the development divide is reflected in their campaign treasuries. Riemer, Floreen and Leventhal draw significant funding from real estate development interests, while Elrich takes no money from that sector.

Daly, who has put $55,000 of her own money into the race, has benefited politically from her close identification with Elrich. Their donor lists have a noticeable overlap.

She has drawn criticism from Purple Line advocates, who say she equivocated on support for the project (Elrich supports the Bethesda-New Carrollton light rail, albeit grudgingly). In an e-mail last month, Purple Line Now President Ralph Bennett paraphrased Leventhal, one of the project’s most outspoken supporters, as saying Daly is “opposed to everything.”

Daly said she is no anti-growth, anti-business ideologue. What she wants, she said, is “an honest sharing of the burdens and benefits of growth” among residents and developers.

At-large incumbents know the recent history of their race. Every four years, voters send at least one of them back to private life: Blair Ewing in 2002; Michael Subin in 2006 and Duchy Trachtenberg in 2010 (Trachtenberg is attempting a comeback in the District 1 race against Roger Berliner).

So the at-large incumbents are running against Daly, to one degree or another.

Riemer, 41, a former national youth vote director for the Obama campaign and AARP staffer who is seeking his second term, said Daly represents an outmoded growth-no-growth debate from which the county has moved on. He says development needs to be pursued in the right places to generate tax revenue for schools and other community cornerstones.

“This county needs good jobs, and we need to strengthen our local economy. I think she really leans against those concerns,” said Riemer, who led a task force this year to study ways of making the county a more appealing destination for millennials. If reelected, he said, he wants to push for expansion of child-care services in the county.

Floreen, 62, a former Planning Board member and mayor of Garrett Park running for her fourth term, is probably the most politically moderate and business-friendly of the four at-large incumbents. In 2010, she helped found the Montgomery County Business Development Corp. to attract employers.

She also speaks most directly to a constituency that wants to see the county preserve its identity as a bedroom community.

“I think it’s okay to have suburbia,” Floreen said at a recent candidate forum. “That’s where a large portion of our population has chosen to live, with good reason.” As chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee, she is the best funded of the at-large candidates, with $180,000 in the bank. Her donor list brims with development and construction money.

Leventhal, 51, tends to cast the downsides of growth in a positive light. Traffic and high housing costs, he says, are all signs that the county is a coveted location. “We’re a highly desirable community,” he said. “And we have a great story to tell.”

As chair of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, he has made bolstering the county’s social safety net his signature issue, moving to strengthen programs for the homeless and uninsured. He has also pushed the school system to improve student nutrition. collaborating with Real Food for Kids,a nonprofit organization.

Leventhal has lost some of the high-profile endorsements he won in 2010, including the Montgomery teachers union and SEIU Local 500, which was unhappy about Leventhal’s opposition to displaced-worker legislation that the council passed in 2012.

“They have the right to support whoever they want to support,” he said. “I think every public employee union has expected incumbents to do whatever the unions ask for. I don’t just work for all the public employee unions. I work for the people of Montgomery County.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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