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A radical revision for Montgomery's Elrich

By Steve Hendrix
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; B1

There's no doubting Marc Elrich's counterculture cred. He was 12 when he went to his first peace rally in 1961. A few years later, when he got to the University of Maryland, he promptly helped take over the philosophy building.

He's been arrested at an anti-apartheid protest. He's run a natural food co-op. He pushed Takoma Park to declare itself a nuclear-free zone and served 10 terms on that activist enclave's City Council.

So when Elrich unexpectedly won a seat on the Montgomery County Council four years ago, he was widely seen as a tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberal warrior, the anti-business darling of the county's most radical corner.

So how come they suddenly love him in Poolesville?

Running for reelection in last month's Democratic primary, Elrich won not just in urbanized downcounty neighborhoods but in more rural areas as well. He proved the top vote-getter in a field of nine, winning in every district in the county.

And he was endorsed not only by the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO but also by the Realtors association and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

"He's come a long way, baby," said Stephen Elmendorf, a real estate lawyer who represents developers in the county. "When he was first elected, I think there was shock in the business community, and fear. But a lot of that has dissipated. . . .

"I think he's trying to find solutions."

Even in a restive political year (council member Duchy Trachtenberg lost her seat when she failed to finish in the top four in the at-large race), Elrich is considered a shoo-in to win in November in heavily Democratic Montgomery. It's a pleasant shift for someone who ran four losing races for the council before finally bagging a seat in 2006.

"It feels good," Elrich said one recent morning over an Egg Beaters omelet at Mark's Kitchen in downtown Takoma Park, a few blocks from where he's lived for 30 years. At 60, he's short-haired, stocky and tie-free. He looks more like the elementary school teacher he was for 17 years than either a hippie radical or a professional politician.

Elrich has watched the evaporation of his radical rep with amused pleasure. Over and over, he's heard a version of the same reaction from upcounty neighborhood leaders, home builders and even anti-immigrant activists: You're a lot more normal than I expected.

"I was never the caricature that people thought I was," Elrich said. Not that he wouldn't love to push more liberal causes (rent control is high on his list), but he knows most of them are non-starters. "My progressive principles are deep, but I didn't run five times just to come here and lose a bunch of 8-1 votes. I really want to make a difference."

Business leaders said they began to see an unexpected side of Elrich when he started championing bus rapid transit as a solution to the county's traffic woes. The technology, a tram-bus combination that runs in dedicated lanes, is gaining favor among both developers and environmentalists as a relatively cheap way to ease congestion and cut emissions.

"This wasn't something he read about in Newsweek," said Elmendorf, who invited Elrich to address developers on the proposal. "He really researched it. He's realized that his ability to do things he wants to do in terms of social programs is really tied to a healthy real estate economy."

Elrich said that meeting helped business leaders understand his strategic sympathy for their cause. "I told them, 'My goal is to make you as healthy as I possibly can so I can bleed you for every dime I can get out of you,' " he said.

Elrich's most surprising achievement may be that he's won converts on the business side without alienating his liberal base. Unlike some prominent Democrats.

"For progressives, he's not another Barack Obama," said Keith Berner, who writes about local politics for the liberal Left-Hand View blog. "I haven't heard the word 'sellout.' We know his principles and ideals are in the correct place."

Those ideals came straight from his parents, Elrich said. His father, a postal worker, and his mother, a waitress, were both disciples of New Deal liberalism. The young Elrich could recite the arguments for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower by the time he was 7, he said.

The family lived in Northeast D.C. until Elrich was 10. He remembers tensions rising as more African American families moved to his previously white neighborhood. A white friend's mother banned him from her house when she saw him playing with new black neighbors.

When Elrich was 10, his mother was nearly mugged on her walk home from work, and they moved to Forest Glen in Montgomery County.

His parents cheered Elrich's growing activism, letting him take a bus downtown to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963. As soon as he arrived in College Park, he joined Students for a Democratic Society. He ran for student government president but lost.

As the Vietnam War heated up, only a draft deferment for asthma kept him from buying a bus ticket to Montreal. "There was no way I was going to fight that war," he said.

After college, Elrich got a job moving stock at Montgomery Ward. He eventually became a manager. He married and had two children, and he and his wife took in two others as foster children. Elrich remained active in liberal causes: apartheid, nuclear disarmament, opposing U.S. involvement in Central America.

In the late 1980s, work as a substitute teacher at Rolling Terrace Elementary turned into a permanent gig as a math teacher, even though his last math class had been in 11th grade. By the time he left almost two decades later, he was legendary for bringing reluctant fourth- and fifth-graders to a love of numbers.

"To this day, he's the best math teacher my daughter ever had," says Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a former Rolling Terrace parent. "He put them on this incredibly advanced math curriculum and made it really fun."

Eventually he divorced, his kids grew up, and he began to devote more time to politics. But even as he championed liberal causes, observers said he was developing a conciliatory style.

"When I first met him, he was still wearing a ponytail and Grateful Dead shirts to the City Council meetings, but his approach to governance was pragmatic and problem-solving," said Berner.

At first, Elrich did not exactly ease the jitters of those who thought a leftist fireball was about to hit the County Council. In 2007, he rankled colleagues by inviting Venezuela's ambassador to Rockville to see if Hugo Chavez's government might donate to social programs in the county. Elrich canceled the meeting after howls of protest from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and others.

But then he began to win support with what he calls "basic retail politics." Elrich, who retired from teaching when he was elected to the council, attends hundreds of community meetings a year, six days a week. He even had what he describes as a civil exchange with a group of Maryland Minutemen, fierce opponents of Elrich's permissive view of illegal immigration.

"I just said, 'Look, you can beat me up over immigration all you want,' " he recalls. " 'But first, let me tell you about what I want to do on a whole lot of other issues that are important to the county.' There's no way they're going to agree with me on immigration, but we ended up having a nice, intelligent discussion."

Elrich's strong finish to his first term hasn't been without trouble, however. Long viewed as a strong ally of Leggett, Elrich fell out with the county executive over one of Leggett's signature projects, the publicly supported construction of a Live Nation concert venue in Silver Spring.

When it emerged that Elrich had given a deposition in a lawsuit against the project, Leggett aides cried foul, arguing that county law prohibited council members from participating in suits against the county.

Elrich maintains that what he said in the deposition is nothing he hasn't said in public: that the council should have voted on Leggett's decision to shift $3.2 million to cover cost overruns on the project.

Leggett said he still supports Elrich and donated to his campaign. He credits Elrich with being the first council member to join his fight to radically trim the budget in the face of a massive shortfall. But the Live Nation rift is real, he said.

"I'm still disappointed in his position on that and more disappointed that he signed that affidavit than anything else," Leggett said. "He and I need to talk about that a little bit more."

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