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Under attack, Montgomery County’s Marc Elrich says he’s misunderstood

The incumbent county executive grapples with his political image as he seeks reelection

County Executive Marc Elrich participates in a forum about social issues on April 26. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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Marc Elrich, 72, has had a 35-year political career. Yet, to many of his supporters, the sitting county executive in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction has never been a traditional politician: He doesn’t care for wearing neckties or cleaning up for pictures, he’s nonchalant about fundraising and he’s known for rambling and going off-script, often to the surprise of his own communications team.

This authenticity helped Elrich build a devoted army of supporters even as it made him a divisive figure in deep-blue Montgomery County, a D.C. suburb teeming with political ambition. In 2018, it helped him stand out in a crowded Democratic primary and clinch the nomination by 77 votes.

But as he seeks a second term, attacked from multiple sides on unfulfilled campaign promises and his post-pandemic plans, Elrich is struggling to defend a record he says is misunderstood.

He’s reviled as a “petty tyrant” by conservative talk show hosts for pushing coronavirus vaccine passports and a “NIMBY” by liberal activists for opposing new development; he’s beloved by unions, who credit him with raising the county’s minimum wage, and loathed by “smart growth” advocates, who don’t understand why he so often opposes building housing near transit.

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Elrich “is not a salesman. He doesn’t try to sell you on himself,” said Tony Hausner, one of his longtime supporters.

Scott Schneider, a retired labor organizer volunteering for Elrich’s campaign, put it more bluntly: Elrich’s communication skills are a “handicap,” he said.

“He’s trying,” Schneider added. “But there are so many people gunning for him.”

Some of the liberals who backed Elrich in 2018 say they’re disappointed in his slow progress on climate action and criminal justice reform. His critics have launched a campaign calling for voters to choose anyone but him in the election. His two main opponents — County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and businessman David Blair — have outpaced him in fundraising. And this week, Blair picked up the endorsement of the Montgomery County Sierra Club Group, an influential environmental group.

Elrich in turn has said he’s being publicly maligned. At candidate forums, he’s pushed for more time to rebut his opponents and sometimes confronted them after the event for statements they made.

“They just don’t know the job,” he said in a recent interview about his opponents. “So much of what they say is a pack of lies.”

Much of Montgomery’s political landscape will shift in 2023, with three term-limited council members, two new council seats and a new governor. To take on the county’s post-pandemic challenges, from the worsening mental health of students to the business closures caused by lockdowns, the next county executive needs to be someone “who can build bridges and bring everybody to the table,” said outgoing council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4).

“I don’t know if [Elrich] would be that proactive leader in a second term,” she said.

Others, however, say it’s precisely because there’s so much change looming in Montgomery that voters should stick with Elrich.

“Absent a scandal,” said Gino Renne, leader of the county’s employee union. “Montgomery County voters don’t have a tradition of turning out incumbents.”

Blame and credit

A former elementary school teacher, Elrich made his political debut on the Takoma Park City Council before being elected to the County Council. In 2018, when Elrich said he would run to succeed outgoing county executive Ike Leggett (D), his critics were aghast.

Pointing to his affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America, they said that he was a socialist who would spend without reserve and “imperil the county’s economic and fiscal prospects.” The Washington Post editorial board endorsed Blair, a political newcomer, in the primary, and Nancy Floreen, a Democratic council member who ran as an Independent, in the general election.

Buoyed by his faithful, Elrich beat them both.

The worst fears about Elrich have not materialized in his first term: Montgomery still has its Triple-A bond rating and announced in March that it’ll be setting aside the equivalent of 10 percent of its budget in reserves for the first time since that goal was set in 2012. Taxes haven’t been raised even as county spending has increased — a function of Elrich’s budgetary skills or the federal government’s generous relief packages, depending on who is asked.

At the same time, however, Elrich hasn’t fulfilled many of his campaign promises, from shutting down a polluting trash incinerator to building out bus rapid transit in eastern Montgomery. His efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and “reimagine” public safety have been mired in studies and task forces with little to show in tangible change, critics say.

In 2018, Elrich said Montgomery had the “the worst business climate in … possibly the universe” and that he hoped to fix it by the end of his first year. There have been some improvements, business leaders say, but regulations remain onerous. “We haven’t moved the needle forward by much,” said Lori Graf, chief executive of the Maryland Builders Association.

None of this is really his fault, Elrich said.

On the Dickerson incinerator: Leggett extended a contract with the operator until 2026 and there aren’t great alternatives on where the waste should go, he said.

On climate action: He sent the council legislation to require existing buildings to cut their emissions but it took them a year to approve it.

On affordable housing: “I don’t control the housing,” he said; the county’s planning board and County Council decide zoning laws.

In 2019, Elrich added, he inherited a budget deficit that left little room for new investment. Then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit. He argues that he kept Montgomery safer than many other jurisdictions through the pandemic, though several County Council members say he doesn’t deserve primary credit.

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Maryland Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who has known Elrich since the 1990s, said his “pattern” of blaming others for the shortcomings of his first term isn’t an inspiring — or savvy — political strategy.

“When he was one of nine, he could be an extremist … and let others do the follow-through,” said Kagan, who is backing Blair. “Those skills do not translate to an executive position.”

Schneider, the Elrich supporter, said those disappointed in Elrich’s first term are “misguided.”

“Has he made enough progress or as much as we’d like? Well, we need him to make more,” Schneider said. “That’s why he’s running for a second term.”

Fixing a reputation

Arguably the deepest dividing line between Elrich and his challengers is what to do about Montgomery’s affordable-housing crisis, which is set to worsen unless officials take significant actions to intervene.

Both Riemer and Blair, along with a majority of the current council, think there needs to be more housing across all income scales, including market-rate housing.

Elrich, however, thinks housing should be built only if it serves the poor and if it comes with the appropriate infrastructure, meaning roads and schools. It’s more important, he says, to preserve the affordable housing that already exists.

In 2020, he vetoed a bill giving tax breaks to developers willing to build high-rise buildings on top of Metro stations. The council overrode his veto, but Elrich maintains that the legislation, supported by the Sierra Club and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, was a mistake.

“There’s no other way to say it,” he said over breakfast one morning in March. “We got rolled by the developers.”

Seated at the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Takoma Park, Elrich said he’s not anti-development or anti-business. He’s inviting developers to build affordable housing on county land and he has plans to spur Montgomery’s economy, including investing in artificial intelligence research with the University of Maryland and removing impact taxes to attract businesses — an idea that experts think is viable but complicated.

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“I really think we’re about to turn the corner,” Elrich said.

He recognizes that Montgomery has a reputation for not being business-friendly, but it's a rap he’s trying to fix.

As for his own political image, the path forward isn’t as clear, he said as he finished a breakfast omelet that he requested without a side of potatoes. Since the pandemic started, Elrich has been practicing intermittent fasting and observing a no-carb diet. He’s lost 45 pounds.

“You know,” he added, just before leaving to testify in Annapolis, “I’m more complicated than people think.”

Several weeks later, at the end of a candidate forum focused on social justice issues, Elrich was asked what he would prioritize if reelected.

Climate and income inequality, he responded. Then he paused.

“I feel very much like I want to leave the world a better place than I came into,” he said. “How does life become so different when we are all people occupying — literally — the same space?”

Sitting near the front, Katherine McKenna of Colesville listened, unimpressed. She didn’t vote for Elrich in the 2018 primary and had come to see what he had to say after his first term.

“I wanted him to talk policy, but nothing came across,” said McKenna, who is in her 70s.

“Oh,” she added as she left the forum, “And he mumbles.”