In the race for Montgomery County executive, David Blair, 52, has pitched himself as a candidate with a track record of executive leadership.
But while Blair says on his campaign site that the Council of Advocacy and Policy Solutions (CAPS) “created and executed on numerous innovative initiatives,” a review of his nonprofit found that it fell short of reaching its goals on several projects. Other proposals to build out “attainable solutions” to county problems ended up as donations from Blair’s family foundation to outside groups.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work we did,” Blair said. Several CAPS initiatives are “ongoing,” he added, but he now runs the nonprofit part time to focus on his campaign.
Three people who worked closely with CAPS over several years said the organization has not achieved much of what it set out to do or what it appears to have achieved based on news releases and campaign advertisements. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
CAPS, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, seeks to educate residents on local issues and serve as a “hub” for addressing challenges facing Montgomery, from educational disparities to economic stagnation, Blair said in an interview last week. Steered by an advisory board of 14 people, the organization has “evolved to fit the unique needs of our community,” over time, Blair said.
His efforts to be more civically engaged in the last four years have impressed some in Montgomery and boosted his bid to lead the county of 1.1 million. But others remain skeptical of the Potomac millionaire, who has largely self-funded his political ambitions.
“I have been blown away by his commitment through covid to helping our neighbors in need,” said Maryland Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who did not vote for him in 2018 but plans to back him this year. “He has a track record of success.”
Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who is also running for county executive, said Blair has been “creating appearances.”
“He’s been spreading a lot of money around,” Riemer said about Blair’s work at CAPS. “I don’t know that he’s taken on any issues that require real leadership.”
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 killing of George Floyd, Blair said in an “equity statement” on the CAPS website that he was committed to dismantling systemic racism, pledging at the time to donate to his local Black Lives Matter and American Civil Liberties Union chapters. That summer, Blair donated $1,000 to the Maryland Democratic Party for a Black Lives Matter panel event, said his campaign spokesman Aaron Kraut. There is no record of him donating to the ACLU, Kraut added.
Blair also said in his equity statement that he would “require transparency from our local and state police departments” and call on elected officials to implement “public accountability measures.” Ten months later, while launching his campaign, Blair said he did not see police reform as a priority in Montgomery.
“He’s out of touch with this community,” Riemer said of Blair.
In an emailed statement, Blair retorted that Riemer was “misrepresenting” his work at CAPS, adding that his comments were “petty and another distraction to the real challenges facing our county.”
A Montgomery native, Blair ran a prescription-drug-benefits company before seeking elected office for the first time in 2018. He vowed to cut taxes and revitalize the county’s lagging economy, cultivating a strong following after earning the endorsement of The Washington Post’s editorial board. (The Post’s editorial board is separate from its news operation.)
His opponents criticized him at the time for failing to vote regularly in previous Democratic primaries and accused him of attempting to “buy the election” by pouring $5.4 million of his own money into his campaign.
After losing the primary, Blair announced in May 2019 that he would be launching CAPS, telling reporters that one of his priorities was to study how to recruit and retain teachers of color in Maryland public schools. “We’ll look at best practices from around the country,” he said. “And my hope is to partner with local government and local officials to roll all of our ideas out.”
CAPS released a study on disparities in Montgomery public schools in September 2019, but the study did not explore how to diversify teaching staff. CAPS did not work with county officials to implement policy changes.
Blair said CAPS did research “behind the scenes” into solutions, but decided not to move forward with advocacy after coming across the Black and Brown Coalition, another nonprofit that seeks to improve learning conditions for minority and low-income students.
“Partnering with them made more sense than going at it alone,” Blair said.
CAPS shared research with the coalition, and the Blair family foundation donated money to help the coalition hire full-time staffers, he said. In a recent mailer to voters, Blair said he worked to “close the achievement gap” in classrooms “through his role” at the coalition.
Byron Johns, co-founder of the coalition and education chair of the county’s NAACP chapter, said Blair was one of four major donors to the nonprofit but does not sit on the coalition’s board or influence what the group advocates for.
“His role is as a supporter,” Johns said, “both financially, through his foundation, and personally — he’s attended some events.”
In 2019, Blair also said he was launching a “seed-stage incubator program for undergraduate and graduate students in Maryland institutions for higher education.” A CAPS news release at the time said the program would provide space for start-ups at an office building in Rockville and connect participants with established businesses through the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce.
“The first class of entrepreneurs is expected this year,” the news release said.
The program did not materialize. The chamber’s chief executive, Allie Williams, said last week that the chamber has not been involved in any business incubators.
Blair denied that the program failed to launch, saying instead that it evolved. In June 2020, Blair donated funds to help the Universities at Shady Grove launch an entrepreneurship lab that would, among other things, “host workshops … to support entrepreneurial learning” and “connect start-ups to community resources.”
CAPS would “help to develop programming for the Entrepreneurship Lab that aligns with economic development and growth in Montgomery County,” a news release said at the time.
Steve Simon, a spokesman for the Universities at Shady Grove, said Blair’s family foundation donated $250,000 to launch the lab and an additional $145,000 to support its operations.
“The Blair foundation has been a wonderful collaborator for us,” said Marc Steren, director of the entrepreneurship lab. The lab has hosted classes of college students, held hackathons and recently organized an eight-week “equity incubator” for women and minority-led businesses. Blair has spoken at several events and served as a judge for one class, Steren said, but has not helped with programming.
During the pandemic, CAPS implemented several initiatives on its own, Blair noted. In 2020, it distributed 2,000 virtual learning kits for low-income students and donated 90 remote health monitoring devices to the county’s African American Health Program for a telehealth pilot program. More recently, CAPS ran a six-month workshop focused on helping Black residents run for elected office; three of a dozen participants are now running for local office.
Over the last four years, Blair said, he has gotten increasingly concerned about Montgomery’s future, particularly its lagging economy and affordable housing crisis.
“We’re missing executive leadership,” he said. “We’re missing that ability to get things done.”
Aside from Blair, there are three other Democratic candidates for county executive: Elrich, Riemer and Gaithersburg resident Peter James. The primary election is on July 19.
This story has been updated.