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Montgomery County super PAC launches attack ad against Marc Elrich

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich answers a question at a news conference in Rockville, Md., on March 6, 2020. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A new super PAC in Montgomery County focused on affordable housing launched an ad Tuesday attacking County Executive Marc Elrich’s record on land use.

Montgomery County residents Eric Saul and Adam Jentleson registered the Affordable Maryland PAC last week, motivated, they said, by rising home prices that determine who can afford to live in a place they say has allowed them to live the “American Dream.”

“We’re seeing that dream get put too far out of reach for people who aren’t extremely wealthy,” said Jentleson, who placed the blame at Elrich’s feet as the incumbent seeks a second term as county executive.

The group reports spending $500,000 to make its case that Montgomery residents should elect anyone but Elrich for housing affordability, zeroing in on a centerpiece issue in the contest to lead the wealthy deep-blue suburb that has been a perennial thorn in Elrich’s side.

Critics have voiced doubt about his leadership, pointing to a history of butting heads with the council on development and a general stance against rapid growth in density.

Elrich said in an interview that he was offended by the ad, saying that he has supported a number of affordable housing projects and that his critics ignore the nuance and difficulty of solving a crisis pummeling the region and country.

“This is a failure of people to be honest about the problem we’re dealing with because it’s much easier to say this guy doesn’t support affordable housing,” Elrich said.

The ad starts with narration over old clips saying Montgomery County was once a place where people could “work hard, get ahead, make a home,” until skyrocketing costs led to some of the highest housing prices in the country. The problem, the ad says, is Elrich.

“Vote for affordability, vote against Marc Elrich,” the ad concludes.

In May, the median price of homes sold in Montgomery County was $620,000, according to data from the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. Last year, Montgomery fell behind on its goal of landing 23,100 new affordable housing units by 2030, as inequities widened.

“Montgomery County should be a leader on this issue, not just for the region, but arguably for their country,” Jentleson said. “And instead, we are a laggard, and an outlier even in our own region.”

Jentleson said other candidates would better serve on affordable housing and land-use issues but that the PAC is not supporting any specific one in the race. Elrich’s main opponents in this year’s primary are businessman David Blair, who lost to Elrich in 2018 and again this year received The Washington Post’s editorial board endorsement (The Post’s editorial board is separate from its news operation), and term-limited council member Hans Riemer.

In this liberal D.C. suburb, where the winner of the Democratic primary is often the general election victor, affordable housing has been a centerpiece issue in the race for county executive. This is a hot topic in liberal jurisdictions nationwide amid growing awareness of the effect of race and income disparities on access to housing.

Over the past 40 years, the arrival of new immigrants and Black and Latino residents from surrounding jurisdictions and from across the country have helped nearly double Montgomery County’s population — straining the housing stock, inciting intense zoning debates and dividing the county on how to best advance development.

Elrich got his start in local politics at the Takoma Park City Council before he won the six-way primary in 2018, beating Blair by just 77 votes with the support of residents who identified with his wariness about rapid widespread development. His critics — like the new super PAC — have pointed to his record of dismissing recommendations by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in 2019, vetoing tax incentives for high-rise apartments above Metro stations, and frequently disagreeing with the county council and planning board on adding density in certain neighborhoods.

Elrich defended his record in an interview, pointing to four affordable housing projects underway, as well as proposing about $100 million in this year’s budget for affordable housing and an additional $40 million to create a fund for preserving Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing.

“I’ve been doing this fight for as long as I’ve been involved in this kind of issue in Montgomery County, which is damn close to 40 years,” Elrich said. “I’m not new to this.”

The super PAC, a group that can accept unlimited donations and make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates, paid to run the ad on all of D.C.’s major networks as well as on cable, connected TV and YouTube until the July 19 primary.

Jentleson, formerly deputy chief of staff for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said the group is not affiliated with Elrich’s opponents.

The group is entirely funded by Open Philanthropy, a grant-making nonprofit funded by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, but Jentleson said it plans to expand and seek outside donations until Montgomery County is a “regional leader and even a national leader on affordable housing.”

In 2018, a super PAC funded by unions and a liberal group ran an ad that questioned Blair’s business practices. This year, a super PAC called Progressives for Progress, funded by real estate and development groups, popped up supporting Blair.

Former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin said that while it’s still uncommon to see a PAC pop up in the county executive’s race, she’s not surprised given that affordable housing has become a top issue for county residents.

“People who have been in the county government and who have been participating in public life are really utterly disgusted by what they’re seeing,” she said.

Ervin also questioned the PAC’s impact with just a few weeks left before the election.

“They’re really behind,” she said.

Jentleson said this week was the earliest the group could get everything together.

“He’s weak on this issue. He’s a weak incumbent. We need a vehicle to get the message out,” Jentleson said. “With three weeks to go in this election, I think our top priority right now is having an impact on this race.”

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