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David Blair: Self-funding candidate says Montgomery needs entrepreneur at the helm

David Blair pauses after a November debate among Democratic candidates for Montgomery county executive in Chevy Chase, Md.
David Blair pauses after a November debate among Democratic candidates for Montgomery county executive in Chevy Chase, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

This story has been updated to reflect the June 15 campaign finance filings.

When asked about his political base, David Blair considers the question then poses one of his own.

“My political base,” he says after a pause. “So does that mean who’s going to come out and support me?”

The wealthy Potomac businessman is running for Montgomery county executive — a first-time candidate seeking the highest elected office in a county whose voters have never chosen a government newcomer for the position.

Blair, 48, who founded and ran a prescription-drug-benefits company, said he thought about running for other offices — Congress, comptroller, governor — before deciding on county executive. “If you truly want to impact lives, at the local level is where you can do it,” he explained.

He says he has done his homework, sitting with aides to outgoing Democratic county executive Isiah Leggett, visiting the waste incinerator in upcounty Dickerson, meeting with Democratic Party officials. But his largely self-funded campaign has attracted criticism from other, more traditional candidates, who accuse him of trying to buy the election, and protests from progressive groups.

Blair, a graduate of Clemson University, talks about cutting the county’s energy and recordation taxes, which are expected to add just under $250 million to the county’s general fund in 2019. He wants to put business incubators in vacant office space, such as the soon-to-be-empty Discovery building in downtown Silver Spring. He wants to give gun safes to parents who own weapons and make the county’s Ride On bus network — which collects roughly $21 million a year in fares — free.

“The people that tend to gravitate to me are the ones that believe Montgomery County is a great place to live but we’re slipping,” Blair said. “And there’s a level of frustration, and it could be related to transportation, schools, social services and this — why can’t a county with this level of wealth pay for the services that we need? — and a recognition that a healthy community needs a vibrant, growing business community.”

In largely blue Montgomery, Blair is a relatively recent Democrat — switching his registration from Republican in 2003 and failing to cast a ballot in four Democratic primaries. (“I screwed up, and I regret that,” he said about his voting record at one candidates forum.)

He has poured nearly $3 million of his own money so far into the campaign — $2.6 million in loans and $300,000 in contributions — vastly outspending his five Democratic rivals in an election cycle that was supposed to be the first test of the county’s new public campaign finance system, which was designed to keep big money out of politics.

Blair’s deep pockets allowed him to put his name in voters’ mailboxes and on their computer screens long before his competitors marshaled their forces. But political observers say it was The Washington Post’s editorial board’s endorsement last month that added heft to his campaign. (The Post’s editorial board is separate from its news operation.)

He has since added endorsements from Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), the Apartment & Office Building Association Maryland State PAC and the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats of Maryland and Montgomery County.

“If the guy didn’t have credibility before, he’s got a . . . ton of credibility now,” said David Weaver, who was communications director for former Montgomery county executive Doug Duncan (D).

Blair says he has noticed a change in voters while campaigning at Metro stations. “A month ago when I was at Metros, every other person was looking at their shoes with their headphones on and trying not to make eye contact,” he said in May. “And now . . . people want to talk to me.”

Blair’s primary opponents — all of whom have spent years in local, county or state government — say he lacks the experience to lead Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.

“You wouldn’t give someone the keys to the car who doesn’t even have a learner’s permit,” said George L. Leventhal (At Large), a four-term County Council member and former chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. “To walk in with no background, no knowledge, no context, no institutional memory doesn’t seem to me a recipe for success.”

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