Longtime county council member and staunch progressive Marc Elrich and wealthy Potomac businessman and political newcomer David Blair were locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the Democratic nomination for Montgomery County executive Tuesday night.
With most precincts reporting, Elrich, 68, had just a few hundred votes more than Blair, 48. But nearly 15,000 absentee ballots were issued in Montgomery and have not yet been counted.
Several council members — Craig Rice (Upcounty), Tom Hucker (Eastern County) and Nancy Navarro (Midcounty) — won Democratic nominations Tuesday night. In the at-large race, it appeared as though Hans Riemer would keep his seat, while Will Jawando seemed positioned to win one of the three other seats.
Absentee ballots will be counted in two waves, the first beginning Thursday and the second on July 6. Provisional ballots will be counted beginning July 5.
Elrich and Blair — both long considered front-runners for the county’s top elected position — represented divergent visions for the future of the state’s most populous jurisdiction.
Elrich’s social-justice background — he was the main force behind the county’s adoption of the $15 minimum wage — coupled with his demand that developers pay higher impact fees to offset school overcrowding and traffic congestion spoke to Democratic voters in his home of Takoma Park and beyond, even as they sparked deep concern among business leaders in the county.
Mike Finley, 75, a retired congressional staff member from Chevy Chase, knew early on that he would vote for Elrich.
“I like his stand on development and infrastructure,” Finley said. “He’s an experienced member of the county council and a former teacher and really concentrates on education and what’s best for the county.”
Blair, who founded and ran a prescription-benefits company, had hewed close to concerns of business leaders in the county about Montgomery’s economic future. The self-funded candidate, who poured nearly $3 million of his own money into his campaign, advocated cutting energy and recordation taxes, and warned of the need to create more jobs and grow businesses.
His message resonated with Nabanita Nag, 41, a federal government worker, and her husband, Abhik Das, 49, a public health scientist. The couple voted in North Potomac for Blair on his promise to bring jobs and economic development to the county, especially as Amazon searches for its next headquarters. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“I think there needs to be some change in terms of the business friendliness of the county administration,” Das said.
“That’s always good for jobs,” Nag said. “I’d like to see Amazon come here, why not?”
The race for the Democratic nomination for county executive also included council member George Leventhal (At Large), council member Roger Berliner (Potomac-Bethesda), state Del. C. William Frick and former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow.
But the large number of undecided voters leading up to the election also led many to think it was anybody’s race.
“It’s time for a woman in Montgomery County,” said Ann Vermillion, 61, who cast her ballot at Leisure World for Krasnow, the only woman in a field of white men. But voters apparently thought otherwise, flocking to male candidates and leaving Navarro as potentially the only woman on the county council.
Andrew Friedson, a former aide to state comptroller Peter Franchot, was leading the eight-person race for the Democratic nomination for District 1, representing Potomac and Bethesda. In District 3, council member Sidney Katz, 68, (Gaithersburg-Rockville) led over Ben Shnider, 29, a former political director for J Street.
In Montgomery, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, the winner of the Democratic primary is often the victor in the November general election.
Many voters said they were overwhelmed by the choices, where term limits and a new public campaign finance system converged to produce a crowded field. In addition to the six-way race among Democrats to succeed outgoing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), the four open at-large council seats alone attracted 33 Democratic hopefuls.
Lori Steel of Kensington, a librarian for a private school in the District, said the amount of literature she received, the knocks on her door from candidates and their representatives, and the phone calls to her home leading up to the primary backfired.
“It overwhelmed me and shut me down a bit,” she said after she voted Tuesday afternoon at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington. She noted that she did not vote for county executive or in the crowded at-large council races.
Turnout was considered a major wild card this election, with some predicting a wave of Democrats, incensed by President Trump and the direction of national politics, making their discontent known by voting.
But others thought that voters still are getting used to primaries in June instead of September, and predicted a turnout similar to that of the last gubernatorial primary, when only about 17 percent of eligible Montgomery voters cast ballots.
Some felt the effects of a statewide glitch that required 80,000 voters who had recently changed their addresses with the Motor Vehicle Administration to cast provisional ballots.
Kim Connell, 51, a hairstylist from Silver Spring, said she was affected.
“At first they told us I couldn’t vote, that I had to go back to Hampstead, and I’ve been living here two years,” she said. In the end, she was able to cast a provisional ballot, but the experience concerned her.
“It makes me wary because I’m worried a little bit whether I’ll be able to vote in November,” she said.
Tuesday’s election in Montgomery was the first cycle that saw the effect of term limits — passed by voters in 2016 on the heels of the county council’s decision to raise the property tax rate by 8.7 percent — and the initial use of the county’s public campaign financing system, which matches small donations from county residents with public money, and bans donations by corporations and unions.