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Marc Elrich: Buoyed by his faithful in quest for Montgomery County executive

Democratic county executive nominee Marc Elrich, right, greets voters with gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, left. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Last of three profiles of the Montgomery county executive candidates.

Marc Elrich is not a fan of neckties. But on Saturday, the Democratic nominee for Montgomery County executive paused to loop one over his head before making his way up the driveway of a home in affluent Somerset.

Dozens of his followers were packed shoulder to shoulder at the small-dollar fundraiser, including Susan Mezey, a newcomer to local politics drawn to Elrich by his cautionary stance toward development.

“He understands you can’t develop without accounting for infrastructure issues,” said Mezey, a transplant to Friendship Heights from Chicago. “If you put more traffic on Wisconsin Avenue, you’re going to need a helicopter to get around.”

If Elrich, 68, wins the top post in Maryland’s most populous county, he will have gotten there with the help of a fiercely devoted army of people like Mezey — who worries about overbuilding and is appreciative of his insistence in his time on the Montgomery County Council that those who build apartment towers and subdivisions need to pay for the traffic and school crowding they cause.

“Marc isn’t really afraid to take a stand on things,” said Jeffrey Slavin, a supporter who is mayor of Somerset and a state Democratic leader. “It’s not like he puts his finger in the air and sees which way the wind is blowing. He’s truly dedicated to his values.”

Elrich survived a grueling six-way primary in June, winning by 77 votes with a 29 percent share of the electorate. And while the Democratic nominee normally breezes to victory in this liberal county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, Elrich now has a major general-election fight on his hands.

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Fellow at-large lawmaker Nancy Floreen dropped her Democratic Party affiliation to run against Elrich as an independent, saying that his policies are anti-business and would hurt the county’s economy. The two are competing against attorney Robin Ficker, the Republican nominee, in an election that has centered on how to grow the tax base, address traffic and school crowding, and ease income and educational disparities.

'The lone voice'

Elrich critics, such as Gus Bauman, a former head of the county planning board who chaired Floreen’s council campaigns, call him an “ideologue” with a blind following.

“I think he personifies the NIMBY crowd,” said Steve Silverman, a former Democratic council member who is aligned with pro-business groups. “And that’s his real base. And it’s always been his base.

But Norman Knopf, who’s known Elrich for about 40 years, said Elrich gained his loyalty by being accessible. “If you’re in a civic movement — who’s going to listen to us?” said Knopf, who lives in Friendship Heights. “The answer always was, Marc would listen to us.”

He proudly called Elrich “the lone voice” — a reference to the array of 8-1 votes, largely on land-use proposals, that Elrich has lost during his 12 years on the council.

Elrich explains it this way: “I think people feel I represent them to the point of being willing to lose.”

Many of his followers stick with him even when they disagree. Earlier this year, Elrich explained to a roomful of skeptical campaign volunteers why he would support bringing Amazon.com’s second headquarters to Montgomery County. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post).

He didn’t convince Michael Tardif, the host of the gathering. Still, Tardif cited Elrich’s “compelling and convincing” presentation in a letter to The Post touting the Democrat’s candidacy.

“This is what courageous leadership looks like,” Tardif wrote.

Political capital

A former elementary school teacher from Takoma Park, Elrich served on that city’s council for 19 years and lost four races for county council before finally winning in 2006. In his two reelection bids, he won more votes than any other at-large candidate, including Floreen, despite not having the funds to mount lavish campaigns.

At a debate hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, Elrich said his record was one of moderation, not extremism. “I don’t propose radical things,” he said. “I understand what the limits are here, and those are the limits I work with.”

For example, while he supports rent control and drafted two versions of legislation to bring it to the county, he didn’t push the idea once he saw there was no support for it among his colleagues.

“If you’re going to go into a fight, you need to have a reasonable chance of winning,” he said in an interview. “It’s even less worth it if you’re the county executive.”

Elrich preserved his political capital for other measures, such as a successful battle to increase the minimum wage.

While Floreen has come out in opposition to the county’s control of alcohol wholesaling, Elrich wants to find ways to increase the net profits from the Department of Liquor Control by 50 percent.

He also wants to reexamine how much general fund revenue the county keeps in reserves. The current 10 percent target is credited with maintaining Montgomery’s AAA bond rating, crucial for keeping interest rates low on borrowing.

Elrich’s financial plan describes the 10 percent figure as “arbitrary,” and calls for a “risk-based reserve study,” with the “understanding that the result may be an increase or reduction from the current level.”

“I would doubt that you can go below it,” he said in an interview. “From what people have opined to me . . . we may be low rather than high.”

Strong labor backing

Elrich is using the county’s new public campaign financing system, which limits contributions to no more than $150 from individual county residents, and matches each dollar with between $2 and $6 in taxpayer funds.

He’s qualified for the maximum allowable $750,000 in the general election, he said Wednesday — and is the only county executive candidate to have gotten the maximum $750,000 of matching funds in the primary, as well.

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Elrich is prohibited by the public financing law from taking money from corporations or unions. But labor has found another way to back him, with large donations to the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC.

Progressive groups and unions — including the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO), which represents thousands of Montgomery workers — have given $131,000 to the group since September. The super PAC has spent $165,000 on television ads supporting Elrich, according to its most recent filing. During the primary, it opposed Potomac businessman David Blair, Elrich’s main rival.

Elrich’s critics jump on his labor support — as well as his agreement to a request by MCGEO to have the union president at the table when interviewing potential department heads — as evidence that Elrich would not be tough enough when it comes time to renegotiate the county’s union contracts.

Elrich calls that charge “absurd,” saying the only way to give the unions big raises would be by raising taxes or cutting services — neither of which he says he wants to do.

“The money is ultimately the brake on everything,” he said.

Elrich says he would enlist the unions to help restructure county government, and MCGEO President Gino Renne said he and Elrich “are having rather deep conversations about how to right-size the workforce.”

Last week, Elrich secured the endorsement of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, an important add to a list that until this month featured no business groups.

“I think it’s going to give people pause,” he said of the endorsement. “Because this would be the last group of people that you would think would support somebody who was going to be damaging to the county.”

Read about the other candidates:

Robin Ficker hopes the 20th time is the charm in county executive’s race

Nancy Floreen: ‘Lifelong’ Democrat breaks from party to run for executive

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