Montgomery County executive candidate Marc Elrich answers a question at a candidates forum in October. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

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

Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist.

At a debate, the Montgomery County executive candidate tried to shut down rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall, saying there is no depiction of the Cuban Revolution leader there — nor one of Lenin, he added for good measure.

“I expect developers to pay for infrastructure,” Elrich (D), a self-described longtime member of the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said in an interview last month. In a wry voice, he added: “That apparently is called socialism.”

The questions about his economic philosophy signal an unease in some quarters with Elrich, a 12-year County Council member who is considered a top contender to win the June 26 primary.

Business leaders say Elrich has focused too much on extracting concessions from developers and instituting social benefits such as paid sick leave, and not enough on growing the tax base.


Montgomery County executive candidates Marc Elrich (D), right, and Robin Ficker (R), left, after a candidates forum on racial equality and immigrant rights in February. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“I think that he’s not the ideal candidate for the business community,” said Andy Shulman, a commercial real estate executive in Rockville who identifies as a progressive Democrat. “We would like to see one of the other candidates [win] that really believes in business and growing the economy, not as business as a means to pay for the programs that he wants to pay for.”

But Elrich, 68, also has inspired a deep and loyal following, especially among progressives in and around Takoma Park, where he lives.

“He’s very bright, extremely creative,” said Safe Silver Spring founder Tony Hausner, who first worked with Elrich during battles in the 1980s and 1990s over redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring. “He’s fought to protect the education system and transportation network, to try to minimize the overdevelopment that exists in this county.”

A former teacher who served 19 years on the Takoma Park City Council, Elrich lost four County Council races before winning his seat. He was the top vote-getter among at-large candidates in the 2010 and 2014 primaries.

Elrich has more endorsements than any other candidate — largely from progressive groups and labor groups, including the teachers’ union. He told the UFCW Local 1994 Municipal County Government Employees Organization union in its endorsement questionnaire that if elected, he would allow the group’s president to sit in on the interview and selection process for prospective department heads — a departure from what other candidates said and from the practices of previous county executives.


Montgomery County executive candidate and state Sen. Bill Frick talks with primary rival Marc Elrich after a Democratic candidates forum in November. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Asked about the pledge, Elrich said the interviews would be open to anyone but hiring decisions would remain with him.

His desire to rein in new development drew a rebuke last month from the nonprofit group Greater Greater Washington, which quoted Elrich as saying he would rather see jobs go to Frederick County than to Montgomery. Elrich says that his comments were taken out of context and that he was making the remark during a conversation about relieving congestion on I-270, which runs through the two jurisdictions.

“If people in Greater Greater Washington were really talking smart growth, wouldn’t you want Frederick to have more jobs so their residents weren’t making these commutes?” Elrich said.

Elrich, who holds degrees from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, was the driving force behind Montgomery’s $15 minimum wage. He has called for developers to pay more for infrastructure and services — supporting the “impact fees” that some other candidates say have made the county a less attractive place to build.

Of the three county executive candidates using Montgomery’s new public financing system, Elrich has garnered the most small-donor donations and therefore qualified for the most public funds, receiving $605,668.72 and requesting an additional $15,192 by mid-June. Instead of working out of someone’s house, as he had in past cycles, his campaign rented a Silver Spring storefront and is paying six interns $15 an hour — the 2021 minimum wage.

He is running a television ad that highlights his lefty credentials — marching for civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War — then promises that developers will consider his push for more concessions a “revolution.”

“We haven’t raised enough money from developers, and that worries them,” Elrich said in an interview. “They don’t pay [here] what they pay in Northern Virginia.”