Democrat Marc Elrich rode a wave of progressive voters in Montgomery County on Tuesday to become county executive, sweeping past a moderate colleague who mounted an independent campaign to challenge him.
While voters statewide rejected left-wing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous in favor of incumbent Larry Hogan (R), the state’s largest jurisdiction signaled it wanted a left-of-center leader at home.
With all precincts reporting, Elrich had nearly two-thirds of the vote — more than triple the total of his nearest competitor, Nancy Floreen, a Democrat turned independent. Republican Robin Ficker trailed in third place. Even added together, his and Floreen’s vote totals were well behind Elrich’s.
“My opponent said she would unite the county,” Elrich said to a crowd of supporters in Silver Spring. “She probably did. She unified the county behind me.”
Floreen conceded the race at her own results-watching party in Rockville, wishing Elrich the best and urging her supporters to “go forward.”
There were no surprises in the at-large and district County Council races. As expected in a county where 60 percent of registered voters are Democrats, the nine-member panel will stay blue.
Attention throughout the campaign was focused on the three-way battle for county executive, a rarity in the county.
The sheaves of campaign literature stuffed into mailboxes, nonstop attack ads and glad-handing in front of grocery stores — trappings of political life that usually die down after the June Democratic primary in this largely blue county — stretched into November this year after Floreen, a County Council member, shed her Democratic affiliation to challenge Elrich and Ficker.
The executive’s race largely centered on competing visions for the future of development in the county.
Elrich, a 12-year council member and self-styled “old-fashioned progressive,” sounded the alarm about the dangers of overdevelopment. He was heavily favored by unions and progressive and environmental groups.
“I always knew Marc would be a great county executive,” said Holly Syrrakos, 63, of Takoma Park, who has known Elrich for 40 years. “He’s not afraid to tell you when you’re wrong. He’s straight up.”
“We need a different kind of leader,” said Dave Feldman, an Elrich supporter from North Bethesda. “This is an opportunity for Montgomery County to break new ground and see what happens.”
At his victory party, Elrich described his journey from schoolteacher to a member of the Takoma Park City Council and the Montgomery County Council, to his new status as county executive-elect.
“I’m not going to apologize for my support for working people,” Elrich said, describing a vision for Montgomery County focused on housing, income, greater educational opportunities and fairness for residents of all backgrounds. “You get the same respect. You get the same honor. You get the same sense of worth.”
Floreen, a longtime Democrat whose surprise independent bid was largely funded by developers and real estate interests, positioned herself as a moderate voice whose leadership would bring a much-needed revitalization of the county’s economic base.
She hit hard at Elrich, portraying him as an obstruction to change and progress while also claiming the Democrat never had a mandate — Elrich won the six-way June primary by 77 votes, capturing 29 percent of the Democratic electorate.
But voters soundly rejected that view.
“I think it’s really unfair. She’s dividing the vote,” said Girma Allaro, 70, a retired engineer who cast his vote for Elrich at Leisure World in Silver Spring. “We have a high respect for her, but she should have done better than that.”
In an interview, Floreen said she suspected the “Trump effect” had caused voters to “adhere to party lines in a consistent fashion.” But she said she was grateful for the chance to be “honest and bold about community issues.”
“For 120 days, we did a heck of a job — probably not enough — but it’s been terrific,” Floreen said. “It was really important to speak the truth.”
Asked about unity in the Democratic Party moving forward, she declined to say much, except to acknowledge what would probably be the end of her political career in the county.
“This is my last opportunity, really, in Montgomery County,” Floreen said. “I don’t expect to be engaged further. It’s time to move on to the next generation.”
Ficker faced an uphill battle in his campaign for county executive, his 20th run for political office over more than 40 years.
The GOP candidate had to surmount a numerical disadvantage among registered Republicans in the county and came to the race with a much smaller base of support and far less governing experience than either Floreen or Elrich.
While Ficker hammered on favored points, such as his pledge to not raise taxes or fees, his status as a perennial candidate and former nationally infamous sports heckler made many dismiss him as a serious contender.
He has run for many offices, including school board and Congress, winning only a state delegate race in 1978.
But some voters were turned off by Ficker’s history. Steve Solomon, 61, an attorney from Potomac, said Ficker “doesn’t have any substance.”
“I don’t want my county executive to be known as a heckler at sports events,” Solomon said.
Elrich used the county’s new public campaign finance system, which matches small donations with taxpayer funds. He maxed out on the amount of public money he could get for both the primary and general elections — a total of $1.5 million.
Floreen, who entered the race too late to qualify for public financing, was free to solicit donations of up to $6,000. She raised nearly $830,000 between early July and late October, with the final tally still to be reported — although she told supporters Tuesday night that her campaign raised $930,000.
Both candidates also benefited from super PACs that spent thousands on media and mailers in the days leading up to the election.
Ficker, who also participated in the county’s public funding system, received about $255,000 in public money.
Four new Democrats will appear on the County Council — Andrew Friedson in District 1, which represents the Potomac-Bethesda area, and at-large members Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Will Jawando. Incumbents Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Craig Rice (D-District 2), Sidney Katz (D-District 3), Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) and Tom Hucker (D-District 5) were reelected.
The council is down to just one woman — Navarro — for the first time in about 30 years.
Montgomery voters also approved two ballot measures that remove the party central committees from the selection process for redistricting council districts and change the number of council members who must vote on approving tax increases above the rate of inflation, from nine to a unanimous vote of all members.
A third measure, which would allow council members to have more than one aide hired outside the merit system, appeared headed to victory.
In the county’s school board races, voters chose Patricia O’Neill for one seat, while results for two seats — between Julie Reiley and Karla Silvestre, and Maria Blaeuer and Judy Docca — were not yet clear. Brenda Wolff ran unopposed for a fourth seat.