The first debate in the fall campaign for Montgomery County executive — which this year is an unusually contested affair — yielded occasional sniping but also consensus among three candidates vying for the county’s top elected post.
Democrat Marc Elrich, Republican Robin Ficker and independent Nancy Floreen — who earlier this year broke from the Democratic Party to run for the seat — answered questions for nearly two hours at a forum at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rockville.
Floreen, a 16-year at-large County Council member who introduced herself as a “lifelong Democrat,” told the audience of about 40 people that she jumped into the county executive race only because Elrich wound up the winner of the six-way Democratic primary in June.
She said she served as council president twice during her tenure, pointing out that Elrich had never been chosen for the role in his 12 years on the council. “I wasn’t anticipating running for county executive, that’s for sure, and if any other Democratic candidates would have won, I would have supported them,” Floreen said.
Elrich, also an at-large council member, largely eschewed mentioning his opponents, instead pointing out he served on the council’s education committee and chaired its public safety committee. He said he would bring a “depth of experience to this job that other people don’t have.”
“I believe in economic growth, but I also believe everything has to be balanced for the people who live here,” he said. “We have neighborhoods that I think struggle to thrive, and there are other parts of the county that do quite well. We seem to be very comfortable with the east-west divide, and I’m not comfortable with it.”
Elrich, favored by unions and progressive groups, won the Democratic nomination for county executive in the June primary with 29 percent of the vote. Ficker — an attorney and perennial candidate who ran for county executive as an independent in 2006 — was uncontested in the Republican primary.
And while the Democratic candidate is typically all but assured victory in the November general election — the last time Montgomery voters elected a Republican to the top job was in 1978 — Floreen this year is mounting a serious independent bid that she hopes will upend that narrative. Floreen, who is heavily backed by business and development interests, is positioning herself as a moderate against her opponents, whom she has called “flawed extremes.”
On a question about affordable housing, Elrich said that much of the new housing in the hot Bethesda market was one-bedroom units, not suitable for families. He argued that the county should be encouraging homeownership.
“I think you have to look at the willingness sometimes to zone for less density that allows for more affordable housing,” he said.
Floreen said increasing affordable housing means making it easier for builders.
“The answer to more affordable housing is more housing,” she said. “Not fighting against housing, as Mr. Elrich has done, but increasing the supply.”
Still, Elrich and Floreen agreed on several issues. Both said they would overhaul the county’s procurement office to ensure more local businesses can contract with the county. Both agreed that the student achievement gap needed to be addressed through giving families more economic stability. Elrich said the county’s move to increase the minimum wage, a cause he championed, would help do so, while Floreen said it could be done by fostering economic growth in the county.
Ficker proposed making the Intercounty Connector free during rush hour to help alleviate congestion and said he would focus attention on traffic and other issues that affect parts of the county outside the Beltway. And he pledged to work closely with the county board of education on increasing school safety.
Ficker, the force behind passing term limits, beat that drum several times during the forum, arguing that voters desired new blood in government.
In response to a question about supporting historic preservation, he quipped, “I get the feeling that my opponents feel that historic preservation is keeping themselves in office for a lifetime.”