Marc Elrich squeaked by to win nomination. What will he do next?

August 27, 2022

Washington Post

The county executive says he is focused on communicating his agenda, which includes affordable housing, transit and health disparities

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who squeaked past businessman David Blair to win the Democratic primary in Maryland’s most populous county after a recount, had one main takeaway from his razor-thin victory: He has to do a better job communicating.

Elrich, who clinched the nomination Wednesday by 32 votes, pledged in an interview Friday to redouble efforts waylaid by the pandemic in key areas such as affordable housing, transit and health equity. He blamed his close race with Blair on negative ads and on voters not being fully aware of some of the actions he’s taken over the past four years.

“We need to do a better job of communicating, letting the public know what we’re doing, make sure they understand what we’re doing,” he said.

Elrich, who has been blasted on multiple sides for his stances on development, for not doing enough to lure businesses, and for being slow to advance climate change and criminal justice initiatives, finds himself where he was four years ago when he won the primary by 77 votes: without a mandate from voters.

“This is the second very close race. That is unusual in itself,” said former county executive Isiah Leggett, who led the county when Elrich was on the County Council. Leggett, a Democrat, did not endorse a candidate in the primary, which in deep-blue Montgomery typically decides who secures the seat. Elrich will face Republican Reardon Sullivan in November.

Leggett said he thinks that Elrich’s reputation as anti-development is overstated and that his position on affordable housing needs to be clarified. Elrich wants the county to preserve and create affordable housing for lower-income residents, not focus so heavily on building housing overall.

In his second term, he wants to pass legislation that would put a 4.4 percent cap on annual rent increases. The bill stalled last year. He also wants to create mental health clinics in the county — a need exacerbated by the pandemic — and fund bus rapid transit on Route 586 between Wheaton and Rockville and Route 355 between Rockville and Germantown.

“The bottom line is that the voters did not give him a mandate, and that should inspire some humility and reevaluation in his approach, in particular when it comes to affordable housing,” said Adam Jentleson, chairman of Affordable Maryland PAC, which ran two ads against Elrich. “It’s one thing to post about a third of the vote in a divided primary [in 2018], it’s another matter to post such a low share when you are an incumbent. That says a lot. Voters want to see an all-the-above approach to affordable housing, and I hope that is something that he will do this time around.”

In his first term, Elrich tangled with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) over the pandemic response, investments in transportation projects and the display of a flag associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement. He and some members of the council have had conflicts over the pace and type of development in the county and over Elrich’s decision to provide hazard pay to county government workers during the pandemic.

“You can’t write all of [the slim margin of victory] off as someone else has outspent you,” Leggett said. “Part of that has to do with how people perceive what you are doing and how people view your leadership.”

Dolores Milmoe, a civic activist from Poolesville who has known Elrich for nearly four decades and is part of his fiercely devoted army of supporters, said Elrich has been misunderstood, describing him as a “different kind of politician.”

“He’s not the kind who puts his finger in the air and says where is the wind blowing,” Milmoe said. “He’s more principled than that.”

She doesn’t expect the close race to affect a second term.

But even Milmoe said she expects to see the veteran politician make some adjustments, including his “overly cautious” nature of avoiding discussion of projects he’s working on.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), an early and ardent supporter of Blair, said Elrich needs to collaborate more effectively with state and local elected officials, community leaders, members of the nonprofit sector and others who want to see the county flourish.

“I am hopeful that … this will be a wake-up call for Marc Elrich,” she said. “Marc had a terrible relationship with Governor Hogan, which hurt Montgomery County. He virtually never collaborated or communicated with the state delegation and always seemed too busy to reach out and partner with County Council members. … That simply cannot be the way he continues to serve in this next four years.”

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich, said the “number one point of contention” between Hogan and the county executive was the ideological difference they have over the widening of Interstates 495 and 270, which is also a defining issue for the governor. Elrich hired a liaison to work with the council and holds briefings with the county delegation, which has been successful in securing funding for transit and the development of the Life Sciences project, he said.

“Marc clearly does not have a mandate to lead, and there will be dozens of potential candidates who are going to think about how to position themselves for 2026,” she said. “I fear that we’re going to have a political and potentially contentious next four years.”

Council member Will Jawando, who won his primary reelection bid last month, said he remains hopeful about Elrich’s second term.

He said Elrich, a liberal Democrat who served 12 years on the council before running for county executive, was challenged in his first term with a faction on the council who wanted to run for county executive and “they were always trying to find ways to pick a fight. I’m hopeful there will be less of that. We have to work together on behalf of the residents.”

Former Gaithersburg City Council member Laurie-Anne Sayles, who won the Democratic primary for one of three at-large seats, said she held a fundraiser in her home for Elrich four years ago. She was part of his transition team and was hopeful about his liberal agenda, but then, she said, “the pandemic happened.”

Now she is looking forward to working closely with Elrich on tackling affordable housing, improving education and addressing climate change.

If elected in November, Sayles could be part of a female majority serving on the council.

“There’s been a lot of planning and a lot of ideas that just need to be brought to light, and I think this is the council that’s going to make that happen,” she said.

“As public servants, you have to listen more than you pontificate on your issues,” she said. “He is open to other perspectives. He’s going to have to be. There will be six new perspectives. None of us are wallflowers. We will be very vocal in advancing our visions, our priorities, and we have to work together to get things done.”