By Adam Pagnucco.
The Washington Post’s endorsement of businessman David Blair hit like a grenade this past weekend, blowing up the County Executive race. What does it mean?
First, in reading the language of the Post’s endorsement, we are struck by how closely their views on the challenges facing the county resemble our own. The majority of these opening three paragraphs mirror what we have been writing about the county economy for years.
These seem like boom times in Montgomery County, the mainly rich suburb that has absorbed roughly 100,000 new residents since 2010 to a population now approaching 1.1 million. Amazon (whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post) has shortlisted the county for its second corporate headquarters; construction cranes tower over Bethesda and Silver Spring; and the public school system, one of the nation’s largest, includes some of the best high schools anywhere.
That’s why it’s easy to overlook some ominous signs of fiscal and economic trouble ahead. A burgeoning population of retirees, immigrants and other less affluent residents has strained local resources and budgets. Those moving into the county tend to be poorer than those leaving. The chasm between economically prosperous pockets (such as the ones dominated by cranes) and stagnant ones is widening. Most worrying, business and job growth are anemic.
That’s the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary, which is likely to determine who will run the county for the next four years. County Executive Isiah Leggett, a deft and capable manager, is retiring after 12 years in the job (and no Republican has won an election in Montgomery since 2002). The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.
The Post framed the election’s central question correctly. And their policy view, clearly established in the language above, will no doubt influence their choices for County Council. That said, they do not share your author’s view that governing experience is useful for addressing these challenges. So be it.
The Post has a pretty good record in top-tier MoCo Democratic primaries. They endorsed Chris Van Hollen (CD-8) in 2002, Ike Leggett (County Executive) in 2006 and 2014 and John Delaney (CD-6) in 2012. They also endorsed Kathleen Matthews (CD-8) in 2016, who finished third.
Even so, the Post is not a king-maker; one of the good things about MoCo politics is that we have no king-makers here. But their endorsement matters, especially when five candidates are vying to be the chief rival for Marc Elrich. Consider what Roger Berliner (your author’s choice), Bill Frick or Rose Krasnow would have said if they had gotten the Post endorsement. If Berliner had received it, he would have told non-Elrich voters, “I am the one who combines the Sierra Club, moderates, District 1 voters and now the Post. I’m the alternative to Elrich.” Frick would have said something similar while substituting realtors for the Sierra Club. If Krasnow had received it, she would have said, “I am the only woman in a primary in which sixty percent of voters will be women and now I have the Post. I’m the alternative to Elrich.” None of these things can be said now. All three lose the opportunity to leverage the Post endorsement to expand outside their geographic bases.
It is sometimes said that Elrich has a ceiling. Some voters will find a decades-long socialist who equates transit-oriented development with ethnic cleansing and favors rent control unappealing. But Blair has a ceiling too. That was expressed by a commenter on Seventh State’s Facebook page who wrote, “I don’t want a businessman political newcomer who is trying to buy the election.” Fair or not, that is a common sentiment among Democratic activists, and those who feel this way are not persuadable on this point. Blair can send them thirty mailers and they won’t budge. How many rank-and-file voters have this view? David Trone, who shares this handicap, received 22% of MoCo’s vote in the 2016 Congressional District 8 race. That’s an imperfect analogy because CD8 omits some relatively moderate areas in MoCo’s Upcounty and Trone was not talking about the unpopular nine percent property tax hike in his campaign. Still, Blair will need more than 22% to win.
Besides Blair, the other big winner from the Post’s endorsement is Elrich. Elrich has been crusading against rival candidates who have been supported by wealthy businessmen for years; now he gets an ACTUAL wealthy businessman as perhaps his chief opponent. Elrich is no doubt rubbing his hands together in glee as his progressive hordes gird for battle against plutocracy. His field coordinator must be dizzy with joy.
Both the Elrich and Blair campaigns need to consider the following question. Which group is larger in the Democratic primary electorate: the people who believe that taxes have gone up but their service quality has not or the people in Elrich’s base? If the former outnumber the latter – not an impossible prospect considering that a majority of Democrats voted for term limits two years ago – then maybe an outsider has a shot. It would be totally unprecedented given that every prior MoCo Executive has had governing experience before assuming office. But Robin Ficker winning a charter amendment vote by forty points was also unprecedented.
Thanks to the Post, a wild election has gotten a little wilder. There are only forty-three days to go before this story reaches its momentous conclusion!