Marc Elrich drove the other members of the Montgomery County Council a bit nuts by winning the Democratic Primary in 2018. It was an unpleasant surprise for them that primary voters opted for him despite their frequent rejection of his ideas as either too progressive or anti-business. One of his Democratic colleagues, Nancy Floreen, even went so far as to leave the party so she could challenge him unsuccessfully in the general election. Hans Riemer, also an at-large member, had to think hard before endorsing him.
When asked about his greatest challenges as prime minister, Harold Macmillan famously replied “Events, my dear boy, events.” So it has been for County Executive Marc Elrich, who no doubt had intended to concentrate his term on pushing forward with vision for a more effective, progressive county but instead faced the major health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crisis has provided opportunities and pitfalls for Elrich. Montgomery has the highest rate of vaccination of any county in the nation of its size and has done an especially impressive job of vaccinating Black and Hispanic residents compared to other jurisdictions. However, Elrich has also had to make tough choices regarding school closings, masking, dining, and vaccination requirements that were virtually guaranteed to anger large constituencies no matter the decision.
But he has made them and it’s hard to argue that the county has fared badly or that he strayed from science in the process. Council opponents have snapped at his heels all the way, but I don’t know it has had much public impact. The Council has trouble gaining attention even at the most placid of times.
Elrich was most vociferously attacked for not having imposed vaccine requirements on the police. But in a time of rising crime did we want to potentially find ourselves without substantial numbers of officers and further alienate the police—the group of county employees with the highest non-vaccination rate? While many said “damn the torpedoes,” it is easy to bet that the same people would rush to the front of the line to attack Elrich for any increase in crime that resulted.
To my mind, Elrich faces two challenges as he seeks reelection. First, he needs to communicate clearly what he has done. Elrich explains things well and laudably avoids jargon in the process—one reason residents find him accessible—but is not known for being succinct. He needs to sell a short list of top accomplishments concisely.
Beyond arguing that he’s kept the county safe during the pandemic, Elrich can argue that he got the new FLASH new bus-rapid transit line built with more to come. Elrich also needs to articulate how his administration has worked successfully to protect struggling Montgomeryites throughout the pandemic despite opposition. Everyone likes someone who stands up for the underdog.
This last point will help Elrich with his second challenge: keeping movement progressives on side and active. In both parties today, many expect politicians to work miracles and are ready to attack anyone who hasn’t accomplished them even amidst a world roiling pandemic and absent legislative support. While Elrich’s alliance with labor should hold firm, will progressives be as active for him in 2022 as in 2018?
His opponents may unwittingly help him out there by continuing to caricature him as a throwback Marxist who can’t manage money. And yet, pensions are funded. The county retains its AAA bond rating. Attacks by financial scolds rely more on stereotypes than balance sheets. County finances are in better shape as they have been in recent memory despite the wrenching economic ups and downs of the pandemic.