David Blair has more or less been running for county executive since he had a heartbreakingly close 80 vote loss to then-Councilmember Marc Elrich in the 2018 Democratic primary. It’s safe to say that no one will mistake the politics of one for the other.
The most promising issue for Blair—and one that leans into his business experience—is Montgomery’s record in attracting business and jobs. Not only is it substantive issue and a genuine problem, it is also one his opponents have left wide open. Far too often, county government treats real estate development as the one and only issue. The County Council focuses heavily on zoning and various ways to spur development but gives seemingly short shrift to the rest.
But residential development doesn’t do much to grow the tax base. Residents are expensive, especially if they have children who use the public schools. If they do, chances are that they receive more in spending than they pay in taxes towards the one-half of the county budget dedicated to the Montgomery County Public Schools.
Montgomery has always provided its residents an impressive array of services beyond the schools. Unlike in some jurisdictions with comparable tax rates, you can look around and see a fair amount being provided for your money. But if we want to continue to grow the tax base to maintain it, we need more non-development business. That gives Blair both a subject that he can claim as his as well as a message.
Blair, however, is not running as an anti-tax candidate. Like the County Executive and the County Council, he strongly supported Question A in 2020, which will have the effect of raising property taxes higher than would have been possible in the past.
Instead, Blair promises to bring the executive leadership that made him so successful in business to Montgomery County government. While many would argue that shaking up the tree might well be a good thing, government is very different from business. As Truman once said regarding his successor: “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army.” Does Blair know how to operate the levers of government?
At times, Blair has sent mixed or unconvincing messages on that question and what he thinks. For example, he recently set himself apart by coming out in favor of ending Montgomery County’s antiquated liquor monopoly. But this is after previously hiring Robert Dorfman—the former head of the then-Department of Liquor Control—as his campaign manager. Dorfman is no longer with the Blair campaign.
Moreover, how does Blair plan to get either the county council or state legislative delegation to vote for his plan? Egged on by MCGEO, both have been adamantly opposed to dismantling the monopoly. He’ll have to do a lot of persuading to make it happen.
Blair’s Economic Development Plan is a grab bag. Some appear to be more wish list items than plans, such as “Attract Venture Capital Funding” and “Attracting Hospitality Tech Companies.” Others sound like old ideas repackaged, such as creating a “microincubator program” for life sciences.
I like his idea of cutting barriers to doing business but more specifics would help. His plan states that businesses should not be “bogged down by strict regulations, cost-prohibitive processes and unsatisfactory customer service.” Great, but concrete examples are badly needed to make it meaningful instead of a campaign slogan like his catchily named “Montgomery County Business Bill of Rights.”
People voted for Elrich and Blair last time in a rejection of the status quo.. Blair needs to show that he knows the real nuts and bolts of creating change even as he identifies with the problems faced by ordinary businessmen and residents. And show that it isn’t just a redux of focusing on development interests yet again.
Blair’s huge advantage, of course, will be his cavernously deep pockets. I imagine that, as in 2018, he will spend incredible sums to dominate the airwaves, internet ads and any other form of communication. He’ll also be able to pay an army of campaign advisors and workers. It worked for Reps. David Trone (who used his resources very skillfully) and John Delaney, so I don’t see why it couldn’t work for him.
No doubt his business record will come under close scrutiny. Many will also ask “If he wasn’t so wealthy, would anyone be interested in what he had to say?”
Even if the answer is no, opponents would do well to remember that Americans, including poor ones, tend to admire successful businessmen and women. We don’t hate them; we want to be them. After all, it’s the American Dream.