Executive Race Lane 3: Needs a Job

Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) is being turfed out of office by term limits. Like Marc Elrich four years ago, Riemer was the top vote getter in the previous election’s Democratic at-large council primary. Riemer’s achievement perhaps lacks some the luster since he was the only incumbent. But it doesn’t hurt.

Running for County Executive doesn’t appear to have been Riemer’s preferred path. When the Council was debating its reconfiguration in response to the initiative to eliminate the four at-large seats and move to all districts, Riemer proposed creating a separately elected Council President. The new office could likely evade the Council term limits and provide the well-known incumbent with another opportunity.

This didn’t pass the laugh test with his colleagues. The Council currently elects its President annually with the job rotating among the members. Why on earth would the rest of the Council want to give up the chance of being Council President to put Riemer in charge? I suppose one can admire Riemer’s chutzpah if not his political sense.

Until recently, Riemer was the upbeat urbanist warrior on the Council. That’s changed. Riemer has become stridently negative with his campaign marked by nearly incessant attacks on both incumbent County Executive Marc Elrich along with wealthy businessman David Blair.

Riemer has raised a tremendous amount of money through the public financing system. While it’s hard to compete with David Blair’s wallet or the developer PAC spending $500,000 on his behalf, it is still impressive. My sense is that his team has built a strong campaign.

Notwithstanding his strong fundraising and high name recognition, Riemer faces challenges. His urbanist base is split with David Blair. Some of his natural supporters find Blair’s past run and deep pockets a stronger bet than Riemer’s lengthy experience. Despite their revulsion towards Trump, Democrats seem happy to elect wealthy businessmen to office (e.g. David Trone and John Delaney), including many in Riemer’s crowd.

Riemer’s reputation among political observers who inform other voters and influencers also doesn’t help. In contrast to, say, Nancy Floreen, many see Riemer as a well-meaning guy but not a political or policy heavyweight. Though a fervent believer in his own proposals, he often doesn’t seem to know his brief and appears out of depth in answering questions.

Riemer’s campaign conversion on privatizing alcohol sales tends to confirm this view. After having previously headed the MoCo Nightlife Commission and years of telling us is that all we needed is to be able to buy craft beers, he has only now connected the dots and discovered that the alcohol monopoly is a problem.

When one of Riemer’s (very nice) campaign volunteers knocked on my door, I was amused to be handed a walk piece claiming that Riemer got the Purple Line done. I guess he has a different definition of “done” than I do. If we’re lucky, the light rail will be up and running around the time the next County Executive finishes his term complete with massive cost overruns. Though a shinier object, the unfinished Purple Line contrasts uneasily with Elrich’s ability to get the Flash BRT and up and running faster at a far lower cost.

Riemer and Elrich have never been BFFs and Riemer has dogged the Elrich administration relentlessly. But even in quieter times, councilmembers have trouble getting much attention from the public. Notwithstanding Riemer’s strong criticism of Elrich’s handling of the pandemic, and that many of the necessary choices were bound to alienate blocs of voters, voters view Elrich’s handling of it favorability to the chagrin of detractors.

Though the Washington Post had some kind words for Riemer (and harsh ones for Elrich), their endorsement of Blair helps confirm Riemer’s third-place status. Riemer has done his best to distinguish himself from both Elrich and Blair and run better than expectations. Still, it will be a real surprise if he wins the primary.