The field is incomplete but we already have three major Democratic candidates for county executive in Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D 1), Marc Elrich (D At-Large), and George Leventhal (D-At Large). All three have eyed this office for some time. Now, thanks to term limits, they have to move up or out. Today, I begin a series taking a look at each of their candidacies, starting with Marc Elrich.
Introducing Marc Elrich
Former Takoma Park Councilmember Marc Elrich had to run repeatedly before he won a seat on the County Council. Once he did, he flourished with the voters but less so with his colleagues. In his last two elections, despite relatively small campaign kitties, Marc emerged clearly on top of the primary for the four at-large seats.
But he finds himself on the end of 8-1 Council votes more often than others, and George Leventhal defenestrated him from the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee when he became council chair. He has never been elected Council chair, though that could work to his advantage, as it aids his efforts to position himself as an outsider running against the status quo during a time when even people in Montgomery County seem dissatisfied with the establishment.
The Progressive Champion
Marc’s lane in the race is as the solid progressive candidate. Put another way, if you liked Bernie’s strong stand in favor of taking meaningful action to do something about economic inequality and aid people who are struggling, you should love Marc. He has been the most consistent and staunch progressive on the Council, most recently championing increasing the minimum wage to $15. He is popular with County employee unions with MCGEO’s Gino Renne hugging him especially tight in an embrace that could get uncomfortable. Marc doesn’t take large contributions from developers, though he’s hardly popular among them in any case.
His strengths, however, go beyond his natural appeal to the Democratic progressive base centered in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Marc is extremely well-liked among civic activists around the County because he listens and takes their concerns more seriously than any other councilmember.
Though some find him brusque, more appreciate his individualized attention to neighborhoods all around the County, and his general willingness to have a respectful conversation even if you disagree. A former teacher, Marc possesses the rare ability to explain complex issues in ways that people can understand and without resorting to insider argot.
His Big Idea: Bus-Rapid Transit
Marc can also claim to have brought the major (only?) out-of-the-box idea to the Council in the last twelve years in his plan for a bus-rapid transit network around the County. I’ve long found the idea appealing because it provides a means to give Montgomery County a real public transit system at a far more reasonable price than either light or heavy rail. It also has the potential to reduce tension between civic and business organizations, as it would genuinely address transportation concerns and simultaneously allow for more development.
Marc, however, has found it more difficult to promote his vision among his colleagues despite strong voter support. Indeed, his fellow at-large councilmembers—Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, and Hans Riemer—have taken a jaundiced approach to BRT even though they have remained nominally supportive. (The at-large councilmembers have a natural habit of looking jealously at each other since they compete at election time.) After twelve years, we are only now getting ready to take action to construct a pilot BRT line, and Roger Berliner would argue that it took his leadership to obtain unanimous Council support to move forward.
Challenges for Marc’s Candidacy
While having many strengths, Marc also faces challenges in his bid for county executive. Business is terrified of the idea of him, perceiving as madness his advocacy for left-wing ideas from rent control to a higher minimum wage to making commercial developers pay more for improvements that benefit them to his support for retaining the County’s antiquated liquor monopoly.
His advocacy against a system that he perceives as screwing over most people to benefit the wealthy fits within his political brand and has real appeal to much of the Democratic base. Still, Montgomery remains an affluent place with many card-carrying members of the establishment. Neighborhoods at all income levels espouse conventional middle-class values and are filled with people who want to move up rather than tear the system down.
Marc will need to operate within their comfort zone if he wants to win and his occasional burst of hardcore left-wing sentiments on non-economic questions may be off putting to more skittish supporters and provide ammunition to his opponents. His recent sharing of a video attacking Winston Churchill on Facebook provides a good example. While Marc sees it as balancing the hagiography of Churchill’s wartime leadership to create a more historically honest picture, it looks bizarre and distracts from his fundamental economic message and political brand. It weakens the valuable bonds that Marc has built with many communities through long-term cultivation and hard work.
Regardless of who runs, Marc will be a top-tier candidate. He will run as the progressive champion and should harvest the lion’s share of their votes. Other candidates will find it hard to challenge him on this terrain and among this constituency.