Today, I continue my look at the current crop of candidates for county executive with Roger Berliner.
Introducing Roger Berliner
Like Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner didn’t make it to the Council on his first try. He lost the Democratic nomination for District 1 in a special election in 2000 in a bitter primary battle against Chevy Chase Village Board Chair Pat Baptiste. However, he won the nomination without opposition in 2006 and then went on to defeat the well-liked Howie Denis, among the last of the moderate Republicans elected in Montgomery. Indeed, Denis was often more liberal than his Democratic colleagues.
In many ways, Roger faces the toughest district on the Council. The most affluent district in the County, his constituents are extremely well-educated and possess a sense of their own agency that render them far less likely to be intimidated by government officials. At the same time, precisely because he represents a successful area, it can be difficult for him to gain attention for his district’s real concerns even if his constituents pay a disproportionate share of taxes. On top of that, Roger has maintained his support for the Purple Line in the area that contains the strongest opposition and where many see little benefit but much expense.
Nonetheless, Roger has navigated the political currents well. In the last election, former at-large County Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg tried for a second act with strong support from her erstwhile enemies in the unions. Roger didn’t just win; he annihilated Duchy with almost 80 percent of the vote. A nice validation from his constituents.
Roger’s Niche in the Race
Almost by default, Roger has become the pro-business candidate in this race. I write by default because it’s not because Roger is a right winger or the ideal business candidate. In politics, one often has to choose the least bad option. From the business perspective, Roger is that candidate and they even hold out hope that he could be a good option.
Roger will likely center his case on the claim that he can get the County’s stagnant economy moving again—a vital concern both for citizens and the County budget, which desperately needs more revenue to avoid service cuts and to repair aging infrastructure and voters look unwilling to stomach another set of tax and fee increases.
Roger has taken enough liberal stands that he should remain within the comfort zones of those who have liberal impulses but remain more practical (read: centrist). In particular, Roger has carved out a strong environmental record and pushed consistently for efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our populous county.
He has also made himself Pepco’s leading critic—not a bad place to be with consumers–as the company firmly believes it should always earn a profit whether or not it can keep the electricity flowing. However, under much scrutiny after the derecho, service has improved, so this issue has declined in salience, even if few County residents will object to Roger’s efforts to fight the latest hike in utility rates.
Making the Case
Marc Elrich’s candidacy centers around economic justice. Roger Berliner will need to articulate his own vision if he wants to win. Specifically, he will need to explain how he will get the County moving again economically. He’ll need to do it with enough specifics that it convinces voters that it’s not just the usual puffery. At the same time, he can’t get caught up in the minutiae, as Democrats tend to do, so that voters lose the plot and get bored. Roger will also need to make the case for why focus on growth and new jobs matters.
Within this vision, Roger will also include liberal values and principles. He might also choose to pair his economic vision with another non-economic progressive notion to attract voters more to the left or at least stay within their comfort zone. A tricky balancing act, as he also wants to avoid being so wishy-washy that business doesn’t have to curb their enthusiasm, but Roger has proved adept at figuring out a route through these political currents.
Weaknesses and Challenges to Roger’s Candidacy
Roger’s central problem is communication. More specifically and to be overly blunt, it is one of authenticity. It is not that Roger lacks authenticity—he has adhered tenaciously to a set of core values through his three council terms—but a problem of presentation. Perhaps due to his training as an attorney, Roger comes across frequently as just a bit too practiced and too careful when responding to voters.
Politics is about connecting with voters, so Roger will have to reveal more of that underlying authentic passion if he wants to win. I don’t want to overstate the issue—Ike Leggett has been a very careful and very successful politician—but Sanders and Trump resonated for a reason. Still, Montgomery was Hillary country and Roger has won tough contests before, so he won’t need to take it too far.
Roger dodged a bullet when David Trone decided to take his business experience and his wallet to the Sixth Congressional District. If he can consolidate business support and continue his past successful outreach to other communities, he should be a top-tier candidate. He remains highly vulnerable, however, to new candidates who could do the same from outside County government, as voters remain desirous of turning over the reins to new leaders.