By Adam Pagnucco.
Montgomery County’s At-Large County Council race may be the hardest contest in the county to predict. That’s because it doesn’t necessarily involve candidates running against each other directly. It operates more like a political market in which the four candidates who are able to sell their product to the most people win. That’s why candidates who are completely different from each other – who are selling entirely different things – often finish in the top four together. Viewed in this way, there are multiple paths to victory available in every at-large election. One path worth examining for this year is the one taken by four-term incumbent Nancy Floreen.
Floreen, a former Planning Board Member and Mayor of Garrett Park, was first elected as part of Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock slate in 2002. With four terms in office, she is by far the longest-serving female at-large Council Member since the council’s current structure was established in 1990. She has enjoyed strong support from the business and real estate communities for her entire tenure in office and has also drawn some labor and progressive backing. One union that has never endorsed her is MCEA – indeed, she is the only council candidate who has been elected four straight times without the Apple Ballot since MCEA began using it in the 1990s. Floreen is not known for initiating progressive bills, but she has often voted for them, including the 2008 prevailing wage law, the 2013 and 2017 minimum wage hikes, the 2014 public campaign financing law and the 2015 paid sick leave law. Despite her reputation for business-friendly positions, Floreen passed three major tax hikes during her two years as Council President and voted for others. Progressives don’t give her enough credit for her willingness to support new revenue for government. And so it’s fair to say that she has balanced between the left and the center during her four terms in office.
A Floreen mailer from her first campaign in 2002. Note how she shows support from two very different County Executives.
The electoral trajectory of Council Member Marc Elrich, who went from losing four straight council races to finishing first at-large two cycles in a row, is well known. Several candidates have tried to emulate his success over the years but none have matched it. Floreen’s success is less recognized but still substantial. Since 2002, she has finished third, fourth, third and second in the Democratic primaries in that order. Since her first election, she has cut the vote gap between herself and the first-place finisher by more than half. If she were not covered by term limits and chose to run for reelection, she would be the odds-on favorite to finish first in the next at-large race with Elrich running for Executive.
Below are Floreen’s ranks of finish in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 primaries by state legislative and council district. Also displayed is her percentage of the vote in 2014. She enjoyed significant gains in 2014, especially in Upcounty districts where she finished first or second.
Below is the same information displayed by city and town. In 2014, Floreen became the top vote-getter in most Upcounty areas including Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Darnestown, Germantown, Laytonsville and Montgomery Village as well as Burtonsville, Gaithersburg, Sandy Spring and Wheaton. Her vote percentages ranged from 18-22% with the exceptions of Dickerson, Downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park, areas with local favorites in the race.
Floreen combines schools and jobs in a 2014 mailer.
So what has Floreen been selling in the at-large political market? She has run as a center-left, business-backed candidate emphasizing economic growth, job creation, schools and social liberalism. She has also been aided by the fact that in three of her four terms, she was the only female at-large incumbent. That combination allowed her to pick up lots of votes in relatively moderate Upcounty and Midcounty areas as well as from people who felt the council should have at least one woman who represented the whole county. Not only has that been a successful strategy, it has been increasingly successful over time. And it’s not just due to incumbency – during Floreen’s tenure in office, two of her at-large colleagues were defeated and another (George Leventhal) slid from finishing first in 2006 to fourth in the next two cycles. By 2014, enough voters wanted to buy Floreen’s product that they elevated her above everyone else save Elrich.
There are echoes of Elrich all over the evolving at-large race. Several candidates are advocating his positions in favor of raising the minimum wage, limiting the influence of corporate money, protecting renters and working to reduce income inequality. But Floreen’s path to at-large success is a proven winner too. Will anyone take it?