Montgomery County Executive | Bethesda Magazine

Montgomery County Executive

Note: Bethesda Beat asked the county executive candidates individual questions, separate from the questions that went to candidates in other races.

 

Republican

 

Robin Ficker

Age: 75 (born April 5, 1943, Takoma Park)

Home: Boyds; divorced, three children

Education: bachelor’s degree, Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University), Cleveland, Ohio, 1965; law degree, University of Baltimore School of Law, Baltimore, Maryland, 1970; master’s degree in public administration, American University, Washington, D.C., 1970

Professional background: attorney (private practice, Bethesda, 1982-2016, College Park, 2016-present), real estate broker (2008-present)

Political experience (public offices held and when, as well as unsuccessful campaigns for office and which years): State delegate in District 15, 1979-83. Other runs for public office include:

  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 8 (1972)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 8 (1974)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 8 (1976)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 8 (1980)
  • State delegate in District 15 (1982)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 6 (1984)
  • State Senate in District 15 (1986)
  • Montgomery County Board of Education (1988)
  • State delegate in District 15 (1994)
  • U.S. Senate in Maryland (2000)
  • State Senate in District 39 (2002)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 8 (2004)
  • Montgomery County executive (2006)
  • Montgomery County Council in District 4 (2009)
  • Montgomery County Council in District 2 (2010)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 6 (2012)
  • State Senate in District 15 (2014)
  • U.S. House of Representatives in District 6 (2016)

Collected the signatures and placed the following charter amendments on Montgomery County ballot:

• 1974: require voter approval of capital improvement bonds issued by county (did not pass)

• 1976: require voter approval of increases in property-tax rate (did not pass); allow recall of local officials (did not pass); require voter approval of capital improvement bonds issued by county for projects costing more than $1 million (did not pass)

• 1978: forbid county from operating or constructing garbage dumps in residential zones (passed by voters)

• 1980: forbid county from trenching sewage sludge in residential zones (passed by voters)

• 1982: forbid county to contract with C&P telephone if C&P charges upper-county residents long-distance rates to call Prince George’s County and Northern Virginia (passed by voters); forbid the county to sell alcoholic beverages (Court of Appeals bars amendment from ballot one hour before ballot printing deadline)

• 1984: require County Council to run in single-member districts (did not pass)

• 1985: In Ficker v. Montgomery County Board of Elections, federal court overturns newly passed state law that forbade paying signature collectors. State pays $30,000 in attorney fees.

• 1990: limit Montgomery County property-tax rate to 1988 level (did not pass); forbid Montgomery County from spending funds to build projects that state law requires the state to build (did not pass); limit to property taxes goes on ballot when Maryland Court of Appeals rules in Ficker v. Denny that petition circulators who collected voters’ signatures must turn them in to Board of Elections (did not pass)

• 1992: piggyback tax revenues more than a certain level must be offset by decrease in county property-tax revenues (did not pass)

• 1994: piggyback tax revenues more than a certain level must be offset by decrease in county property-tax revenues (did not pass)

• 1996: property-tax revenues more than a certain level must be offset by decrease in county property-tax revenues (did not pass)

• 1998: property-tax revenues more than a certain level must be offset by decrease in county property-tax revenues (did not pass); any Montgomery County tax increase or new tax must be approved by voters (struck from ballot by Circuit Court shortly before ballot printing deadline)

• 2000: limit county executive and County Council to two four-year terms in office (did not pass)

• 2004: limit county executive and County Council to three four-year terms in office (did not pass)

• 2006: limit property-tax-revenue increases to rate of inflation (did not pass)

• 2008: limit property-tax-revenue increases to rate of inflation unless unanimous County Council votes otherwise (passed by voters)

• 2010: limit the county executive and County Council to three consecutive terms in office (struck from ballot by Circuit Court for technical violations)

• 2016: limit county executive and County Council to three consecutive terms in office (passed by voters)

• Campaign information:

 

What do you feel differentiates you most from your two opponents?

I drew a map, and I looked up the addresses of my two opponents [Democrat Marc Elrich of Takoma Park and independent Nancy Floreen of Garrett Park] and the addresses of the four at-large council members. And they all live—I plotted them very accurately—in the Takoma Park trapezoid, which is 4.1 percent of Montgomery County’s land area.

I think we need some geographic diversity in the county government, and I certainly give that—because I’m the only one who drives down I-270 every day; I live in Boyds … [Elrich and Floreen] are alike. The only way they’ve been a little different is in development. They’re two very liberal Democrats, and I’m the only alternative to them in this race … . We need someone who thinks like the general election voters, as I do.

What issues do you most have in mind when you say that?

The reason I say I do is because of the [referendum] vote on property tax limits in 2008, which they all opposed. In 2006, they increased the county budget 11 percent. Marc came on the council after the 2006 budget. In 2007, they increased the county budget by 11 percent; in 2008, they both voted to increase the county budget 14 percent in one year.

Rather than just sit there and take it, I put a question on the ballot in 2008 to require a unanimous vote of the council to increase property taxes more than the rate of inflation. And it passed, despite opposition from The Washington Post, all the elected officials, the teachers union, and the League of Women Voters. But they weren’t in touch with the view of the people.

But they figured out a way to get around it in 2016, when Nancy was the chairman of the council and Marc was her look-alike voter, and they were the two deciding votes—because it took all nine votes. If they had voted the other way, the maximum property tax increase would have been 1.8 percent, which was the rate of inflation. So they gave us a property tax increase [an average of 8.7 percent] five times the rate of inflation.

Both Mr. Elrich and Ms. Floreen, along with the other seven members of the council, have defended their votes for that as necessary to produce additional revenues to meet the increasing challenges faced by the county’s school system. Do you feel that investment in the school system was unnecessary?

I think you have to live within your means, and if you can count on tax increases, you’ll keep exceeding your means. Believe me, if either one of those folks is elected, it’s guaranteed that we’re going to get big property tax increases. They did it back in 2008, and they would have done it each and every year up until 2016 if it hadn’t have been for my amendment, because, prior to my amendment, it didn’t take a unanimous vote. And then that changed: Every vote became essential.

When they say that they’re not going to raise property taxes, that’s completely disingenuous. In 2010, they held a hearing on the county energy tax. The subject of the hearing was, “Should we raise the county energy tax 30 percent?” I testified; I said, “Oh no, that’s much too much.” They ended up approving a 156 percent increase in the county residential energy tax. And they said it was going to sunset in two years. It didn’t; they didn’t tell the truth. And they’re not telling the truth now when they say they’re not going to increase taxes, because that’s the first thing they’re going to do.

You indicate you would have opposed—and thereby blocked—the 2016 increase had you been on the council. Do you feel the “achievement gap” in the county schools, at which that increase was in large part aimed, is a significant problem that needs to be addressed with more spending?

I think the achievement gap is very important, and I’ve got some ideas on how to close the achievement gap that don’t include increasing property taxes. My dad was a Rhodes scholar. He worked in the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service for 40 years. He used to bring me home six books a week. I’m a bibliophile; I was there for the opening of a lot of these libraries, not just the recent one in Silver Spring. And I know that children who spend time in the library and read at an early age are going to be successes in life. The problem is that other kids aren’t going into the library. We need to teach our kids to love to be in the library, to love to read, and if we do that, that achievement gap is going to be closed.

Take them there at a young age—and our schools aren’t doing that. We have these beautiful libraries and they’re underutilized, and the kids are under-experiencing the thrill. It’s an attitude that needs to be pervasive in the school system. It comes from the top—and I don’t see it. I think there needs to be some education about going to the library, and it should be a very simple thing. A kid who spends an hour in the library is going to come out with some books. He’s going to take them home and read them, more than likely.

Both of your opponents have spoken favorably about increasing pre-kindergarten education as a means of kindling this type of interest. What’s your feeling about that kind of approach?

You know, they talk about doing things by raising taxes for schools. I also attended the hearing [in 2016] for the 30 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax—where both of them said, “Well, we’re using that money for schools, and we need it for school construction.” They both voted for that, and then, what did they do? They used $5 million of that to pay lawyers up to $550 an hour to defend the malfunctions at the Silver Spring transit center. It’s always spending more money. If we were bringing in jobs, fine—then we’d have more to spend. But we weren’t at that time.

The increase in the real estate transfer tax was intended to yield about $200 million over six years, with $125 million directed to school construction needs. Given your opposition to that increase, what alternative would you have proposed to deal with a rapidly expanding school population?

I had a question on the ballot some years ago that said the county couldn’t finance capital improvement projects that state law required the state to fund. It didn’t pass, but the point there was that we’re not getting our fair share in Annapolis. For the last 10 years, we have had 18 percent of the state’s students. We have had 40 percent recently of the state’s new students, and we have gotten 12 percent of the state’s school construction money. [Editor’s note: Based on data provided by the county’s General Assembly delegation, Montgomery’s share of state school construction aid in 2017 was a little more than 15 percent.]

In 2013, the Montgomery County delegation voted for a special piece of legislation to increase Baltimore city’s school construction funds $20 million a year for each of the next 30 years. Where were Floreen and Elrich saying, “Why aren’t you doing that for Montgomery County?” I haven’t read where they have really spoken out to jump start or give a pep talk to our legislative delegation, which is falling way short in bringing back a fair share of school construction funds here.

Putting aside 2013—when school construction funding for Baltimore was part of a broader deal that yielded a major infusion of transportation funding for Montgomery, including the Purple Line—there are intense demands from just about every local jurisdiction for state school construction aid. What can you do as county executive to prod the delegation to increase the county’s share?

Well, I give them a pep talk. They’ve got to start doing their jobs. And I think I’ll be able to work much better with Gov. [Larry] Hogan than [my opponents] ever will. He’s not friends with them. And I think I’ll be able to work and bring home a fair share from the state that they haven’t been able to do—and I might add that I have some experience in the state, because I’m the only one of the three that has served in the state legislature.

Has Gov. Hogan endorsed you?

Well, you talk about endorsements … . You use terms of art. He and I are friends. I was friends with his dad; I’ve known him for a very long time. On many times when he’s into the county … I [have been] there talking with him about the future of the county.

You noted your term in the legislature. Prior to this year, you’ve made 19 runs for elected office. Eight of these were efforts to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Given the current open seat in the 6th District—where you’ve made three previous bids—what made you decide to run for county executive this year rather than Congress?

This is a technique that Bethesda Beat has insisted on using—that I’ve run for office and haven’t won the office. That’s like talking about the Washington Capitals; the Washington Capitals didn’t win in 2003. They didn’t win in 2004. They didn’t get into the playoffs in 2002. If I wanted to talk to you about the Capitals, that’s what you would start off by saying. I would say that the Washington Capitals are the Stanley Cup champions.

I won the Stanley Cup—with term limits [in 2016]. I won [the referendum] with 70 percent of the vote, majorities in 253 of 257 precincts—over not only the opposition of our opponents in this race, but over their frivolous lawsuit. That was a vote for change, which they can’t possibly say they represent because they’ve been there 16 years and 12 years. I represent change, because I haven’t been there—and things have gotten worse while they’ve been there.

I have counted up the number of times I’ve put tax questions on the ballot; it’s over 10. And finally, in 2008, it passed—and you know what, that was like the Super Bowl. That was a sea change. That stopped property tax increases cold from 2009 to 2015. So, when you bring about the two biggest changes in county government since the year 2000, why wouldn’t you want to run for county executive?

As you just pointed out, Ms. Floreen and Mr. Elrich have 16 and 12 years, respectively, on the County Council. You are the one of the three who has not held office at the county level. What experience do you have that would assist you in managing a government structure with a $5.5 billion annual budget?

Nancy Floreen hasn’t been in court as an attorney since 2001. Marc has never been in court as an attorney. I have been in court since 1974. Nancy says we should vote for her because she’s a female, that females aren’t represented. I won the county’s landmark sex discrimination case. We discovered that they were rating all female job applicants for the Montgomery County government by physique and facial features. My federal consent decree stopped that practice. [Editor’s note: The 1973 decree resulted from a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff, Deborah Drudge, alleged she had been improperly denied employment in the Montgomery County Attorney’s office.]

Environmental policy statements for highways, for Metro [are] a major issue in the county government. I won the landmark case against Metro requiring that they file proper environmental impact statements for any change to the Mass Transit General Plan. [Editor’s note: Ficker represented the North Takoma Citizens Association against Metro in a 1974 federal court case.] Since 2013, I have represented 10 elementary school students who have been suspended from school for frivolous reasons and I got all their suspensions lifted, pro bono. Nancy’s on the council, she has time to do pro bono work. Why hasn’t she done that? She touts her ability as an attorney.

[Current County Executive] Ike Leggett has said that experience in the judicial branch is very useful to someone who’s in the office of county executive. The life of Montgomery County goes through the courthouse—the desires, the strife. In the courthouse, you learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, because I am generally arguing against people who are very bright and who have the odds in their favor—because, generally, the prosecution does. I’m standing up for the rights of someone who has been accused of wrongdoing, who oftentimes has no friends. I have never been held in contempt of court. I am always there giving very good arguments.

This time, my client is not going to be an individual who has been charged with some offense he shouldn’t have been charged with; it’s going to be the people of Montgomery County.

Ms. Floreen has publicly noted that, in 1998 and 2007, you were suspended temporarily from law practice in Maryland. A 2007 document from the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission states that your 1998 suspension arose from “the sloppy manner in which he operated his office.” In recommending that you be suspended a second time, the commission said it found no evidence that you had made an effort in the intervening decade to deal with problems in managing your office. Your response?

My response is that I’ll be happy to compare my legal career with Nancy Floreen’s legal career. I have completed 35,000 cases in Maryland courts. Do you know how many Nancy has completed? I think she’s been involved in 50. And you can go back and look at the tape of Nancy Floreen’s debate with me on term limits, which is on my website, and … see how she did there. There, we have two lawyers arguing a subject. Go back and look who won that argument, where she said it wasn’t going to pass.

Notwithstanding your legal experience and how it may or may not compare to Ms. Floreen’s, the question is why was your law license suspended on two occasions—and do you feel it was justified?

I challenged the way of doing things in the legal profession in Maryland. I was doing mailings to people who were arrested. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and I had someone down in the ticket room of Annapolis writing down the names and addresses of all the people who were arrested. And attorneys got very upset about that, because I was sending out mailings and cutting their fees. But it was a public service because it was bringing about lower rates for people who had been arrested and gotten serious traffic offenses.

As a result, I engendered a certain amount of enmity from some members of the Bar. The clerk of the court that allowed me to go in there because I filed the Freedom of Information Act request died. A new clerk came in and said, “What is this person doing in here writing information down from the tickets?” Judge [Robert] Sweeney [first chief judge of Maryland’s district court system, from 1971 to 1996] found out about this, and he called me up and said, “You can’t do this.” I said, “Why not, it’s a public service?” And he said, “Well, I’m going to talk to [Maryland Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller.” And they introduced legislation to prohibit attorney mailings to people who had been arrested. They passed the law. I went to federal court and I overturned the law.

They then passed another law, because there was a case somewhere that said you couldn’t mail to people who had been injured in airplane accidents within 30 days of the accident because they were emotionally distraught. In Maryland, they used that argument by saying you couldn’t mail to people who had been arrested within 30 days. So I went to federal court again, and overturned that. And then, guess who joined in an amicus [curiae] brief on behalf of the state? The Maryland defense attorneys’ association. With lawyers, it’s all about the money—and my mailings were cutting fees. So, there was some pushback, and I had some frivolous complaints filed against me as a result.

You said you’ve learned in court how to disagree without being disagreeable. Part of your resume includes being a nationally known heckler at professional basketball games—at least until the Washington Wizards moved to downtown D.C. a couple of decades ago, and moved you from a long-time perch behind the opposing bench. Is that a period about which you have second thoughts?

That’s a long time ago, but I’m a sports fan. And I never said anything improper at any game, never drank alcohol at any game, never made any racial or sexual comment. I never said any word that couldn’t be printed on the front page of The Washington Post … . And I never swore at any game, either, because I don’t swear: I mean, when you’re in court, you can’t … . [Pro basketball star forward] Charles Barkley said I was the No. 1 NBA fan. I wrote an article for The New York Times [on] my philosophy about it, getting a vicarious thrill.

Didn’t your activities as a heckler get you expelled from some games?

There were a couple of times. But here you’re really diverting, because you’re going back 20 years ago now. You’re not talking about property taxes, you’re not talking about term limits. You’re not talking about Amazon. And I did something that you haven’t covered; I guess you didn’t think it was newsworthy, but, believe me, I was thinking out of the box. I actually went out to Amazon. I went out to Seattle for four days, and I talked to at least 50 people who work for Amazon. I was at a Seahawks game with some of them, too. And I was at the globes [on the Amazon campus] and I was at about 20 of the buildings there. Why? Because I wanted to see what HQ1 was like if we’re going to have HQ2 here.

Who were you talking with at Amazon? Were any of them in management?

I talked to some of both. I’m not going to give you their names, because they don’t want their names on the internet. They want one thing—they want freedom. They want freedom to think, they want freedom from professional regulators, and—just even more recently—they want freedom from people who want to take their hard-earned gains. Like Seattle wanted to impose a head tax—and has, of $275 a head, and they wanted to impose much more. And I was thinking to myself, “If Seattle wants $275, Marc Elrich is going to want at least $1,000.” You notice they’re making their decision after the election. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

You know, you look at Twitter, and you look at some of the people supporting Elrich, and they hate Amazon. They’re talking about [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos being too rich, they’re talking about they should locate in Virginia, it will bring too much traffic. I sat next to [Elrich] at 20 forums, I never heard him say one single word in favor of bringing Amazon here at any of those forums. They’re not coming here if he’s county executive. If I am, they will. [Editor’s note: Elrich is on record supporting the package of incentives designed to attract Amazon’s second headquarters, a position he reiterated in a recent letter to Bezos.]

I have a degree in engineering. I’m the only one in this race that does. I’m used to associating with computer nerds. And those are the kinds of people at Amazon. These are people who are thinking about ways to change the world. And they’re the kind of people who I would like to bring here, and who will boost the economy. But we’re not bringing them here to boost the economy; we’re bringing them here to bring their thirst for freedom here and to have that thirst spread among our people in Montgomery County.

You appear to agree with Mr. Elrich’s complaint that public infrastructure has not kept up with private development. In a recent questionnaire, you wrote: “Insist on adequate roads and schools for new development or master plan revision. Westbard and Bethesda plans are examples of development without adequate schools and roads requirements.” Absent tax increases or major growth in the tax base in the near future, how do you guarantee this?

Marc Elrich says we’re going to put big levies on the developers, which has scared the daylights out of them. I’m not going to load them up with these. I’m going to have a warm and welcoming attitude.

I have a 2009 Ford Escape hybrid … and, in my car, I have lifetime Sirius. So all day long, I’m listening to CNBC. I’m listening to what these business people want. And I know what these business people want is certainty … so that they can make investments in buildings, and they can decide where to locate. I’m going to give them certainty, because I am not going to increase taxes. I’m going to also cut the tax on the paper bags, which are biodegradable.

But how do you ensure that roads and schools keep up with new development?

I’m going to work with the developers, not against them, as Marc is doing. I’ll be sitting down with them and talking to them about it. Keep in mind: All day long, every day, I’m negotiating settlements with people who have viewpoints that oftentimes are the complete opposite of mine.

So I am going to work with these developers and say, “Hey, we’re not going to put thousands of town houses right just above our drinking water supply in Lake Seneca and right where I-270 is only four lanes—and then claim we’ve saved Ten Mile Creek. We’re going to have adequate infrastructure here, and you’re going to go with me down to the governor and down to [Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao, and we’re going to improve I-270—and then we’re going to build more town houses, and more nice yards and more shopping centers.”

But we’re going to work together, and that hasn’t been done. The [Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Floreen] has been a bunch of couch potatoes.

But didn’t the council, including Mr. Elrich and Ms. Floreen, pass legislation to protect Ten Mile Creek and the water supply in Lake Seneca? In fact, that legislation prompted a lawsuit by one developer who contended its development was unfairly blocked by the council’s action.

They’ve put thousands of town houses right next to the drinking water supply. I have lived on a farm there since 1994, and the amount of runoff during a serious storm has quadrupled. All this runoff from the oil on all these driveways right next to it—the water goes above the guard rails during heavy rains.

I would have said, “You’re not going to build next to the drinking water supply.” It’s that simple. I’m the only candidate who lives in the Ag Reserve. I would say we’re going to have an area to protect our drinking water supply—and they didn’t protect it. They’re claiming that they did that, but they didn’t. They ruined it.

You can’t have a scarecrow in the Ag Reserve put in the Takoma Park trapezoid. It doesn’t work. I look at things differently. I’m not there in the Takoma Park trapezoid; I’m looking at the upper county, which has been a dumping ground, which has just been taken advantage of for a long time.

Moving on to transportation … . You’ve noted that you drive frequently on I-270. Are you supportive of the plan promoted by Gov. Hogan to widen I-270 and I-495 and install toll lanes?

I know that we must do something. I know the Beltway is clogged almost 12 hours a day. I know that I-270 is a parking lot. I’m supporting anything that allows better traffic flow.

I don’t want to be put in the corner by saying, “Oh, he’s in favor of the toll lanes.”

I would rather not have toll lanes. We have these high fees on the Intercounty Connector that I would argue should be lower. During rush hour, I would even maybe make it free—because that will take cars off the Beltway and take cars off I-270, at least as far as Montgomery Village. And believe me, I’m going to improve I-270. I’m going to be down there with [Maryland Transportation Secretary] Pete Rahn Wednesday morning [after the election] in his office saying, “Hey, let’s do it.”

But there’s a big problem I have with his [Hogan’s] study on I-270: The section from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg is in a future study—it’s not in the present study. That’s got to change.

Are there road projects currently on the drawing board that you would like to see built?

I’m in favor of M-83 [the continuation of the Midcounty Highway between Derwood and Clarksburg]. In 2002, I had a campaign brochure which said 45,000 people are going to be coming to Clarksburg, the roads are gridlocked, we need M-83. Now, 30,000 of those 45,000 people are here, and we still don’t have it. I’ve been to just about every house in Clarksburg and I know there are people who work in Virginia who have to leave their house at 4:30 a.m. and if they don’t, they’re late for work.

I’m going to build M-83. All the at-large council members who live in the Takoma Park trapezoid—I’ve seen their answers, they’re all against it [Editor’s note: Elrich opposes it, while Floreen supports it.] I will work out something with them … in the capital improvements program. We’re going to get the votes for M-83. And if they just say, “I hate M-83, it’s going to impair the Paris [climate change] accords,” which some of them have said, then I’ll say, “Fine, we may only have M-83 in the capital improvements program, and nothing else.”

One of your opponents, Mr. Elrich, has long advocated a bus rapid transit system along major roads in the county. What are your feelings about that?

We have 150 road projects in Montgomery County that have been on hold. We have been Takoma Parked, we’ve been Garrett Parked. We need to get Montgomery County moving, we need to improve our bottlenecks in the county, we need to get people to work earlier. Just the other day, I’m reading on Facebook, “Oh, we have Silver Spring/Takoma Park restaurant week. Come down for lunch.” I am there on I-270. I’m stuck; I’m going like 5 miles an hour. And I put on Twitter and said, “Why are you thinking about lunch?” This was [Council member] Tom Hucker, I think. “Why haven’t you done something about all these people who are here with me on I-270?”

You were tweeting while driving?

Yes, I was. (chuckles). Good point … . I was stopped at the time. I wasn’t moving.

Do you favor widening the American Legion Bridge, and what are your thoughts about a second Potomac River crossing?

I was in high school when they built [the American Legion Bridge]. The population of Montgomery County was 400,000. Now, I think it might be a little more than that—maybe 1.1 million. [My opponents] have had Democratic governors; they’ve had [Parris] Glendening, they’ve had [Martin] O’Malley. They haven’t worked with them to get it done. I’m going to have Gov. Hogan more than likely. And I’m going to work with him and get it done.

I don’t think [a second Potomac crossing] is going to be built. I always have an open mind; I believe in studying things and looking at alternatives. But the way it looks to me, that’s not going to be built, and I live there and know that people are looking for all kinds of reasons to build in the Ag Reserve. So far, I haven’t heard a good one.

In response to a recent questionnaire, you vowed to “be thrifty, eliminate waste.” Can you identify specific areas where you think the county is being wasteful, and how much in cost savings you feel can be realized?

For instance, I don’t think the county secretary of transportation should be earning more than [U.S. Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao, because I think her job is a little bigger and a little more important. [Editor’s note: Al Roshdieh, director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, earned a salary of nearly $223,500 last year, as compared to $199,700 for Chao.] And I would look to some of these county salaries and make sure they are reasonable. And I’m going to look and see where we can economize. Look, who do you think is going to economize more? People who have had their own business, a thriving law office practice, for 40 years—or people that haven’t?

This is going to be the first time since 1978 [when Republican James Gleason was succeeded by Democrat Charles Gilchrist] when we’ve had rather large change in the people working in the county government. The county executive has a lot of appointments, and we’re going to make a lot of appointments of thrifty people. There’s only one person who is going to bring about change in the county government, and you’re looking at him.

You feel some salaries are too high. Do you believe the county executive’s salary is too high, and, if so, would you take a pay cut?

I think it’s less than $200,000. [Editor’s note: County Executive Ike Leggett earned $192,800 in gross pay in 2017.] There’s a lot of people in the county government who make more. I’d look at some of this overtime, that’s for sure. I’m going to have a new police chief, and I’m going to have him make sure that once the police are done with their court cases, they’re out of the courthouse and out on the street, doing something worthwhile and not standing around in the courthouse.

On another county management issue, would you retain the current country-run system of liquor sales and distribution, or move to privatize it?

I was the only one who served in the legislature, and I introduced, in 1980, legislation to get the county out of the liquor business. It didn’t get enough votes in the [county] delegation. Then, in 1982, I collected the signatures to put a charter amendment on the ballot to say that the county couldn’t be in the liquor business. I collected all the signatures, they were verified—and then the county took me to court and sure enough, they struck the question from the ballot an hour before the deadline for printing the ballot. They said you can’t get the county out of the liquor business by changing county law; you have to change state law first.

I’d be in favor of a referendum. But you have to convince the delegation … . I put the idea in their minds and this is now 38 years later and they still haven’t done it. They’ve had a lot of opportunities.

 

 

Democrat

 

Marc Elrich

Age: 68 (born Nov. 2, 1949, Washington, D.C.)

Home: Takoma Park; divorced, four children

Education: bachelor’s degree, University of Maryland, College Park, 1975; master’s degree (teaching), Johns Hopkins University, 1993

Professional background: teacher (Rolling Terrace Elementary School, Takoma Park, 1990-2006); retail store manager (Montgomery Ward, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op)

Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2006-present; member, Takoma Park City Council, 1987-2006; ran for County Council at-large (1994, 2002), in District 5 (1990, 1998)

Campaign information:

 

What distinguishes you the most from your opponents in this race?
I have the most diverse background. I’ve taught in the schools, I’ve worked for a big business, I’ve worked for a small business, I’ve done community organizing. I’ve had more time in government, in two different governments. I’ve had 31 years of having to figure out how to make budgets balance—and government work.

I think I have a perspective that is more in tune with the county. The biggest issues are not “What do I do to stimulate real estate development?” The biggest issues are “What are we going to do about traffic?” and “How are we going to deal with our overcrowded schools?” And I’m a firm believer that you can actually have development, but you need to have it with the infrastructure. [Republican nominee] Robin [Ficker] has been historically silent on these things, except when it’s convenient, and [independent candidate] Nancy [Floreen] has kind of taken a different approach to development than I do.

It’s been noted that you and Ms. Floreen voted the same way much of the time during your 12 years together on the County Council. Where do you see the major policy differences between the two of you?

When we voted similarly on things, the difference is that I probably led on those things. And Nancy often voted [yes] reluctantly—because, pretending to be a Democrat, it doesn’t do you very good to vote against minimum wage or sick and safe leave or any of this other stuff. But she’s not been an enthusiastic supporter; you don’t find her leading any of the things that relate to ”Are you providing enough schools, are you providing enough transportation in the county?” What I like to point out to people is that if her argument is that I’ve somehow had a bad business agenda, she’s voted for it all.

I know the business community is upset about minimum wage and sick and safe leave. I don’t feel that is anti-business; I feel that, as we’re coming into the 21st century, we have to recognize the value of labor and what it means to have a system where structurally you have a lot of poverty in the community just because of [the level of] wages. And there’s nothing Nancy has proposed that would have been so-called “better for the business community” that I’ve voted against—leaving aside developers, but if you’re talking about the real business community here, the people who provide jobs. I supported the [Economic Development Corp.], her version of it. When it came up again and there was criticism from the council, I said I thought we should give this thing a chance to keep going.

Despite what people tell you, I’ve voted for most of the incentives to the smaller and medium-sized companies that either are expanding or we’re trying to bring to Montgomery County, particularly in the tech areas. So, Nancy’s notion that I represent some kind of threat to the business community … I really do think is a farce. There’s not a single thing I’ve done that she can point to. I think it’s that the developers can’t go out and say, “Marc wants us to pay more—vote for Nancy.” So what they try to do is paint me as anti-business, which I am not.

You’re saying you’re not a threat to them, but the development community clearly feels differently—given where its support and money are going in this race. What’s your explanation for the gulf in perceptions here?

I honestly think this is way overblown. They say it, but I don’t have a record that’s threatening, and I’m going—from their perspective—into a less threatening position. If I’m county executive, I don’t vote on anything, I don’t participate in [Planning, Housing, and Economic Development] Committee meetings. As I’ve tried to explain to people, anything I want to do I’ve got to send over to the council. So if they’re worried about me doing something, what they’re really worrying about is “Is the council going to do this?” I can’t impose fees, I can’t impose new rules, I can’t do anything that the council doesn’t buy into. So the idea that I’m some existential threat? I’m not the dictator of Montgomery County.

I had a meeting with the council, and I told them point blank that I’m not going to send stuff over that people will just react to and vote against. I’m going to make sure that, before I send things to the council, that we’ve talked about it and there’s a sense that this is a direction that we want to go in. I don’t want to be the county executive who picks a fight with the council and tries to drive a wedge between the things I’d like to do and what the council wants to do. I think I take a pretty cooperative view of things.

You recently wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to reiterate your support for the package of incentives designed to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. Were you prompted to do that by recent suggestions—including by Gov. Larry Hogan—that the company might be nervous about locating here if you are elected?

I talked to Hogan’s aide about that. I said, “This really isn’t constructive. You should want Amazon to feel comfortable. You should be telling Amazon that you’ve gotten reassurances from all the county executive candidates that they’re not going to muck with the deal.”

You won’t find any anti-Amazon statements from me through this whole process. I was quiet for a while until I could figure out what was going on. And then, when I got a chance to look at what was actually put on the table … . There’s no way you can’t see the benefit in this. The transportation investment alone [from the state] is staggering: This county’s going to get $2 billion. There’s a lot in there that could really change Montgomery County for the better, and has repercussions far beyond Amazon.

So that’s how I came to making my peace with the Amazon thing. It was just saying, “Frankly, whether I like giveaways or not, this is going to be beneficial.” But then I heard, from somebody who’s political, “You’re going to kill Amazon if you’re elected.” And I heard from others that people in the business community were going around [saying] that I was going to do something to Amazon if I was elected. So I [decided] I was going to tamp this out right now. And the business community ought to know, whether or not they like everything I say, if I say something, I mean it. And I figured that I’d put it down in writing to let Amazon know—because I’m sure they’ve heard these rumors, too, and I don’t want that to be a factor in their decision-making.

You said earlier that, if elected, you wouldn’t be “dictator” of Montgomery County, but you obviously have a direction in which you would like to take the county. What are some of your top policy priorities?

We’ve been talking about the achievement gap pretty much since I started school in this county in 1961. It’s not going anywhere, and part of that is because it’s not strictly a school problem. A lot of lower-income folks don’t come with the same education middle-class folks have, and don’t have the time to spend with the kids because they’re working more jobs. And it puts their kids at a disadvantage. We’ve got data about how many kids are entering school two years behind, and it’s a lot. If you’re 5 years old and two years behind, you’re probably not ready to sit in the classroom and get traditional instruction. Study after study says that if you take early childhood [education] and make it more accessible, you get changes in performance.

I’ve talked to some of my colleagues about this, and said, “Look, we don’t have a candy store.” If you’ve looked at my campaign, you will not find a laundry list of promises I’ve made … because there’s no money. And so I’ve said, “If we’re going to do something, let’s do something that’s important, something that is likely to provide significant changes, and focus our resources on that first.”

In 2016, you were part of the unanimous council vote for an 8.7 percent property-tax increase, which was aimed primarily at school system needs. When asked earlier this year whether you foresaw proposing another tax increase beyond the charter limit of the rate of inflation, you said, “I would hope not.” Does this remain your position?

My view fundamentally is that we’re not doing any tax increases. There’s no appetite for that … . The reality is that the recovery has been slow and people’s personal incomes have been very slow to recover. And it’s unlikely there will be any major revenue increases. Some of our biggest economic deals involve major tax giveaways; Marriott comes here and gets $52 million in tax breaks. It’s not like that money is going to be flowing into the county and state coffers. So we’ve made decisions that, even with economic growth, may limit anything really robust for the county.

I want people to want to come here. We’re going to have a growing population; I need to have a tax base that grows. But you can’t possibly grow fast enough to outrun the needs that this county has. So we need a balanced approach of trying to get more jobs here, but also trying to manage the place better… . That’s why I’m doubling down on restructuring.

So you see restructuring county government as a way to help pay for some of your priorities, be they expanding pre-kindergarten education or building a bus rapid transit system throughout the county?

I think the biggest priority is restructuring the county government … . I know it sounds strange, and I get quizzical looks because people know my political orientation. But the reality is that … I could make a laundry list of social things that would be great to do, but every one of them costs money, and we don’t have it.

We’ve got a $5 billion budget, and I do believe—which many people have said—that if you can’t find 4 or 5 percent [in savings] in a $5 billion budget, something’s wrong with you. Montgomery County is technologically backward; there are people who describe the jobs that [some county workers] do as the jobs of 20 years ago. We don’t have good metrics in Montgomery County. I’ve asked for metrics for years, and we don’t have what we’re supposed to have. So I want a real metrics approach; if I’m funding somebody to do something, I want to see the outcomes. And if you’re not producing outcomes, the funding streams aren’t going to continue.

When we had lots of money—and [former County Executive Doug] Duncan is No. 1 guilty of this—they just threw stuff against a wall. [Editor’s note: Duncan is backing Floreen in the November election.] And nobody said, “What’s the best way to organize this? Of the things we already do, is there anything I’m doing that is less valuable that there would be a good replacement for?” And so we wound up with the government edifice we have now—which, on the one hand, represents the best of liberal intentions, but also probably one of its weaknesses, which is not thinking about money. And now, if we want to continue to be the party that people vote for, we’ve got to figure out how to make ourselves fiscally responsible. You’ve got to adopt a culture of continuous improvement.

Ms. Floreen has criticized a promise you made during the primary to involve the head of the county employee union, UFCW 1994 MCGEO, in vetting potential department heads. What exactly do you see as MCGEO’s role in such a process?

I was approached by [MCGEO President] Gino [Renne] a couple of years ago, who basically said, “You’re not sustainable,” and “We’re going to run out of money, and if we run out money, we’re going to lose our jobs anyway.” He had been put on a Prince George’s County commission where they were looking at ways of improving sustainability. And he said, “You need to do the same thing over here.”

[Labor] would rather have the restructuring, and reduce the workforce in a meaningful way, so that you don’t wake up—as happened during the recession—and somebody says “You’ve got to make 5 percent cuts, or we’re going to lose 1,000 jobs.” But we didn’t have any time to think about: “Can I restructure and do a better job with the resources I have?”

So I’m looking at everything we can do, and I’m going to bring in people at multiple levels who understand this, and go about the process of making these changes. Anybody who’s done it … tells you you’ve got to do it with the workforce. Because if the staff thinks that your objective is to fire a whole bunch of people and surplus them, they’re not going to sit there and execute themselves. But if they feel you’re going to work with them and you’re going to use attrition to provide the savings in labor, then they’re much more willing to do this.

But will the union have a role in deciding who gets to run county departments?

Not in decisions. This is not going up for a plebiscite. It’s going to be me and the [county’s chief administrative officer] figuring out who are the people he feels are most likely to carry out his objectives—and who do I think understands what my objectives are.

I’ve already got a pretty good idea of where I want to go. But I’m interested in feedback. I also was going to bring in business people and social service people as I interview. If you’re doing economic development in Montgomery County, I would want the business community to feel comfortable with the person I bring in. I would want the social services agencies to feel that, whoever your human services [department] director is—whether it’s the same one or a different one, I
haven’t made up my mind on that—that person is somebody who understands what’s going on in the department.

Speaking of economic development, while you don’t think the county can grow fast enough to meet its needs, what do you feel is needed in terms of attracting new jobs and growing the tax base?

I want to rethink economic development. There are places that have really robust, active, incubator programs that help people turn ideas into products, where you have essentially light-industrial components, and people learning how to make things that require decent-size machinery. I think we need to grow the economy at the top and we need to grow it at the bottom, and we’ve got to start providing ways for kids at the bottom to get an entry into all this. We’ve got all these kids leaving the schools who aren’t prepared for work. They’re not going to college … and we need to think more about how you employ those people.

The thing with which I agreed with Nancy [Floreen], like on the [creation of the Economic Development Corp.], was to try to change the face that Montgomery County puts forward. I got a presentation from [the EDC] recently of 50 projects they were engaged in, in terms of bringing in businesses and expanding businesses in Montgomery County, and I was really encouraged by that.
I thought [former County Council member] Steve Silverman was the worst economic development director we ever had. [Editor’s note: The county’s Department of Economic Development was replaced by the EDC in 2016. Silverman is a co-founder of Empower Montgomery, an advocacy group Elrich has charged was created to “advance the … special interests of the county’s developers.”] If you go back and listen to some of the back and forth between Steve and me [at council meetings], it was, “Why don’t you travel to these trade shows in other states? Why aren’t you recruiting people? Why don’t we have an ad in the airlines that hub out of D.C. saying ‘You’re landing at DCA—come visit Montgomery County’?”

There are all these things that we should be able to do. That’s not the council’s fault, and it’s not because I haven’t suggested things that I think would make us more attractive.

In an interview during the primary, you said you had asked for meetings with local Chambers of Commerce to discuss regulations on business deemed overly burdensome, and contended they had never responded. Three heads of local chambers subsequently wrote a letter to the editor saying they had met with you and provided such information. Who’s in the right here?

I met with the chamber, but, most of the time when the chamber comes in, they don’t have a specific list of things to look at. I asked them to put together a meeting with business owners who come to them, and to facilitate that meeting for me. Those meetings never happened. I wanted to hear from the people who are actually dealing with what they feel is a broken system, and talk to me about it. I guarantee you that, when I’m executive, I will set up this committee, and I’m sure they’ll volunteer. They should want me to do that.

For the business community, there are two big initiatives I want to undertake. The first is benchmarking Montgomery County’s environment against our neighbors. People keep saying it’s so hard to do business in the county. I’ve had friends tell me they’re going to go to Frederick County or Howard County. So what I’ve [said to] people is “Tell me what I require in Montgomery County if I’m starting a business. Tell me what they do in Frederick, Howard and Fairfax, and if we’re doing something different, I would guess we probably don’t need to do it.” So I want that kind of take from people—and then let me fix it.

The second thing I want to do is a review of the permitting process. Some stuff is just too slow. And we’ve got to deal with the issue of when somebody gets an inspection. If another inspector comes out because the first one doesn’t do the second inspection, [the permit applicant] might be asked to do different things. There’s no way that if you’ve gotten something approved, that [inspectors] should be able to have such different interpretations of it that people wind up having to do work they thought they already did.

Doesn’t part of the widespread complaint that Montgomery County is not business-friendly go beyond regulations, to taxes?

There’s been such a myth over the years about how Montgomery County outtaxes everybody. When you examine it, it’s not true. But it’s the big lie—you repeat it over and over again, and it becomes true.

Fairfax County doesn’t have an energy tax. They have a 3 percent gross receipts tax only on businesses. So Fairfax raises $161 million off the business community; our energy tax raises $191 million from anybody who pays an energy bill in Montgomery County. I guarantee you the business community is not paying $161 million of our $191 million—they’re paying far less than that. And when people say, “You’ve got this terrible tax and Fairfax doesn’t have this,” I say, “Fine—I’ll swap. Let me have the gross receipts tax, and I’ll get rid of the energy tax. You OK with that?” No, they’re not OK. So Fairfax can do stuff that we can’t do, but they want us to get rid of anything that we do that Fairfax doesn’t do.

I had a conversation with a [local developer] and said: “I know what you pay over there [in Fairfax County]. It’s at $1.67 [per $100 of assessed value] before the gross receipts tax and Montgomery County is at $0.98, so tell me how I’m overtaxing MC developers?” And he said, “It’s not the business taxes. It’s the piggyback tax—you have to get rid of the piggyback tax.” [Editor’s note: The county’s income tax “piggybacked” on the state income tax.] He said a certain very prominent developer is going to move his family to Fairfax County, so they pay less. So what they say is that it’s about business taxes, but what it’s really about is the income tax they pay in Montgomery County. You’re not going to get much sympathy about the piggyback tax if you’re a gazillionaire—we all pay it.

In discussing your vote for the 2016 property tax increase during the primary, you cited the need to fund increased reserves following the Great Recession under pressure from those who underwrite public bonding. As county executive, would you seek discussions about lowering these reserves to devote more resources to county programs?

It’s a double-edged sword. The truth is that if we hadn’t been required to go to 10 percent reserves, we would have long ago been able to restore services in the county without any tax increases. But, having lived through the Great Recession, and watched 6 percent reserves turn into zero, I know that 6 percent was inadequate.

The [Washington] Post [editorial page] pulled [my comments] out of a questionnaire that was ironically, asked by [the pro-business group] Empower Montgomery. [The questionnaire] suggested they believed these reserves were too high, because they don’t want to pay taxes … . You need to do risk-based analysis, and you may well discover your reserves are too low. And this is what I told the Post, which they promptly ignored.

We really do need to do a proper analysis. We need to look at not just what other jurisdictions do, but what is the tax base of other jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions that have a sole source tax base may have a higher reserve, because if they take a hit in one source, it may have disproportionate impact. If you have multiple sources of revenue, you may have a more balanced tax picture. I’m not looking to lower the reserves. I’m not looking to raise them. But I am looking to make sure we understand what and why we’re doing what we’re doing—and that it’s supported by data.

What steps are needed to increase the stock of affordable housing in this county, particularly for those who work here but can’t currently afford to live here?

I’ve voted for every [measure] to increase the required amount of affordable housing. Even when I voted against the Bethesda [2017 sector] plan, and any other plan, I voted for increasing the amount of affordable housing to 15 percent [of proposed units for large residential developments]. What I opposed in the Bethesda plan is exactly what the Planning Board said not to do, which is do not take existing affordable housing on Battery Lane and Bradley Boulevard. The last push by Nancy [Floreen] to rezone all of the existing affordable housing in order to get 17 percent [of new dwelling units classified as moderately priced] would have resulted in a loss of affordable housing.
There’s a really important role for market rate affordable, because market-rate affordable is not that high in apartments in Bethesda; it’s this space where people who are not really poor but who aren’t wealthy enough to rent a $6,000 apartment can find a place. Because they’re older buildings, they’ll never command the rents of the new buildings, so they provide this reservoir. This is like the missing middle, and housing experts will tell you don’t get rid of your existing stock of affordable housing.

I’ve argued really hard about maintaining existing affordable housing. I did the same thing in Long Branch when they proposed getting rid of all of the affordable housing. It was the same thing in White Oak: You were going to displace all these people, and … have no place else to put them in Montgomery County. I won both those fights—so I’ve saved thousands of units of affordable housing that the Planning Board otherwise would have eliminated.

To relieve congestion on I-270, you’ve advocated reversible lanes. Do you think this can be accomplished within the current footprint of that highway? And what’s your view of adding toll lanes to I-270 and I-495?

Yes, there’s a solution right now where you can get a lane in both directions on I-270 today. There’s an interior service road, next to the barriers—there are tons of roads, including the Beltway, that don’t have a service road on the inside. You could take that service lane out tomorrow, and, with a little bit of grading … they could add a lane [on the main highway] within months. I’ve talked to the state and asked, “Why don’t you start by doing this?” Put a lane both ways right now, and you would certainly break traffic … . On the highway, that’s probably 2,000 cars an hour that can come off the other three lanes.

When it goes down to two lanes [north of Germantown], you add the third lane back in. You’ve got a median strip to do it in, and you’re not going to touch any houses. The problem with four lanes is that it’s not so simple: All of a sudden, you’re taking out bridges … because they were built for the road kind of the way it is.

Toll lanes bother me because you make them expensive enough that they’re free-flowing, which minimizes the improvement for everybody else. Everybody else paying taxes is still sitting in a congested roadway. I pity those people coming in on I-66: Those tolls are going to be extraordinary. If you’ve got the money to spend that much a day, good luck. Most of us don’t have that kind of money.

Given your advocacy of a bus rapid transit system (BRT) as a solution to getting people around the county, are there major road projects still on the drawing board that you think are worth considering? A couple of your rivals in the primary mentioned M-83, the uncompleted stretch of the Midcounty Highway.

I don’t support M-83. I do support widening [Md.] Route 355, particularly coming out of Clarksburg. I would widen it to five-lane road—actually six lanes with BRT—and have a reversible BRT lane, but also have a reversible car lane. There’s a bottleneck by [Clarksburg High School] where it goes down to a two-lane road, which is nuts. People are looking for a mega-solution to a problem that is created in part by what happens at this bottleneck.

The advantage of BRT is that you start taking cars off 355 south of Clarksburg, which makes room for the Clarksburg traffic. Part of the purpose of transit is to take enough vehicles off the road that you can absorb new development. If I can move more people by buses and free up space on the roads, this makes it possible for people to develop.

You’ve repeatedly indicated support for the county’s public liquor sales and distribution system. Given recent management changes, do you see further steps that should be taken to improve its operations—and do you believe the $30 million it currently yields annually in general revenues could be increased?

Yes. I’d like to bump it up to $50 million in revenue, because we need the revenue. There are some partnerships that are being kicked around that may involve grocery stores, that may involve a combination of liquor sales and other outlets. The [Department of Liquor Control] has leveled the playing field so that they’re kind of charging everybody the same, including the county liquor stores. The liquor stores have to … become efficient, rather than live off the revenue of the whole system, which I think is good. I’ve talked to some people and am trying to get some meetings set up with the restaurants that have been critical just to say, “OK, what do you need?”

If Montgomery County fell under the state system [of liquor distribution and regulation], you’d still have a series of monopolies: No two warehouses sell the same product—they all have specialized products—so it’s a noncompete system anyway. So, how do I make this system so that the prices are actually as good as we can get them? I raised the question about their markups … so I’ve tried to talk to [the DLC] about rationalizing their pricing better, not just simply saying, “I can do this because I’m a monopoly and I’ll make a boatload of money.” You’re supposed to be customer-driven.

You’ve endorsed Ben Jealous, your party’s gubernatorial nominee. County Executive Ike Leggett has held back from doing so, due to reservations about the potential adverse effects of Mr. Jealous’ tax and school funding proposals on the county—and statements critical of the Amazon legislation. Do any of these issues give you pause about your endorsement?

No. I’ve had long talks with Ben about some of this. I’ve explained to him the importance of Amazon to Montgomery, and that our approach has to be that we recognize the likely problems—but we also know they have solutions. The state has provided the transportation solution. If Rockville has got zoning for massive amounts of housing on Route 355, and if Amazon’s only bringing 3,000 to 5,000 people a year here, we may be able to absorb it. The unprovided thing is money for schools; we’ve got to get some money from the state to support some additional school construction.

And I’ve just been real blunt with Ben: I said, “You’ve got to realize … the things the county is going to get will stimulate economic growth that we won’t get under any other circumstances.”

We talked about [the] Kirwan [Commission]. [Editor’s note: The commission, headed by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, is preparing recommendations on changes in the state’s school funding formula.] When [Jealous] says he supports Kirwan, that becomes, “Oh, you must be supporting the crazy economic plan.” The economic plan is no longer on the table. [Editor’s note: The reference is to a 2016 consultant’s report presented to the commission that recommended cuts in state aid to Montgomery County.] I was equally clear that’s a no-go: You’ve got to grow the pie; you cannot take it from an existing jurisdiction. It would be crippling to Montgomery County.

There appears to concern on the part of some Democrats that the entry into the race of a Democrat-turned-independent, Ms. Floreen, could split the Democratic vote and result in the election of the Republican candidate. Do you share that concern?

I think the potential is there. Robin’s going to remind Republicans and independents exactly of what you earlier reminded them of [regarding similarities in voting records]. I’ve already seen a Young Republican ad on Facebook. It basically says, “Don’t be fooled by Floreen. She’s the same as Marc. She voted for this, this, this and this.” And all they’ve got to do is throw in the immigrant stuff for the red meat crowd. And for people who don’t like what we’ve done with immigrants, our votes are the same.

 

 

Unaffiliated

 

Nancy Floreen

Age: 67 (born Sept. 29, 1951, Boston, Mass.)

Home: Garrett Park; married, three children

Education: bachelor’s degree, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 1973; law degree, Rutgers Law School, Newark, New Jersey, 1976

Professional background: attorney (private practice, Hartford, Conn., 1976-1978; U.S. Department of Justice/Civil Division, Washington, D.C., 1978-1982; private practice, Montgomery County, 1982-1998); congressional aide with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, 1998-2000)

Political experience: Montgomery County Council, 2002-present (president, 2010, 2016); mayor, Garrett Park (2000-2002); Montgomery County Planning Board (1986-1994)

Campaign information:

 

You had made pretty clear that you weren’t planning to run for county executive in 2018. Was that your position until the night of the June 26 primary?

It really was: I am not making this up. I was not planning to run. You can tell that I had not been raising money. I had been working really hard for Rose Krasnow [for county executive] and for Rushern Baker [for governor in the Democratic primary]. This is no behind-the-scenes thing.

So, as the primary results come in, your phone starts ringing?

Off the hook, from people far and wide. I couldn’t believe it. At first, I didn’t answer it, and then I thought, well, OK—[it’s] because I had been on Montgomery Community Media talking about the results. I got home, it was like 11 o’clock, and people said: “Nancy, you’ve got to do this. We are looking at two fringe candidates—Marc Elrich, who’s way out there on one side of the coin, and Robin Ficker on the other.”

And then I thought—and this is absolutely true—that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to vote for county executive, period, given those choices. When the word got out that I was sort of thinking about this, my neighbors said to me, “Nancy, am I going to have somebody to vote for?” And I made the decision to get in.

You’ve referred to the Democratic nominee, Marc Elrich, and the Republican nominee, Robin Ficker, as “fringe candidates” on several occasions.

That’s what people have said to me. And that is the common perception.

Speaking for yourself, do you regard Mr. Elrich as a “fringe” candidate, given that nearly 30 percent of Democratic primary voters opted to nominate him?

It’s so interesting. Historically, I don’t think we’ve ever had a county executive candidate who made it through a primary with a 77-vote lead over a totally opposite kind of opponent. Is that a mandate?… If I wasn’t looking at a primary decided by 77 votes, this might be a different conversation. I don’t think any county executive candidate who’s made it through a primary hasn’t had a resounding number of votes above the opponents.

This is a very different situation … . People will say, “They all split the vote.” But there were five other people, very different from Marc, on that ballot—all of whom did relatively well. Maybe not so much [state Del.] Bill Frick, but the rest of them. [They] represented a far more balanced view of the future of Montgomery County. I would not be here if any of them [had been nominated]. That’s why I waited for the final calculation of the votes. I felt any of the others would be more representative of who we are as a growing county, a diverse county with a variety of needs.

You and Mr. Elrich are both long-time Democrats. A concern expressed by some within the party is that this could split the Democratic vote and provide a boost to Mr. Ficker’s candidacy. Do you share that concern?

I have a couple of things to say about that. The Republican Party has routinely rejected Mr. Ficker’s candidacy over and over and over and over again. I have absolutely no doubt that they will continue in that vein. No. 2, the ones who might [support him] may not be aware of Mr. Ficker’s professional challenges. Perhaps an enterprising reporter would look up the number of times he’s been suspended from the practice of law, and perhaps his most recent reprimand by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Let’s put the heckling in a whole other category. You want to elect the chief heckler in charge? I don’t think so.

And, finally, I think that’s a scare tactic by folks who know that Marc is not reflective of Democratic Party views in large degree.

At one point during the primary, you were quoted as saying Mr. Elrich would be a “disaster” as county executive. Does that remain your sentiment?

I do think that Marc speaks for a portion of the citizenry, all of whom have valid concerns and should be respected. But I don’t think he speaks for the vast majority of Montgomery County, and that is my concern. The county executive is a leader, of a growing, 1.2 million population with very diverse needs. The leadership of Montgomery County needs to respect all views. It needs to encourage participation by all players. [Former County Council member] Phil Andrews [author of the county’s public financing law] had an interesting quote the other day about fundraising—and that when you get to the general, you need to reach out to the other side, not pull back.

I’ve been a mayor. The mayors in Montgomery County are not elected based on political party—they are elected based on issues. And that is frankly the same as county executive, with the county issues. You’re just as upset about that building going up next to you or across the street from you regardless of your Republican or independently registered neighbor. Likewise with traffic, trash and school issues—we’re all the same in this regard. And I think we need to remember that as we move forward in this campaign.

During your 12 years together on the council, it has been noted that you and Mr. Elrich voted the same way much of the time. Where do you see the two of you diverging the most on policy matters?

I think it’s in my view of how we need to move forward, my vision of the future. I spent years working on planning issues, and envisioning how we can grow, taking into account community concerns and the like. And I did it on the Planning Board [and] certainly on the council, where I’ve chaired [the Planning, Housing and Economic Development] Committee for the past eight years.
Marc, as far as I’m concerned … is pretty much arguing the issues of the past. He’s still arguing again, in effect, Silver Spring redevelopment; whether we make a deal with The Fillmore [music venue in Silver Spring]; White Oak [development]—how that moves forward; downtown Bethesda … . We have created some of the most demanding and interesting opportunities for the future here, and we need to be forward thinking. We need to invite investment, not scare it away.

Are there areas outside of development where you differ with your Democratic opponent, and consider his views to be on the “fringe”?

I’m not saying these are fringe views; I’m saying these are the views of the past, not the views of the future. One area where we certainly disagree is on transportation. The last I looked, the vast majority of my residents drive from place to place. I think the issue of congestion, and how we move forward, needs to be based on a balanced solution that involves transit and roads. I read on [Elrich’s] website that he’s still railing against road decisions made years ago. We have to build out our community infrastructure, and that’s something we certainly diverge on.

Mr. Elrich has contended on frequent occasion that private development has gotten ahead of the public infrastructure needed to support it, and a couple of his rivals in the primary appeared to voice some similar complaints. Do you agree that this has been a problem and, if so, what do you do going forward to prevent it?

I’d say, No. 1, that Mr. Elrich has been at the table as we revised the rules, and that’s probably most of the 9-0 [council] votes. We have some of the most demanding standards for development. Ask any developer—not to mention the fees and the costs of satisfying the various criteria, the public engagement requirements, all that stuff. We have put that in place collectively. There’s no debate about that.

What the county hasn’t done—well, what the council doesn’t want to do—is do things like build roads. I’ve lost that vote time and time again. The solution is to study, for Pete’s sake, rather than to construct. At the end of the day, we have infrastructure on the books that has not been built and my colleagues, bless ’em, they respond to folks—neighbors typically—who don’t want to see roadways constructed. And I think that’s short-sighted. The fights over the [Intercounty
Connector] went on for 40 years. And part of M-83 [part of the proposed Midcounty Highway] was intended to continue that road, at least up to Clarksburg. But folks don’t want to do it.

You don’t finance it by saying no to investment in Montgomery County; you find ways, you have to be creative. I’m not suggesting any of this is easy. I keep losing the fight on Montrose Parkway East—a long-term master plan improvement for that part of the county. It’s designed to replace one of the most dangerous roadway/railway intersections in the state of Maryland. But if we don’t push it, we don’t get any money at the state level. And people naturally shy away from things like roads. But what people would really rather is that everyone else get on the bus—so that we can drive in our cars.

In terms of major new roads, you’ve pushed for building Montrose Parkway East. In addition, do you think M-83 should be constructed?

Yes I do. Can we afford it? I don’t know. There’s a proposal to make it into a parkway. But we’ve constructed—permitted construction—of a community in Clarksburg that met all the rules, paid all the fees, did what we told them to do … . Our job as community leaders is to advance the other necessary infrastructure.

They’re not all going to take the bus. They’re not all going to take the Corridor Cities Transitway [a proposed bus rapid transit line along the I-270 corridor]. That became a state project; maybe we’ll get that done as well. Rose [Krasnow] would always talk about the promise of the Corridor Cities Transitway. She’s right. But this stuff it hard, it’s complicated—and it takes forever.

During his three terms on the council, Mr. Elrich has pressed for a network of bus rapid transit lines throughout the county. What’s your feeling about moving ahead on BRT?

One of the toughest nuts to crack, and this has been kicking around for a long time, is what we do on Route 29. I think we’re all on board with that solution of BRT [there]. What I would like to do is accept the fact that we’re dealing with regional needs. And we need to ultimately come up with a plan that extends that up to Columbia [in Howard County].

Likewise on I-270: Why can’t we do bus rapid transit up to Frederick City to a multimodal location? I’ve talked to the county executive of Frederick about that.

Everyone is open to regional solutions because we are not an island. And so we cannot come up with a solution that just serves Montgomery County.

In the 70 years since charter government has been in effect in Montgomery County, you’re among just a handful of County Council members to serve four terms or more. What do you see as your legislative legacy during your 16 years on that body?

Two things really. One was my work on affordable housing, trying to find creative ways to fund and support that. We worked through a lot of technical [issues] on the rules that created incentives for the production of more affordable housing. We’re talking about the moderately priced dwelling unit [MPDU] program, and how we enhanced that.

At the end of the day, if you want more affordable housing—ask any expert—they will say you need more housing. This is actually an area where Mr. Elrich and I disagree as well. [You need] to encourage the production of housing, find ways to do it where there is opportunity left. In Montgomery County, the opportunities now are mostly in our urban areas and in our commercial areas. So we hope we have created some new zones that will create the opportunity for redevelopment that will include a good mix of housing.

The other thing I feel really good about … is on school funding. I led the charge in 2016 to work out a deal with the Board of Education where, if we were going to exceed what are known as the maintenance of effort [funding] requirements, they would agree to make some changes in how they were spending their money … . That was designed to address needs in our school system that hadn’t really been addressed before.

These are not things that are going to get a lot of attention, but they go to the fundamentals of what we care about in the community—a place for people to live and thrive, and a fair and equitable school system.

To the extent that the county has had problems in attracting new businesses in recent years, is this largely a problem of outside perception—or are there specific policies that need to be adopted or changed?

I think we need a cheerleader in chief, and that’s a role I intend to play—both locally and throughout the region, throughout the country and, frankly, internationally. We do not sell ourselves. During the recession … we came to appreciate as a community that we couldn’t support ourselves based on our relationship with the federal government. And we didn’t have the infrastructure, really, to advance that. Fairfax [County, Virginia] did.

So I’m the one actually who led the creation of the Montgomery [County Economic Development Corp.] that turned into, finally, the privatization of our economic development initiatives. I’m the one that led the charge to create a workforce development corporation, that brought together all these various workforce training programs into a more rational system—which is still evolving because we need to be nimble, we need to be forward-thinking about what the world wants, and remind them of how much of that we offer right here.

I think we need to make the statement that Montgomery County is welcoming to businesses, whether it be Amazon [or] any employer with high-paying jobs. We know we have what they want, which is an educated workforce, a great school system, a tremendous community—amenities, parks, arts, all those things that people want. Our zoning is designed to accommodate that sort of thing.

You can’t provide all the amenities and educational opportunities that everybody here wants without a really thriving school system—because that’s what defines us. I think all the candidates would probably agree on that. But the only way you do that is by having a galloping economy. And that’s the challenge that I think we need to focus on moving forward.

That raises the other major part of the county’s infrastructure problem—an increasingly crowded school system—and how to deal with it.

Absolutely, huge issue—and one [in which] we have to keep a really close eye on Annapolis as we go forward, because that’s going to be part of the Kirwan [Commission] recommendations in terms of how we advance school construction. [Editor’s note: The commission, headed by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, is preparing recommendations on changes in the state’s school funding formula.]

We have, I believe, the highest school impact fees [paid by developers]—possibly in the nation, but certainly within the region. But, frankly, our community is turning over. It’s aging, Baby Boomers like myself [who] are leaving; homes on my street have mostly turned over to families with a bunch of children. That’s the natural evolution of a community—and that’s one we need to serve, no matter what.

My focus is going to be on ways to fund school construction going forward, because I think that’s the biggest nut we need to crack. We’re going to need to expand our school construction efforts big-time. There’s money; I think it’s doable. Certainly, working with the state is going to be important. But budgets are about priorities, and I do think our education system is our No. 1 priority.

What’s your position on whether the county’s public liquor sales and distribution system should remain in place or be privatized?

I’ve come around to the view—news flash—that Prohibition is over. And it’s time to revisit how we handle that going forward. Certainly, there are employees that we have to worry about. But do we need to be the arbiters of our liquor future—or are there other, better ways to handle it? That warrants some serious attention. I don’t have a solution as of yet; I think whatever we did, we would have to transition in ways that respected that challenge.

We still have bonds associated with liquor revenue … that need to be funded. Actually, that was me—that was a plan I put together along with [Steve] Silverman back when he was on the council to fund infrastructure improvements. We do have a $5.5 billion budget currently, so [the $30 million annually in general revenues now generated by the Department of Liquor Control] is not going to make or break it.

In 2016, you were part of the unanimous council majority that voted to increase property taxes by 8.7 percent. Given that some attribute that vote to passage of the referendum that fall to impose term limits, any second thoughts on your part about the increase?

The bulk of that money was for education. And all of us have heard loud and clear that that’s Montgomery County’s priority.

If elected county executive, could you foresee yourself proposing another property-tax increase above the charter limit of the rate of inflation during your first term?

I can’t see it happening. I will tell you that those of us who lived through the Great Recession, when the world came falling down on us, are still shaken by that. But no, that’s not my plan at all.

In 2016, as president of the council you took the lead on a recordation tax increase. A couple of candidates in this year’s Democratic primary said they would work to roll it back, arguing that it was a disincentive to home ownership. Are you concerned about its effects, and would you support rolling it back if a funding source could be found?

Look, these are the cost of home sale and home buying. These are things that can be negotiated. I regret that the Realtors are unhappy about that. Remember that we demand large impact tax fees from new construction. The recordation tax is one way, when there are sales, that we can look at a revenue stream to help with the school construction needs. I believe we also had an affordable housing increment in all of that.

The market is a challenge as we speak. And it’s not because of the recordation tax: It’s the availability of houses, supply and price. So I’m guessing the Realtors are still collecting their percentage arrangements, bless ’em.

Regarding another controversial tax hike in recent years—the county energy tax was increased in 2010 amid the Great Recession, and the increase was supposed to sunset in 2012. Most of it is still in effect. Would you seek to roll it back?

I lost that argument a number of times with my colleagues about rolling it back. We had committed when we first enacted that to do that. But then [County Executive] Ike [Leggett] said no, and I couldn’t get a majority on it several years in a row. The good thing about the energy tax is that we are able to generate some revenue from largely federal institutions that don’t otherwise pay property taxes. It was also intended sort of as an environmental issue, to remind people that you pay less if you use less. Those sorts of things are not fully appreciated. But I lost that argument so many times that I gave up.

Do you plan to revive that argument if elected?

I don’t have any plans at this point. We’ll see. If everything comes in roses and our revenue balloons to an extraordinary level, maybe we might be able to re-evaluate some of these things.

A recent measure on which Mr. Elrich was the lead sponsor is the $15 minimum wage. You opposed one version that was vetoed by Mr. Leggett, and then supported a subsequent version that phased it in more slowly and that was signed into law. Do you have concerns about the impact on the local economy?

There was an earlier [version of the proposal] which was partial, we didn’t go all the way, and I supported that because it was a regional thing. The second one, I had some concerns about because it wasn’t regional. It would be much better for Montgomery County residents and businesses if it had been a regional proposal. Before, at least it had included Prince George’s [County].

But then the Chambers [of Commerce] came in and said we can live with this. I’m not sure how much it benefits our residents, and it’s not an issue for the big businesses; it’s an issue for the small businesses. But the real issue is the competition across borders, particularly for your small businesses. It would be much better if it had been resolved at the state level.

You spoke earlier of the possibility of a regional BRT to Frederick on I-270. Gov. Hogan has proposed a widening of both I-270 and I-495 to deal with traffic congestion, along with the addition of toll lanes. Is this an approach with which you agree?

I applaud the governor for taking this on. I read that he told someone that we’re not talking about taking any homes. And my view is that, whatever happens, we’re going to protect existing communities.

When I first ran for [council] in 2002, the I-270 multimodal study was going on—that’s one of the first campaign events I ever went to … at Seneca Valley High School. That effort got dropped. The fact of the matter is we have a serious regional problem. What’s the answer? I do not know. I suspect toll lanes will be part of it, maybe electronic solutions. There are new ways of thinking about this. Some of the country already has some of these things in place … . We have an obligation as leaders to worry about this, and not just throw up our hands.

Whatever we do, we have to remember that, regrettably, Montgomery County uses I-270 and the Beltway as local roads when in fact they’re national roads. And we are the victims of national traffic and regional traffic that we cannot control. So the challenge is, “What is the design that protects our community as we work through all of this?” We’re very constrained, particularly in Silver Spring, as to what opportunities are available. We’re not going to [remove Holy Cross Hospital]. And there are design challenges—all those bridges, CSX [Railroad], they preclude a lot of things. We’re not talking about I-95 north of Baltimore, where they have this huge swath of land where they’ve been able to do all this magical stuff.

Is a second Potomac bridge crossing something that should be considered as part of the equation?

Much to the chagrin of some folks, I don’t see that occurring. I’ve told everybody that we’re all for it happening out at Point of Rocks [in Frederick County]. (Laughs.)

Speaking of Gov. Hogan’s transportation proposals, would you like to see him re-elected to a second term or replaced by the Democratic nominee, Ben Jealous?

I’m staying out of that. What I care about is whichever candidate will do the most for Montgomery County to serve our needs, and that remains to be seen.

Mr. Leggett has expressed concern about potential adverse effects of Mr. Jealous’ income tax and school funding proposals on the county and its residents—as well as Mr. Jealous’ statements critical of the legislation designed to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. Do you share those concerns?

Those are serious issues, and that’s why I say that. … I think those are things that Montgomery County voters should pay very close attention to. Those are county priorities that we need to worry big time about. If we lose our wealthy residents, that’s going to affect our resources. If we have a big target on our back when we’re talking about school funding, Montgomery County’s 20 cents on the dollar return will only go down. And Amazon … if the message is Maryland isn’t welcoming to business investment, what does that say to our future of a thriving economy that’s welcoming investment?

I know where Mr. Hogan is on the Amazon part, and I know where he is on the big tax increase part. I don’t know where he is on the school funding part. [On Amazon], we’ve been a real team. The state has stepped up to the plate on a variety of our business initiatives; they’ve been great partners.

There was criticism when you first announced that if you had wanted to compete, you should have done so in the Democratic primary. While you are running as an unaffiliated candidate, do you still consider yourself a Democrat?

When I first registered to vote, I might have registered as an independent—it would have been almost 50 years ago. And then I found out you couldn’t vote in a primary—I was in Massachusetts—so I switched. I’ve been deep in the weeds on behalf of the party. I know some people in the Democratic Party feel I am not being true to my roots, and I will say that I have strong Democratic values, but inclusiveness. In fact, that’s driving this more than anything.

One of the emails that went around after I first stated that I was looking at this was, “Oh, no. Nancy will bring out moderate Democrats to vote.” People actually said this on Facebook. I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s what representative local government is all about. It’s bringing out everyone and talking to everyone—and not making them feel that they are excluded from the process.

If you’re elected, would you see yourself remaining as unaffiliated or re-registering as a Democrat?

I don’t know the answer to that. I should know, I suppose. But this isn’t a game. I believe in speaking the truth.

Unlike some of your County Council colleagues, you did not contribute financially to the effort to defeat the 2016 term limits referendum for which Mr. Ficker collected signatures to place on the ballot. You were one of four incumbent council members for whom the three-term limit foreclosed the option of running again. Did you oppose passage of it?

I didn’t contribute. It seemed to me to be inappropriate for us to be contributing to a campaign that was basically to protect my job.

My view about this—and I say it over and over again—is that we [already had] term limits here: our elections. And if you don’t like what someone’s doing, you shouldn’t support them. Term limits is a way for people to not to have to go to that effort to … vote somebody out. It’s an easy ask: Most people say, ”Oh, yeah, I’m for term limits. … I want to get rid of that person. I didn’t vote for that person, I voted for the other ones, but I want to get rid of that person, and this is an easy
way to do it.”… This could be worse. It is three terms—it’s 12 years. [Editor’s note: There is a two-term, eight-year limit for the county executive and County Council members in neighboring Prince George’s County.]

Now, really, I wasn’t going to run again anyway for the County Council. But you’re losing a lot of experience. There will be [three] guaranteed openings four years from now. So you’ll have a bench without that much experience left. I’m sure the new council will be terrific, but it’s a lot more work than people think—and it’s not an easy job.

Plus, one of the sad things is that there are so few women now. I’ve served with up to four of us, and now it’s down to one. … It’s hard—there are a number of women who ran in the primary. I think it’s unfortunate that more of them did not get elected.

Given what you just pointed out, are you hoping that some voters go into the booth in November and say, “OK, there’s never been a woman elected county executive”—and give your candidacy that much more consideration?

Absolutely. They should think that way. Will they? I’m not betting on it, let’s put it that way. … It’s funny, the men think this is a bigger advantage than the women do.

I created a nonpartisan women’s group, Montgomery Women, years ago. A variety of us created that group before I ran for office to encourage women’s participation in leadership roles. We got a little bit of pushback because it wasn’t partisan—it was to lift up all boats. I think it’s 53 percent of our population that is female. I think when you don’t see people who look like you making decisions, you feel excluded. And I think that’s a really big problem for democracy and citizen participation.

I think women are more collaborative than men in finding solutions. I think we’re more inclusive largely. I don’t want to generalize against a gender that I’m very fond of (chuckles), but I do think we bring a different style to the community. I think we’re less ego-driven. I’m not doing this for my ego, trust me. I think Montgomery County’s future is so important that I’m putting the county above the party here.

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