Peter James is running for county executive. He filed with the state Board of Elections on Friday. Credit: Submitted Photo

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. March 29, 2022, to clarify some comments by Peter James.

A longtime upcounty resident with a background in technology and artificial intelligence has entered the race for Montgomery County executive.

Peter James, 66, of Gaithersburg, filed on Friday to run, creating a five-way race in the July 19 Democratic primary. He is the CEO of Crystal Clear Automation, a company that specializes in robotics, autonomous technology and similar areas.

He also started First Fruits Farms, a local “open source” robotic farm that uses local renewable energy and aims to be more environmentally sustainable versus other methods of farming. It used a food-backed local currency, and was in operation until about five years ago. James wrote in an email on Tuesday that the farming operation has shut down, but the nonprofit still exists. 

Incumbent Marc Elrich is seeking a second term. The other challengers are businessman David Blair and Council Members Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer.

No Republicans have filed to run. The filing deadline is April 15.

James said in an interview with Bethesda Beat on Monday that he realizes he is “yet another old white man” entering the race for the county’s top elected office.

But he said he has the experience — particularly in technology issues — that the other candidates do not possess.

“[I’m] someone who’s technically competent to deal with the technology required for where we’re going,” James said. “And I don’t believe a career politician, a school teacher, insurance salesman, that those are the people to really understand the complexities.”

James switched his voter registration from unaffiliated to Democrat this month. 

He ran as a Republican in 2008 for Maryland’s 4th District seat in Congress. At that point, that district included northcentral Montgomery County — including Germantown, where James lived — and much of the eastern part of the county, along with western Prince George’s County.

He won a four-way Republican primary, then lost to Democrat Donna Edwards — 86% to 13%.

He ran for Maryland 6th District congressional seat in 2012, finishing last out of eight candidates in the Republican primary, with 2.3%. Incumbent Roscoe Bartlett won with 43%.

James tried to run again for the 6th District seat in Congress as an independent candidate in 2020, but said he didn’t qualify for the ballot after failing to obtain enough signatures. 

He said he has always been more of an independent voter, not aligned with either party, but became a Democrat to reach the most people for the upcoming election.

James said he is running for county executive because Montgomery County is not using technology well enough in areas such as traffic congestion, planning and housing.

James said he has proposed a personal rapid transit system, akin to the system seen in Morgantown, W.Va., that connects West Virginia University to downtown Morgantown, but Montgomery County officials have been uninterested.

A personal rapid transit system consists of pod-like cars that drive themselves, usually on an elevated track or similar apparatus, to take commuters from one point to another. They run on their own tracks, and have been built in Morgantown and at Heathrow Airport in London.

The personal rapid transit system should be considered across the county, he said, instead of other proposals, including bus rapid transit, which he believes can make roadways more dangerous and would not actually ease traffic congestion.

He’s also introduced a plan to try to procure 100,000 electric vehicles for low-income residents, but the county “flatly rejected” it.

He is critical of Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county’s proposed update to its general master plan. He said county officials could consider more of the impact future development highlighted in the plan would have on schools, roads and water and sewer lines, and try to have sufficient infrastructure improvements in place first.

James wrote in an email that he would use a simulation process for the community to consider Thrive Montgomery 2050, similar to SimCity, the video game where players build cities in a virtual world.

James said Thrive could cause further gentrification of underserved neighborhoods. He also believes county officials need to have an honest conversation with residents about building on land that has mostly been preserved — the agricultural reserve.

Residents would decide how much development, if any, should be allowed in the agricultural reserve, but James said it’s good to “put it on the table.”

There are negative effects from farming in the reserve, he said. James believes that because of the current levels of water use by some industrial farming operations in the reserve, some parts might be better off with housing.

As county executive, he would leave it to the County Council to make more policy decisions than it currently does, James said. Through technology, the county government would be more responsive to residents, he said. 

“I think policy is the privy of the council, and not the executive,” James said. “I may invoke a veto now and again. … From a pragmatic standpoint, I wouldn’t have that much of an impact on policy, but what I can do is take the same amount of billions of dollars the county spends and give a lot more services [and] a lot more interaction to the citizens [and] their ability to have a say in what their county is going to look like.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com