County Council Member Nancy Navarro (left) has endorsed David Blair for county executive. Credit: File Photos

This story was updated at 6 p.m. May 23, 2022, to include comments from Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Andrew Friedson.

Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro – who has had policy differences with County Executive Marc Elrich during his first term and has voiced criticism of the incumbent’s operating style – announced Monday she is endorsing one of Elrich’s two major rivals, businessman David Blair, in July’s Democratic primary.

Navarro served for a decade on the council with both Elrich and the other major contender in this year’s Democratic county executive primary, at-large Council Member Hans Riemer.

In an interview on Monday afternoon, she said that she is concerned about the county’s approach to economic development. She added that even though she respects Riemer’s work, Blair offers a new vision for the future of the county, especially when it comes to job creation.

“I have great respect for Hans [Riemer], but just looking at who I think has the best chance of winning and who I think would be best suited for this moment in time … I think somebody like David Blair is someone who can not only win, but take the county to the next level,” Navarro said.

Navarro has been the county’s most visible Latino elected official since joining the County Council in a 2009 special election – representing District 4 in the eastern portion of the county – after five years on the Montgomery County Board of Education. She is stepping down from the council at the end of this year due to term limits, and is currently the lieutenant gubernatorial running mate of former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Navarro has served twice as council president, most recently in 2019 — Elrich’s first year as executive after three terms on the council.

Navarro said multiple times on Monday that Blair’s experience running a major business and his expertise in economic development were key reasons she decided to endorse him.

It is an important time for county leadership as officials deal with new challenges brought on or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Navarro said. 

There’s also the potential of the Viva White Oak project in the east county, along with other economic development opportunities in the coming years, she said. Viva Oak is a planned community near the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak campus and Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center. It would create up to seven million square feet of commercial development and up to 5,000 residential units in a village and “life sciences hub.”

Elrich and Riemer could not be reached for comment by phone on Monday.

 Outside of Riemer and District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who last month abandoned a nearly nine-month candidacy for county executive  in favor of a bid for an at-large council seat, Navarro is the first among seven remaining council members to take sides in this year’s executive contest.

After deciding not to run for executive herself, Navarro last year urged Hucker to consider running for the post. While she never offered a formal endorsement of Hucker while he was in the contest, Navarro was one of several elected officials to speak on his behalf at an event in Silver Spring last July in which Hucker made the surprise announcement that he was exploring a run for county executive.    

Early tensions between Elrich and his former council colleagues — who complained about repeated difficulties in obtaining information from the county executive’s office or county departments — came into full view in mid-2019, when Navarro sent a memo to Elrich and the county’s then-chief administrative officer, Andrew Kleine, asking “how we can strengthen communications between the executive and legislative branches of government.”

Navarro has since continued to cite communications problems with the current administration. In an interview with Bethesda Magazine late last year, she alluded to Elrich’s predecessor, County Executive Ike Leggett, while contending, “Even when I had disagreements with the Leggett administration, at least I knew I could rely on a solid response, a timely response.” 

As council president, Navarro sought to assert the council’s role in developing policy with regard to economic development in the county, while at times expressing frustration with the speed and direction of the Elrich administration’s efforts on this front.

Even after Elrich and the council ultimately forged an agreement on a platform of goals related to economic development in late 2019, a joint executive-council event to announce it was overshadowed when Elrich devoted much of his remarks to criticizing affordable housing targets adopted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG). Navarro was a member of the MWCOG work group that developed the targets at which Elrich took aim.

While insisting afterward that she was “not concerned by the county executive’s comments,” Navarro did pointedly declare: “I think the public knows we have a problem with housing. Our young people and seniors are having a hard time staying in the county. So, as a council, we’re going to do everything to move this forward.”

If Navarro’s endorsement of Blair reflects in part her policy differences with the incumbent, the politics of her move could complicate her bid to become lieutenant governor — potentially alienating some voters who might be considering supporting the Baker-Navarro ticket, one of 10 entrants in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

However, Baker’s prospects for winning the gubernatorial nomination in his second try in four years appear to have diminished in recent weeks as his cash-strapped campaign has struggled to consolidate support in his vote-rich home base of Prince George’s County.

Navarro’s endorsement could help Blair make inroads among Montgomery County’s rapidly growing Hispanic population, which now comprises 20 percent of county residents—particularly in a Democratic executive contest made up entirely of white male candidates. Elrich earlier this year did receive the endorsement of CASA In Action, the political arm of CASAa Maryland-based immigrant advocacy group whose membership is heavily Latino.

Besides Blair, Elrich and Riemer, the primary includes Gaithersburg-based technology entrepreneur Peter James.

Navarro said she and Blair have not had conversations about her joining his administration, should the Baker-Navarro ticket lose the gubernatorial election. But she added the door is open to that opportunity, should it arise after the July 19 primary date.

“I am not thinking beyond July 19 … I can say the door is open, but my door is open on a lot of levels, including national work, but [being in Blair’s administration] is honestly not at the top of my list,” Navarro said.

She added that she’s interested in continuing in some political realm, specifically working with underrepresented and underprivileged communities that are often left out of the political process — and which are continuing to grow in population.

Along with Navarro, County Council Member Craig Rice is also term-limited and cannot run for another term. Rice said in an interview on Monday that he is not endorsing anyone in the county executive race. 

He added that he’s not yet sure what he’ll do when his term ends. Rice said he wants to “see where the dust settles” after the primary. But Rice said that his work in education and cultural policy, along with his role at the National Association of Counties — including his work overseeing the expansion of broadband in underserved communities — will play some role in his decision.

District 1 County Council Member Andrew Friedson — the only incumbent who is not facing a challenger in the Democratic primary  — said he doesn’t have any plans to endorse a county executive, but that could change in the coming weeks.

“Any decision that I would make on people to support in particular campaigns wouldn’t be focused on my own political situation, it would be about what’s best for the county,” Friedson said. “I don’t view it any differently running in a competitive election or not. We’re running as hard as we can regardless.”

The winner of the Democratic primary will be a prohibitive favorite in November against the Republican nominee in a county with a nearly 4 to1 Democratic registration edge. County Republican Chair Reardon Sullivan and Friendship Heights attorney Shelly Skolnick are vying for the GOP nomination.

Navarro’s endorsement comes nearly a month after the Montgomery County Sierra Club Group endorsed Blair’s candidacy, as did the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Current or former elected officials who have previously endorsed Blair include state Senate Majority Leader Nancy King of Montgomery Village, state Sen. Cheryl Kagan of Rockville, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, former U.S. Reps. Michael Barnes and John Delaney, former County Council Members Nancy Floreen and Valerie Ervin, and former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow.

Ervin and Navarro were regarded as close allies during a term together on the council. Floreen, running as an independent, challenged Elrich in the 2018 general election, while both Krasnow and Blair were among Elrich’s five primary opponents that year.

Elrich, meanwhile, has racked up numerous union endorsements in his bid for a second term, including the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents teachers in the county’s public schools; SEIU Local 500, whose membership includes the support staff of the latter; and UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents the majority of county government employees. Individual endorsements of Elrich include Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a former Chevy Chase-based state senator who announced his backing of the incumbent last week; Frosh is retiring from elected office at the end of this year.

Endorsements of Riemer to date include former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and former County Council Member Gail Ewing.

Louis Peck can be reached at louis.peck@bethesdamagazine.com. Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com