Editor’s note: With early voting starting July 7, Bethesda Beat will be running election wrap-ups of the races for Montgomery County offices and the General Assembly. Today we focus on the county executive race.
With the July 19 primary less than four weeks away, Montgomery County executive candidates have been busy courting voters and attending forums hosted by various political and community groups.
County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, faces three challengers in the primary election: David Blair, a businessman who lost to Elrich by 77 votes in the 2018 primary; Hans Riemer, a term-limited County Council member; and Peter James, CEO of a tech company.
In the Republican primary, Reardon Sullivan, chair of the county’s Republican central committee, is facing Shelly Skolnick, a candidate who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2020 and an at-large County Council seat in 2018.
Devin Battley, a political newcomer and former motorcycle shop owner, is attempting to run for county executive as a member of the Green Party. He has filed his intent and is gathering the leadership’s signatures to qualify for the general election ballot.
Here are the candidates:
Elrich, seeking a second term, served on the County Council from 2006 to 2018, and on the Takoma Park City Council from 1987 to 2006. Prior to that, he taught at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring for 17 years.
Much of Elrich’s first term has been marked by the coronavirus pandemic and he has often noted that dealing with the crisis strongly impacted the county budget process in 2020 and 2021. The fiscal 2023 county budget, recently approved by the County Council, is the only one out of the four he proposed during his term in which the negotiating process with the County Council felt somewhat normal, he said.
Elrich and his administration have been praised by health officials across the state and nation for his handling of the pandemic, but some business leaders say his restrictions went too far and hurt small businesses.
Elrich has been critical of Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county’s proposed update to its general master plan. He believes the plan will not accomplish the county’s affordable housing goals, and that it doesn’t do enough to help create housing for the most low-income residents in certain communities.
He’s also focused on climate change issues during his tenure, and his administration has targeted legislation that would increase energy efficiency and create better energy standards for current office and multifamily buildings in the county. Recently proposed legislation, if passed by the council, would ensure that many new buildings in the county use electricity as their sole energy source.
His administration also has focused on police reform, including better training for officers, more resources for mental health services, and diversion programs for suspects and offenders. Some have praised his efforts to make changes in the department, while others contend they don’t far enough, citing remaining racial prejudices and incidents where officers have shot young Black men or have displayed other signs of abuse, like handcuffing a 5-year-old at East Silver Spring Elementary School in January 2020.
Blair, who narrowly lost to Elrich in 2018, founded Catalyst Health Solutions, a health care company in Rockville that eventually expanded into a Fortune 500 company. He sold the company in 2012 for $4.4 billion, according to news reports.
Unlike Elrich and Riemer — who have opted to use the county’s public campaign financing system that debuted in 2018 — Blair is raising private donations. He’s also self-funded his campaign in both election cycles, and this year that includes spending nearly $3 million of his own money.
On the campaign trail and in interviews with local press, Blair has consistently pointed to what he considers the county’s poor business climate, noting that Northern Virginia is badly beating Montgomery County when it comes to job growth.
As county executive, he said he would work diligently to improve the county’s permitting processes and remove unnecessary regulations — which he says are resulting in billions of dollars of lost tax revenue for the county as businesses choose to locate elsewhere.
Blair has also been critical of the recent increase in crime — and unlike Elrich or Riemer — said that removing school resource officers from Montgomery County public schools was a mistake. He believes in adding more funding to the police department while making significant reforms, both of which he said must be done in order to keep communities safe.
Riemer, who has served as an at-large County Council member since 2010, previously was national youth vote director of Barack Obama’s campaign and a senior adviser to AARP. He has been critical of Elrich on the campaign trail, including on housing issues.
Unlike the county executive, Riemer supports Thrive Montgomery 2050. He believes it contains the tools and policies needed to build more housing of all types, and that Elrich has been resistant to allowing more development in multiple areas around the county.
Riemer also has accused Elrich of moving too slowly on climate issues, including on allowing solar arrays countywide such as in the county’s agricultural reserve. But the two were in agreement on a recently introduced bill to require many new buildings to convert their energy use to electricity.
Elrich has criticized Riemer for his role in negotiating with Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) administration to obtain critical votes from a regional transportation planning board for Hogan’s proposed project to widen I-270 and parts of I-495 with toll lanes in both directions and rebuild the American Legion Bridge. Riemer counters that the deal enabled the county to get money for much needed bus rapid transit projects.
Riemer has also questioned Blair’s ability to run a government as large as that of Montgomery County and believes voters will not appreciate Blair using his personal fortune to finance his campaign. Blair has responded that he’s been involved in the community through his nonprofit, the David and Mikel Blair foundation, and through his overall service countywide.
James, a local tech CEO, previously ran unsuccessful campaigns for the state’s 4th congressional district in 2012 and the 6th congressional district in 2021.
He believes Elrich and the other candidates do not have the technical skills to lead a county of over 1 million people, especially at a time when technology is evolving rapidly.
In forums and interviews, he’s consistently touted the benefits of personal rapid transit, a system where pod-like vehicles move residents on guideways around the county, along highways like I-270 and along other major corridors. Prominent examples, he noted, are in Morgantown, West Virginia, and at Heathrow Airport in London.
James believes there are many ways to further automate government operations to improve service and provide better engagement with the public. One example is an online simulator for county planning, which would show residents the impact of future development on all kinds of local infrastructure.
Sullivan, chair of the county’s Republican Central Committee, founded and owns a 40-person consulting engineering firm, WFT Engineering, in the county. His background is in civil engineering.
In forums and interviews, he’s said he’s concerned about the rising level of crime in Montgomery County, including homicides, armed carjackings and robberies. He’s said that removing school resource officers from public schools was the wrong decision.
Like Elrich, Sullivan has also been critical of Thrive Montgomery 2050, saying it will lead to the displacement of vulnerable communities and that its overall vision will be costly for developers and the county to implement because of needed infrastructure improvements.
He’s also touted himself as a pro-business candidate, stating that Elrich and the County Council have been unfriendly to small businesses. The level of taxation on businesses and residents is too high and makes it more difficult to live in the county, he said.
He has accused the local Democratic party, outside of Blair, of being too liberal on several issues, and says residents want common-sense, moderate solutions in areas ranging from public safety to education and economic development.
Skolnick, a local attorney specializing in elder law and adult guardianship cases, has run for county executive before — in 2002.
He believes Elrich and the County Council are too liberal. As a moderate, he would aim to create a more fair tax system for county residents and to spend less as a county government in order to pay down the county’s debt.
Skolnick has said he doesn’t want to attack his opponents on the campaign trail, but rather he wants to use his platform as an opportunity to introduce some new ideas to county residents.
Those ideas include providing free tuition or loan assistance to local community college students or those attending the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville who volunteer in various capacities in county government (as a volunteer firefighter, a teacher’s aide or as auxiliary police, for example). He also believes the county should attempt to gain local control of Metrobus while keeping Metrorail under the control of WMATA.
He’s also skeptical of the county’s plans for bus rapid transit and has instead proposed a bus lane toll system (BLT), where the left lane of a three- or four-lane road would be used either by buses or by vehicles paying tolls. The toll money could be used for local transportation projects, he said.
Battley, a political newcomer, is a former owner of a motorcycle shop near Gaithersburg and the current president of a property owners’ association in an office park near there and he’s aiming to run as a Green Party candidate.
If his filing is finalized by the state Board of Elections, he will face the winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries in November.
Battley believes county government has become a bureaucratic mess and needs major reforms. He has been tied up for years in a court case against Montgomery County involving the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge, which is assessed on properties countywide to help pay for stormwater mitigation projects. The matter is still under litigation.
Property owners who make improvements can get county tax credits and Battley has contested that he and other business owners in the Lindbergh Park Owners Association have completed the necessary improvements to get those credits.
He supports much of Thrive Montgomery 2050, but also believes Hogan’s proposal to widen I-270 is a good project, aligning himself with many local and some state candidates who represent the upcounty area and who support the project.
When is the election?
The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com