Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat is publishing a series of stories highlighting local races for county, state, and federal elected offices in the Nov. 8 general election. Today’s story focuses on the county executive race.
County Executive Marc Elrich remains optimistic in his chances to earn a second term as Montgomery County’s top elected official as he faces Republican Reardon Sullivan in the Nov. 8 general election.
Elrich said he is excited about a second term and the possibility of working with six new Democratic County Council members — given that Democrats win all 11 seats — on issues such as housing, economic development and climate change.
Sullivan, former chair of the county’s Republican central committee, believes he can beat his Democratic opponent if he can convince enough Republicans, unaffiliated voters and those voters who cast ballots for Elrich’s two main primary challengers — Potomac businessman David Blair who lost to Elrich by 32 votes and County Council Member Hans Riemer — to vote for him, though political observers say that’s unlikely in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4 to 1.
“If I can get 70% of the Blair voters, 20% of the Riemer voters, and 70% of the independents … since they tend to break 70% toward the conservative side, given a viable option, then I win,” said Sullivan, the founder of an engineering firm based in Rockville.
Sullivan says he’s focusing the closing weeks of his campaign on three issues that voters say are most important: public safety, the status of public schools, and the county’s economy.
Elrich said that in his next term — given that he wins — he’ll focus on making sure the state contributes more financial support in order to help the county achieve its long-term goals.
He also notes that the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — including more restrictions on businesses and longer periods of indoor mask mandates — is a major example of how Democrats and Republicans differ in today’s political environment.
Sullivan “wouldn’t have done what we did on COVID,” Elrich said. “Well, you would have had more dead people, there’s no way around that. The counties that took the strongest measures, like us, wound up being safer. The price of not doing that is maybe a store doesn’t go out of business, but I wind up with more people who die — that’s not the kind of trade-off I’d make.”
In a recent meeting with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Democratic Breakfast Club, Elrich outlined some of his future plans to increase affordable housing in the county — including changing the county’s moderately priced dwelling unit (MPDU) program.
The program, established in the 1970s, requires that at least 12.5% to 15% of homes in new developments including 20 or more units be moderately priced. In an interview, Elrich said he wants to increase the percentage range of required units by a significant amount, along with broadening the income-level requirements to target people at lower and higher income ranges, so more people qualify.
That would mean extending the range from roughly 60% to 75% of area median income (which varies depending on the part of the county), to a range of about 30% to more than 100% of area median income, Elrich said. He also wants to implement a “no net loss” policy of affordable units regarding any new development.
“If it is true that 75% of the households by 2030 need subsidy, what do you solve by with 15% or 20% [of new units being MPDUs]?” Elrich said. “Not much. So if people want to tackle it, then they’ve got to grasp or come to terms with what you’ve got to do to tackle it.”
Elrich has also proposed using the sites of 18 of the county’s parking garages in urban areas countywide and working with developers to try to increase the affordable housing supply. The county executive said the county could consider offering the land at a practically free rate, such as $1 for a 99-year lease.
In an interview, Sullivan said one of his biggest concerns about population growth projections and housing needs is that many of the underlying assumptions are from a 2017 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The coronavirus pandemic has changed working habits, which could change how much housing might be needed in the coming years, he said.
He added that Elrich’s proposal for using parking garages could deplete the parking supply where it’s needed, like in downtown Bethesda and other areas. And there would be significant infrastructure improvements required to build housing on those sites, he added.
“When he put [the bids] out originally, I don’t think he really got any good bites,” Sullivan said. “Developers aren’t stupid, and when they saw what it would take to make all this work, and saw the pro forma, I don’t think he got as many applicants … in some places, the economics might work, but in some places like downtown Bethesda, probably not.”
Elrich disputed this, saying there were about 130 proposals to build affordable housing on parking garages and lots. He said there are challenges given that the amount of county-owned land is finite, but he’s optimistic that the current proposals could turn into future housing opportunities.
Sullivan and other Republicans have repeatedly criticized Elrich’s administration and other Democrats about their handling of the local economy, particularly when it comes to small and medium-sized businesses.
Sullivan spoke of several examples in which businesses have had difficulty navigating the county’s permitting and inspection process. That occurs in both the cost of starting and maintaining a business and the logistical challenges of staying on top of all the regulations, he said.
It’s cheaper to do business in Northern Virginia, Sullivan said — and he highlighted Washington, D.C.’s velocity program, which allows businesses to fast-track the permitting and regulatory process by several weeks.
When asked whether Montgomery County’s reputation for a poor business climate is cultural or policy problem, Sullivan said it’s likely a bit of both.
“I think there’s a culture [within permitting and inspections] that we’re ‘trying to get ya’ versus ‘we want to help you,’ ” Sullivan said. “In Virginia, it’s more of how we can help you? It’s the number of steps you have go through [in the county] … it seems like there are people sitting in an ivory tower, saying that I think everybody should do X, Y and Z, so we’re going to impose this on you.”
In his defense, Elrich pointed to his recent record on fast-tracking the permitting process and recent changes to laws related to sign ordinances in order to help businesses. During the recent Bethesda-Chevy Chase Democratic Breakfast Club meeting, he spoke about the need to look at how Northern Virginia’s commercial tax structure is organized versus Maryland’s.
He admitted the county approval process is unique in that some proposals have to be approved by both the county’s planning officials and his administration. And the inspections process for businesses could be further improved, he said.
But some aspects of the business regulatory process need to remain, Elrich said.
“I do think there’s some stuff we’ve made overly complicated,” he said. “[But] I do think that the notions that regulations are bad and expensive — if you’re going to clean up the environment, it’s not going to be cheap, so I’m sorry, but this is something we have to do … if I want adequate stormwater [systems] or I want to preserve the environment, all those things have costs.”
Elrich and Sullivan perhaps differ most in their views on climate change and the environment. Last year, the Elrich administration published its Climate Action Plan, which focuses on initiatives and policies that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035.
The expansion of the use of solar panels, especially in residential areas, is probably the easiest lift in the near term, Elrich said. He also highlighted legislation introduced earlier this year to fully electrify buildings — if approved by the County Council, there will be a “learning curve” for developers of new buildings and those who want to do renovations, but the changes are necessary, he said.
If the county can lead efforts on creating green power for specific sectors, it will go a long way toward reducing emissions, he said.
“What I’m more interested in is the power of heating and air conditioning, and transportation,” Elrich said. “And if we electrify those sectors, we go an enormous way in where we have to go.”
Sullivan, however, said that the effort to make all energy renewable countywide in the near future isn’t feasible because of the current power grid’s reliance on other forms of energy. That particularly applies to the proposed bill that aims to electrify buildings, he said.
“I don’t think we’re going to have enough power on the grid to get all of that done,” Sullivan said.
He added that he hasn’t heard much from county voters about climate change and environmental issues on the campaign trail. Elrich, however, believes that Sullivan hasn’t prioritized climate change as the crisis that he and other Democrats think it is.
Early voting for the general election is Oct. 27 through Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 8. Mail-in ballots can be cast through the mail or at more than 50 ballot drop boxes countywide.