Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has reached two key agreements to further economic development efforts in White Flint, the Democrat announced during an election forum Sunday in Rockville. His Republican opponent, Reardon Sullivan, faulted the county’s job losses, rising crime and the worsening of public education, alleging the MS-13 gang was “taking over” Gaithersburg and Germantown and that the precepts of critical race theory (CRT) were being taught in elementary schools.
The two men did not debate at the event, hosted by the Men’s Club of B’Nai Israel Congregation and billed as the first general election forum featuring the Democratic and Republican nominees for county executive. Instead, each candidate addressed the crowd of more than 100 people and then answered questions.
Elrich, seeking a second term in the Nov. 8 general election, said he had recently reached deals with the University System of Maryland to “bring graduate-level research to Montgomery County for the first time” and with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to move forward with the redevelopment of the White Flint site.
“I was in a meeting the other day with the universities to create a center for artificial intelligence – big data computational computing – and they’re going to bring it to the White Flint/North Bethesda area. They’re going to build a school there,” he said. “They’re not going to send faculty from the University of Maryland over here. … [They’re] hiring faculty specifically to staff that school to support the life sciences industry and the hospitality industry.”
The life sciences program would involve “wet labs” doing cell research aided by computing, he said.
“This is the future,” he said, “and I’ve seen people doing some pretty amazing things.”
After years of halting progress, Elrich said a new deal with WMATA would fuel redevelopment of “the largest undeveloped piece of property that exists in Montgomery County that sits at a Metro station.”
“WMATA has finally agreed to do a joint solicitation for a master developer for the White Flint property that’s going to focus their 60 acres on life sciences,” he said. A master developer, he said, “will bring in … the large life sciences companies in the country, and they’re actually bringing in some international companies that were successful at that, to come here and locate at the White Flint Center so we can create a true center like other jurisdictions have.”
Spokespeople for the University System of Maryland and WMATA could not be reached immediately Sunday for comment.
Sullivan, a former chair of the county GOP who is running his first campaign for public office, roundly criticized Elrich and highlighted broad aims on crime fighting, education and economic development.
“We need to feel safe where we live, work, play and worship. I believe we need to control crime. Look at Lakeforest or even [Westfield] Montgomery mall, where I worked my way through school,” he said. “MS-13 is taking control of Germantown, Gaithersburg. People in Asbury [Methodist Village, a senior community] don’t even want to go outside of the house. We have armed carjackers here in Montgomery County, something we would have never heard of 30 years ago.”
Spokespeople for the Montgomery County Department of Police and the Gaithersburg Police Department could not be reached immediately Sunday for comment.
Cathy Canning, senior director of marketing and public relations for Asbury Communities, on Monday morning called Sullivan’s comments about Asbury “categorically false” and “fear-mongering.”
“We have 134 acres with a 17-acre nature preserve with woods. Residents are out walking around the community at all times of day and evening,” she said. “People are going back and forth all the time into the community.” She followed up with an email citing a recent resident survey that showed 93% of respondents felt “very safe.”
In response, Sullivan said Monday morning that he had spoken to Asbury residents who had grave safety concerns about Lakeforest Mall.
Sullivan called for restoring school resource officers to public high schools and blasted the placement of “activists” on the county’s new state-mandated Police Accountability Board.
“Marc Elrich has decided he wants to have activists in that group. By activists, I mean people who do not like the police,” he said. “I personally believe police accountability boards should be filled with people who are either former police officers, have gone through the citizens academy and learned something about what policing really is, or have at least gone on a ride-along. Having somebody who is an activist and doesn’t know anything about policing judging the police officers is sort of like having a barista doing a building inspection.”
Sullivan pointed to what he says is a decline in county public schools’ performance and called for more trade education and a greater emphasis on STEAM: science, technology, education, arts and math. He also indicated that school district leadership should make more room for parents in decision making and provide them with more information.
“I believe parents should have unfettered access to what their children are learning,” he said, a line that drew applause. “That applies to all aspects, including the health curriculum.”
He said the precepts of CRT — which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund defines as an “academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare” — are taught in public elementary schools. He gave the example of texts such as This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell being available to fourth graders. Sullivan, who is African American, decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and the assumption he encounters from some in the county that, “Because I’m Black, I’m not as good as somebody else.”
Sullivan referred to data showing that “38% of the job loss in the state of Maryland came through Montgomery County.” He faulted Elrich’s victory in the 2018 Democratic primary for county executive for Amazon’s decision not to locate its second headquarters in the county. He described the potential for development of data centers and greater use of brokers to help the county make business deals.
In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-1, the crowd of more than 100 at Sunday’s event had a vocal GOP presence. Sullivan introduced five GOP candidates for local and state offices as well as Board of Education candidate Esther Wells. The audience gave Sullivan a standing ovation and booed Elrich when he defended the county’s $15 minimum wage, referred to CRT as “teaching history” and said building new sites for gas pumps would not be necessary in a future of electric vehicles.
Elrich also pointed to his record of moving 200 homeless people in the county into a shelter and for “record funding” in this year’s budget for affordable housing, transportation and education, particularly for students affected by the pandemic.
The County Council is considering a resolution defining and condemning antisemitism. Sullivan said he would support the definition under consideration, from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Elrich said, “I think the County Council should pass a resolution on antisemitism. They’re having discussions about what it should look like in final form. I’m sure I’m going to mess with it severely.”
Early voting for the general election begins Thursday and runs through Nov. 3.
Anne Tallent is the executive editor of Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.