2017 | Politics

Berliner Joins Two Council Colleagues in Democratic Primary for County Executive

District 1 representative says he will not tap into county's new public campaign finance system

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Roger Berliner announced his candidacy at Owen's Ordinary restaurant in Pike & Rose

Via Roger Berliner (Twitter)

Characterizing himself as “both progressive and pragmatic,” three-term District 1 County Council member Roger Berliner on Wednesday night formally announced his candidacy for county executive, becoming the third member of the current council seeking the post in the June 2018 Democratic primary.

Berliner—who vowed in his announcement speech that his top priority would be to “bring about greater prosperity in our county … extending the ladder of economic opportunity up and down”—joins fellow council members Marc Elrich and George Leventhal as a declared candidate.

Several other potential candidates from outside the council continue to eye the race, including former council member Mike Knapp, state Del. Ben Kramer, and Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone—although it remains unclear when and if one or more of them will join the contest.  

Unlike Elrich and Leventhal, Berliner plans to rely on private donations rather than the county’s newly created public campaign finance system to underwrite his candidacy.

“I am a big supporter of the concept of public financing. I supported it on the council,” Berliner said in an interview, referring to the 2014 county law that established the system. But he added, “[That] doesn’t mean it’s right for every situation. And it’s not right for my situation.”

Berliner noted that, unlike Elrich and Leventhal—who each have run at-large in several recent elections—he has never before run countywide. “I’ve only appeared on the ballot in 20 percent of the county, and I’m running against people who have been on the ballot countywide four times and longer,” Berliner said. “We felt like we had to have enough dollars to be competitive.”

Estimates provided by council staff to Bethesda Magazine earlier this year indicate that, under public financing, a county executive candidate who raises a total of $187,500 in small private donations of $150 or less would qualify for the maximum $750,000 in public funds under the new system. Berliner sidestepped questions about precisely how much he hopes to raise; the record for a Montgomery County executive race is held by former council member Steve Silverman, who raised $1.965 million in his race for the Democratic nomination against current County Executive Ike Leggett in 2006.

“What I know in my gut is that I’m going to need enough to reach people whom I’ve never reached before,” Berliner said.

Berliner’s entry into the race means that, for the first time since the post of county executive was established nearly 50 years ago, there will be three incumbent members of the council seeking the post. The first contest for county executive, in 1970, featured a general election race between two council incumbents—Republican James Gleason and Democrat William Greenhalgh—that Gleason narrowly won. Since then, no more than one sitting council member has vied for the executive’s position in any election year.

This year’s crowded field is, in part, a result of the 2016 referendum that limited both the executive and members of the council to three terms. Consequently, Berliner, Elrich and Leventhal are all barred from seeking re-election to their current posts. So is Leggett, although he indicated prior to the referendum that this term would be his last.

A fourth council member who has expressed interest in the county executive race, Democrat Craig Rice of District 2, is eligible to seek another term on the council next year. Rice, currently the council’s only African-American member, said this week that he has reached a decision about his political future. He declined to reveal that decision, pending release of a statement Friday.

A list of 180 individual endorsements released by the Berliner campaign Wednesday contains several long-time leaders of the county’s NAACP chapter, including Vernon Ricks of Potomac and Odessa Shannon of Silver Spring. “We are the big tent campaign,” Berliner declared in his campaign kickoff, which took place at Owen’s Ordinary restaurant in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development—just down the street from where Berliner resides. “Our campaign has connected with virtually every element in our incredibly diverse community, every major stakeholder, every major ethnic and faith community.”

Many of the best known names on Berliner’s endorsement list have residential or business ties to District 1, which Berliner has represented since 2006. The list includes state Del. Marc Korman; two former chairmen of the Maryland Democratic Party, Terry Lierman and Susan Turnbull; and three former nominees for Congress—Lierman, Lanny Davis, and Ralph Neas. All are Bethesda or Chevy Chase residents.

Berliner did pick up the endorsement of former county Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson of Montgomery Village. Not on the endorsement list but in attendance at Berliner’s announcement was the current Planning Board chief, Casey Anderson of Silver Spring. The board is a part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which Elrich has periodically derided as the “Park and Paving Commission.”

In what appeared to be a poke at Elrich—who has been lone dissenter on a number of council votes in recent years—Berliner declared Wednesday: “If you want to agitate for change, you can be a lone wolf. If you want to bring about meaningful change, you get your hands dirty, you roll up your sleeves, and you find common ground. That is how I have tried to do my business.”

Elrich’s base among slow-growth advocates and progressive activists gives him a leg up in the forthcoming race, although his views on growth and development make him anathema to many in the county’s business community. Berliner’s announcement speech clearly was aimed at attracting support among the latter constituency.

“To lead effectively, we need leaders that understand both government and the private sector,” Berliner said. “I began as an entrepreneur and small business owner. I owned a business for longer than I have been in public life.” Berliner owned an energy consulting business from 1985 until selling it several years before he was elected to the council. “I was a one-man shop. I grew it more than 10 fold with 12 employees, and offices on both coasts,” he boasted. ”I know what it is like to get up every day and hustle to get business, worry about a bottom line, hiring people and having to let people go.”

Not mentioned in Berliner’s speech is what is likely to be another selling point in his pitch to the business community: His advocacy of privatizing the county’s public system for the distribution and sales of alcoholic beverages. “I’m the only council member who thinks it’s time to end our monopoly over liquor,” he said earlier this year. “Government doesn’t do business well, and it does a disservice to our economy and our consumers.”

But other potential contenders are eyeing support from the county’s business sector as well. One is Knapp, who, after a 2002-2010 stint on the council representing District 2, is now CEO of Germantown-based SkillSmart—a firm he started that focuses on matching companies to job seekers with specific skills. “I have an understanding of the issues and how local government operates, but I have the benefit of not having been in there for eight years,” Knapp said with a slight chuckle during a Tuesday phone interview. Since Gleason’s election in 1970, only one other candidate—Neal Potter in 1990—has moved directly from the council to the county executive’s chair.

Knapp said he continues to seriously consider getting into the executive race, and plans to make a decision this summer. “You have the three candidates in; they’ll obviously try to define themselves differently, although they voted together 95 percent of the time,” contended Knapp, whose second term on the council overlapped with Berliner, Elrich and Leventhal. He added, “I think [that] presents a very good opportunity for at least one or two candidates from the outside to jump in the race, because I think it’s easy to basically categorize the three of them being in the same space.”

However, Knapp said he is still deciding whether to re-enter public life or to focus on building his business, which is now involved in several cities around the country. “Candidly, I have two really good opportunities,” he said. “I’ve got a business that really makes an impact on the communities in which we operate. That being said, there’s an opportunity to really delve deeply and impact the lives of 1.1 million people here in Maryland at a time when there’s a real question as to what diversity and ethnicity and changing economic demographics mean for our county.”

Trone, meanwhile, is awaiting a forthcoming decision by U.S. Rep. John Delaney before making his next move. Delaney is expected to make an announcement, perhaps as early as this month, on whether he will seek re-election or run for governor in 2018.

Trone told Bethesda Beat last week that he will run for county executive if Delaney decides to seek to remain in the 6th Congressional District. If Delaney does seek the governorship, Trone—who finished second in the 8th District Democratic congressional primary in 2016—said he would discuss with his wife where they believe they can make the biggest difference. “I will absolutely be running for another office,” he asserted.

In turn, Kramer—who has been indicating for months that he plans to run for county executive—now appears to be waiting on Trone. If Trone runs for Congress, Kramer is hoping to be in a position to quickly pick up business community support that might otherwise have gone to Trone in an executive race, according to knowledgeable sources.

However, Kramer’s appeal to the business community remains a question mark among some political insiders. Kramer has close personal ties to Gino Renne, who heads UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, the union that represents the large majority of county government employees. Kramer has been a vocal opponent of efforts to end the county’s public liquor control system; MCGEO has been in the forefront of efforts to maintain that system.