2017 | Politics

Duncan Says County Executive Race is Wide Open

Former Montgomery County leader said three council members might struggle to differentiate themselves, while Frick needs to boost recognition outside his district

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The Democrats running for Montgomery County executive are Del. Bill Frick (top left), and County Council members Roger Berliner (top right), George Leventhal (lower left) and Marc Elrich (lower right)

Provided photos, Bethesda Beat file photo

Updated – 2:15 p.m. – Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said he doesn’t see a clear favorite in the current race for county executive.

Duncan weighed in on the 2018 race in an interview with Bethesda Beat after Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda) announced he would run for the position instead of pursuing the 6th District congressional seat. Duncan, a Democrat, was county executive from 1994 to 2006 and is now the president and CEO of Leadership Greater Washington.

“[Frick has] been a good delegate,” Duncan said. “I think he’ll run a competitive race. His challenge is going to be getting known outside of his district.”

Frick, who was appointed House majority leader this year, will face off against County Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal for the Democratic nomination in the June 26 primary. Republican Robin Ficker is also running for county executive.

“The challenge the three council members have is they’re seen as, you know, the same old stuff,” Duncan said. “They’re not going to bring a lot of change to it, although Elrich is a little different. Frick will be seen as a change agent.

“I think Frick is going to try to appeal more to the job growth side of the party and I think [Berliner] was trying to do the same thing,” Duncan continued. “It’s going to be difficult for anyone on the County Council to say they’re a strong backer of job growth, because they just haven’t done it.”

He added that he thinks Berliner, who represents Bethesda-based District 1 on the council, and Frick are both well known and well liked in the Bethesda area they represent. But he said that many average people don’t know who their County Council representatives or delegates are.

“Elrich has a leg up on that,” Duncan said. “He has the NIMBY crowd—about 20 percent of the Democratic electorate is going to be with him because of his ‘Not In My Backyard’ stance on everything. I don’t think the others have that kind of base behind them yet.”

This year, Elrich voted against the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, the lone council member to do so. He said at the time he couldn’t support the long-term land use and zoning plan that increased the density in downtown Bethesda because he said it lacked controls on the pace of development.

He also voted against the Lyttonsville Sector Plan and the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan. And he was the lone vote against a proposal to sell 110 acres next to the Food and Drug Administration campus in White Oak to the developer Percontee, which is proposing a life sciences town center at the site. Elrich did vote for the controversial Westbard Sector Plan along with the rest of the council.

Elrich responded that he believes Duncan misunderstands the current situation.

"This issue is not what's in their backyard," Elrich said. "The issue is, is the county going to provide the schools and infrastructure that supports the development. We have a lousy record of providing either transportation or schools. We wouldn't have the outcry about school capacity if we built the schools we needed."

Duncan tempered his handicapping, however, by noting the race is still early and other candidates still might enter it. State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville) said Friday she continues to consider entering the race.

"Right now we're looking at pretty much five downcounty white guys," Kagan said. "I think there's a lane for a woman, a minority… I've been considering it. I've been seeking to learn from and engage with some of the most thoughtful and influential policy leaders in our county."

Kagan said she would make a decision "soon."

Other Democratic candidates who are the subject of speculation they may run include health-care executive David Blair and former County Council member Mike Knapp.

Blair and Knapp did not respond to requests for comment sent Wednesday and Friday, respectively.

Elrich and Leventhal are using the county’s new public campaign finance system that requires candidates only accept donations from county residents equal to or less than $150 and then multiplies those contributions with county funds. Berliner and Frick are using the traditional campaign finance system that allows candidates to accept individual contributions up to $6,000 per election cycle.

David Lublin, an American University government professor and local politics blogger, wrote on his blog Seventh State that Frick likely will benefit by not being associated with the current county government.

Voters approved term limits in November with about 70 percent of the vote, preventing Elrich, Berliner or Leventhal from running for their council seats again. Term limits also prevents incumbent County Executive Ike Leggett from seeking re-election, although he planned to retire at the end of his term regardless. Many political observers saw this as backlash against recently approved policies, particularly the 8.7 percent property tax increase approved last year.

However, Lublin also wrote that Frick may have to prove he’s committed to running county government.

“After an abortive race for attorney general four years ago and dabbling heavily with running for Congress, he will need to sell observers on his real commitment to County government,” Lublin wrote.

Frick ran for Maryland attorney general in 2014, but dropped out and later won re-election to his District 16 delegate seat.

Ficker said he believes Frick switched to the county executive race because he didn’t think he could win the congressional seat.

In that race, Frick was running against Del. Aruna Miller (D-Darnestown), who has been backed by the female candidate support organization Emily’s List; state Sen. Roger Manno (D-Silver Spring), who has trumpeted early union support; and wealthy Potomac businessman David Trone, who spent $13 million of his own money on an unsuccessful effort to win the 8th District Congressional seat in 2016.

Frick said when he announced that people told him he was needed in the county executive race because voters showed with term limits they “are ready to turn the page on this council.”

Ficker would not say if there’s one Democrat he would prefer to run against.

“I think all four are the same and all four represent the past and not the future of Montgomery County,” Ficker said.

Ficker, a former state delegate who won one term in 1978, is a well-known political activist in the county, who has run in political races in the area since the 1970s. He has lost six local races since 2006, including a 2006 run for county executive in which he received 9 percent of the vote.

Ficker, however, led the petition drive that added the term limits referendum to the ballot in 2016. He also successfully pushed for a change in 2008 that required a unanimous council vote for a significant property tax increase.

This story was updated at noon on Sept. 22 to correct a reference to a previous run by Ficker for county executive. He received 9 percent of the vote in the 2006 county executive race, not 6 percent.