The Montgomery County Executive Race
The upcoming Democratic primary campaign could be the most crowded, hotly contested and consequential in nearly 50 years
From left to right: Ben Kramer, Craig Rice, Marc Elrich, Mike Knapp, George Leventhal, Peter Fosselman, Roger Berliner and David Trone. Illustration by Tim Williams
The annual Committee for Montgomery legislative breakfast is usually a low-key affair, in part because it starts at 7 o’clock in the morning. But this past December, the breakfast, which draws some 800 political, business and civic leaders for a preview of the coming year’s legislative agenda in Annapolis and Rockville, felt more like a speed dating event than a policy briefing.
Upwards of 10 potential candidates for county executive worked the crowd at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. The center of attention was Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone, who hasn’t announced that he is running, but seems to be inching closer to a run every day. Trone held court in the lobby before the breakfast, but it was his mere presence at the event that prompted much speculation.
As county council president, Roger Berliner got to address the gathering—and his remarks had the tone of a stump speech as he outlined his accomplishments and priorities. Other potential candidates table-hopped and glad-handed. While the agenda included no mention of the 2018 county executive race, the legislative breakfast essentially marked the start of the campaign.
It has been nearly a half-century since Montgomery County’s governing structure was modified to include an elected chief executive. Since then, voters have gone to the polls 12 times to choose the county’s top elected official. The 13th such election, in 2018, is shaping up like no other before it—in both the sheer volume of aspirants and the political dynamics that will shape the race.
As former county Councilmember Steve Silverman, himself a candidate for county executive more than a decade ago, says, “This is unprecedented in Montgomery County’s history. Other than the first race for county executive in 1970, we’ve never had more than one councilmember running for county executive, much less the idea that there are at least three that will be running.”
In fact, up to four members of the nine-person County Council could collide in next year’s contest for county executive. And at least four people outside the council are said to be seriously eyeing the job that’s being vacated by Ike Leggett after a 12-year tenure.
At-large Councilmember Marc Elrich says flat out that he plans to run, and fellow at-large member George Leventhal anticipates making a formal announcement this summer. Both are Takoma Park residents who appeared ready to run for the job in 2014, before Leggett reversed his decision and sought a third term.
Berliner, who has represented Bethesda/Chevy Chase-based District 1 since 2006, is coyer, saying only, “I have been encouraged by many to run, so it is something I will be assessing moving forward.” But, based on both sources and his recent public comments, there is little doubt that Berliner will join the race.
Meanwhile, District 2 Councilmember Craig Rice, who represents the county’s northwest section, says he is looking “very seriously” at the race for executive and has formed an exploratory committee. But Rice, in his second term on the council, acknowledges that he also could decide to seek re-election in District 2, or run for one of three at-large seats on the council that will come open in 2018.
The other three councilmembers eyeing a run for executive lack those political options: All will be forced off the council at the end of next year by this past November’s term limits referendum, which bars councilmembers—and the county executive—from serving more than three terms. Leventhal has served four; Berliner and Elrich, three each. (The remaining term-limited member, Nancy Floreen, appears ready to leave county government after four terms in an at-large seat. “I haven’t completely, 200 percent ruled it out, but it’s pretty unlikely,” she says of a run for executive.)
The term limit measure’s overwhelming victory—almost 70 percent of voters supported it—has energized a number of candidates outside the council who are seriously looking at the race. These candidates suggest—a couple of them rather bluntly—that the term limits vote was a sharp rebuke of the current council, aimed at some or all of its members, as well as a response to a number of its recent actions.
Included in this group are state Del. Ben Kramer of Derwood, who is setting up an exploratory committee; former District 2 Councilmember Mike Knapp, now CEO of a Germantown-based online job placement firm, who plans to make a decision on running by early spring; and former five-term Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman, who says he has been on a “listening tour” of the county since last summer and is exploring a run for either county executive or County Council.
And then there’s Trone, the one candidate whose entry might immediately trim the field, thanks to his personal fortune and his potential ability to consolidate support within the county’s business community. Trone, co-owner (with his brother, Robert) of Total Wine & More, a national retail chain with $2.5 billion in annual sales, spent $13.4 million of his personal fortune last year in his unsuccessful race in the 8th Congressional District Democratic primary.
Trone says he is “focused very heavily right now” on exploring a race for county executive as he meets with current and former elected officials, as well as business and civic groups. He says he currently has no “hard timetable” for making a decision on whether to run, as he downplays—without ruling out—another political option: a run for Congress in the neighboring 6th District if Rep. John Delaney, a fellow Potomac resident, runs for governor in 2018. If Delaney does try to move up, “that’s something to think about, a bridge to cross down the road,” Trone says. The upshot could be a contest in which a half-dozen or more serious contenders compete for the executive’s post in the June 2018 Democratic primary, where victory has been tantamount to election in a county in which registered Democratic voters now have a 3-1 edge over Republicans. Past primaries have featured no more than a few serious aspirants vying for the nomination for executive.
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Historically, local primaries—which have been dominated by a limited number of hard-core party activists—have not been fertile ground for nontraditional contenders. “The outside business [or] celebrity candidates have never fared well in Montgomery County,” notes former Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, an unsuccessful candidate for county executive in 1978. The reason, he says, is that outsider candidates “never understand that primary elections are retail politics, in which…the groups that turn out the votes, such as the teachers and public employee unions, civic associations, and precinct leaders that run neighbor-to-neighbor campaigns, are not particularly attracted to folks with no local service records.”
But a couple of segments of the county’s business community, which by its own admission has been able to exercise only limited influence in past local elections, are seeking to alter that dynamic going into 2018.
Among the leading players in one informal group, drawn heavily from several people active in the Chambers of Commerce in Bethesda and Silver Spring, are Robby Brewer, a partner in the Bethesda law firm of Lerch, Early & Brewer, and Barbara Henry, managing director of the Committee for Montgomery. A more formal business community initiative, Empower Montgomery, was created two years ago by a group that includes Silverman and Charles Nulsen, president of Bethesda-based Washington Property Co.
Members of both groups are working to identify and recruit business-friendly candidates amid an undercurrent of unhappiness with the recent actions of the council and skepticism about the résumés of the incumbents poised to run for executive.
“We need to have somebody who can help bring an analytical rigor and managerial experience to the job of managing the county,” says one participant, who asked not to be identified. “Whomever is in that role clearly also needs to have political skills and sensitivities, but ideally they should have both, and not just the political skills.”