Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive sparred on Thursday morning about affordable housing, the I-270 widening project, climate initiatives and other topics during a virtual forum.
In a forum hosted by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat, incumbent Marc Elrich was asked to defend his record on affordable housing, as he has proposed $140 million in his budget this year to prompt affordable housing initiatives.
Elrich said he has asked local nonprofits to bid on 17 county-owned parking lots, some of which are in Bethesda and Silver Spring, to increase supply. Since the county has minimal debt there, it should be easier to build, he added.
He said he favored rent stabilization policies, but not on new buildings because that might deter construction.
In the July 19 Democratic primary, Elrich is facing businessman David Blair, County Council Members Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer, and the most recent entrant in the race, Peter James, a tech company CEO.
Blair highlighted the need to build near Metro stations, a topic that others have criticized Elrich about in the past. Blair specifically highlighted the 35-acre site near the Shady Grove Metro as one location.
Riemer and Hucker were more directly critical, saying the county executive has opposed multiple efforts and ways to build more affordable housing in the region.
Hucker said Elrich should pay attention to Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s efforts, including $400 million in her latest budget toward affordable housing.
Elrich responded that he isn’t opposed to building housing, but under current zoning and policies, county officials won’t see the housing needed for residents across varying income levels.
James opposed the practices and policies of the other four candidates, stating that government and developers shouldn’t force urbanization in certain communities. He likened it to the “factory towns” seen in China and elsewhere, where people live in small quarters in poor conditions.
“I’m very fearful of this transit-oriented development where we’re taking the Chinese approach of factory towns like stacking people like cordwood in very small apartments. In China, they’ve got people jumping off the roofs all the time [because] of the conditions,” James said. “Studies show the amount of space you’re living in has a big impact on your mental health.”
Candidates were also questioned on climate goals, including whether the county’s Climate Action Plan — which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035 — is realistic.
Blair said the county “talks a good game” regarding climate goals, but is moving too slowly in several areas. He proposed tripling the amount of solar power in the coming years, and planting 10,000 trees countywide to reduce the carbon footprint.
Elrich touted the county’s record of shifting its fleet to electric buses, and hydrogen fuel buses for longer routes. He said county officials are trying to add solar panels to power more county buildings and schools.
James said none of the other candidates has seriously thought of alternative solutions to climate change. In one proposal, he suggested reforesting the agricultural reserve with 20 million trees, using robotics to accomplish some of that. But he said county officials don’t take his ideas seriously.
“None of these technologies ever get adopted by the county, because we’re 30 years behind,” James said.
Hucker and Riemer criticized Elrich for not moving more quickly on climate change issues.
Riemer said Elrich has stopped or weakened legislative efforts to help those in the agricultural reserve build more solar arrays, and that Blair has opposed measures to make buildings more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
Blair responded by saying that executive leadership sets a goal, like his tripling of solar power in the county, then executes the goal instead of just talking about it.
“It’s precisely the reason that I’m running, is because of the lack of progress that this county has made on the environment,” Blair said.
Candidates also differed on the latest developments with the I-270 and I-495 road-widening and toll lanes project. Elrich and Hucker have both consistently opposed the project, saying it is a waste of taxpayer money and that there are different alternatives.
Elrich reiterated his belief that reversible lanes in both directions would be effective at relieving congestion, and that Maryland and the county should ask for federal money, through the federal infrastructure bill Congress passed last year.
Hucker said the public-private partnership involved in the project creates problems, like the fact the system is incentivized to clog up non-toll lanes to make the toll lanes more expensive, based on the demand of those in the toll lanes.
James said officials should consider a personal rapid transit system, consisting of pods that would carry people along I-270. That system would require far less land than the road-widening project or bus rapid transit projects, he said.
Riemer, who helped broker a deal in which $145 million of revenue from the project would go to county transit projects, said he opposed any widening east of the Beltway, through Silver Spring.
But he said the current project, along with transit, needs to happen to connect people with jobs in Northern Virginia, and vice versa.
“We have to have a strong connection to Virginia,” Riemer said. “We cannot afford to cut ourselves off from the most powerful economic center in our region.”
Candidates were asked what could be done to create more diverse representation in county government, better reflecting the population. The five Democrats running for county executive are white men; the youngest is Riemer, at 49.
All touted their ability to work with broad coalitions of diverse people, either from a racial or socioeconomic perspective. Hucker said, however, that the candidates don’t control who decides to run — and that political and legislative records are most important when trying to serve minorities and disadvantaged communities.
“Unlike anyone else in this race, I’ve been a community organizer, a nonprofit executive, a state legislator, a County Council member with an unrivaled record of fighting for issues that benefit people of color and disadvantaged, low-income residents of all types,” Hucker said.
Elrich pointed to his political past, when he was running for District 5 in 2002 and 2006. In 2002, he said he was asked to step aside to allow a person of color to run in that district, so he switched to at-large, he said. That candidate was Tom Perez, a former U.S. labor secretary now running for governor.
In 2006, the same scenario occurred, Elrich said, except he was asked to step aside for an African-American candidate: former Council Member Valerie Ervin. Ervin won her District 5 election, and Elrich won his at-large race in 2006.
“I’ve made the personal sacrifice of helping make room for somebody in a minority position to sit on the council when I didn’t have to do that. … I’ve been doing this for a long time, [and] I believe it in it firmly,” Elrich said.
At the time the forum was held on Thursday morning, the Republican primary for county executive was uncontested. The only candidate was Montgomery County Republican Central Committee Chairman Reardon Sullivan, who filed on Wednesday.
But on Thursday afternoon, the Maryland State Board of Elections updated its candidate list to add Shelly Skolnick, a second Republican candidate for county executive.
The filing deadline is Friday.
Bethesda Beat also had a forum on March 6 for county executive candidates, focusing on education and public safety issues.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org