Opinion: Are the Socialists Turning on Elrich?

Opinion: Are the Socialists Turning on Elrich?

A progressive agenda could collide with evolving economic pressures

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Last year, few organized groups did more to help County Executive Marc Elrich get elected than the Metro D.C. Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

As a participant in the county’s public financing program, Elrich could not accept contributions from DSA’s PAC.  But DSA members knocked on countless doors and swarmed on social media to defend Elrich and blast his primary rival, businessman David Blair.  It wasn’t just that Elrich had been a member of various socialist organizations for decades.  His history of championing minimum wage legislation, advocating for renters, speaking out on social justice issues and resisting displacement of low-income residents was deeply attractive to them.  In the process, DSA became a rising force in MoCo politics and seemed poised to be Elrich’s biggest defenders over his first term in office.

But that may be coming to an end.

In a remarkably blunt policy statement on an unofficial, MoCo-based socialist blog, a DSA member using the pseudonym Erik O. Wright (a well-known American Marxist) called out Elrich for opposing council member Hans Riemer’s bill that loosens restrictions on accessory dwelling units. Wright could have merely issued a statement in support of the bill and said nothing about Elrich.  But that’s not what happened here.

Wright begins by saying:

For the first time in many years, the County Executive of Montgomery County is arguably a self-admitted leftist. It was in part because of the hard work of socialists and leftists in Montgomery County that Marc Elrich narrowly won his 2018 Democratic Primary Nomination; he also relied on his progressive voter base to win the General Election.

But the left should and must call out politicians for wrongheaded policy positions. County Executive Elrich may be one of the left’s few outright allies in power, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be critical while maintaining overall support. In fact, that’s how people change politicians.

Then Wright explains what the accessory dwelling units are and says:

Rather than letting big developers control suburban development, amending zoning regulations to make ADU construction easier actually puts homeowners in charge of local development.  In passing, we’ll note there’s no firm evidence of strong backing for this bill from real estate developers like Donohue, EYA, Washington Property Co., the AOBA lobby, or Southern Management. If you find some, feel free to pass it on.

After calling out Elrich’s position as misleading, Wright offers this:

Urban politics researchers point out that insurgent left movements which obtain political power at the local level often have a short lifespan. One reason is because they have trouble constructing governing coalitions that can enable them to retain power.

Marc faces such a scenario. The anti-growth coalitions that traditionally backed Marc as a county councilmember are losing influence. This past cycle saw many pro-growth candidates win positions on the County Council and Hans Riemer has done everything short of buying ad space in the Bethesda Beat to signal he plans to run for county executive when he is term-limited out of office in 2022. 

Therefore, a broad policy of opposition to new development will only hurt Marc in the long term. The County Council has the numbers to override his veto, ensuring that Hans can accumulate a record of passing simple housing reform measures. Coupled with Hans’s outreach to local industries fetishized by the petty bourgeoisie (like the craft brewing industry) and the generally thin victory margin from the 2018 election, the strength of Marc’s voting base four years from now can be called into question.

Finally, Wright says, “Sadly for the socialists in his base, Marc Elrich is continuing to display a disregard for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) priorities.”  He then follows up by criticizing Elrich’s budget cuts and his failure to support social housing legislation introduced by Del. Vaughn Stewart (District 19), a DSA member.  These items may not be directly related to ADUs, but as a writer, I know what it’s like to step on the gas and let it rip!

It’s not clear how far Wright’s view penetrates into DSA.  One DSA representative jokingly told me, “No one can reasonably accuse DSA of plotting a dictatorship. We can’t even control our own members!”

But DSA has had problems with Elrich before, notably censuring him for accepting an endorsement from the police union in May 2018.  And DSA does not fit neatly into the coalition of unions and development opponents who have supported Elrich in the past.  Housing is a particular fault line here because socialists would like to see more affordable housing – which, of course, development opponents are sure to fight.  When that happens, whose side will Elrich take?

From the socialists’ point of view, relations with Elrich may get more strained as time goes on for two reasons.

First, housing is becoming a bigger issue because of the collapse of housing construction in the county so the accessory dwelling fight may only be the first of many.

Second, slow economic growth is leading to tight budgets that will yield little money for progressive priorities like public affordable housing and early childhood education.  If this continues, eventually the socialists could very well push Elrich to propose a tax hike, something he does not want to do but might be inevitable.  Many of the older homeowners who supported Elrich would surely be unhappy about that.  What happens if Elrich’s base fragments?

That hasn’t happened yet.  But if more Erik O. Wrights begin showing up in the DSA and beyond, well … Elrich might start reminiscing for the good old days when he was not the county executive!

Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.

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