Opinion: Elrich vs. Hogan Has Escalated into a Feud
It's not wise for a county executive to treat a governor as a personal enemy
Editor’s note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not represent the staff of Bethesda Beat.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has been in office for almost a year and one thing is becoming obvious: He does not like Governor Larry Hogan. And the feeling is mutual.
Like Trent Williams vs. Bruce Allen, Rosie O’Donnell vs. Donald Trump, and Archie Bunker vs. the Meathead, Elrich vs. Hogan is turning into a feud for the ages. Luckily for those of us who write about politics, it’s just getting started.
The feud dates back at least as far as July 2018, when Hogan told Bethesda Beat that “he’s been hearing from local leaders concerned that County Council member Marc Elrich’s election as county executive would discourage Amazon from picking Montgomery County as the site of its second headquarters.”
Hogan’s criticism of Elrich didn’t come out of the blue, as Elrich was perhaps the harshest critic during the 2018 election of the governor’s plan to widen the Beltway.
Next came the Committee for Montgomery Legislative Breakfast that December, in which Elrich took repeated shots at Hogan during his speech to a who’s who list of county leaders.
Blasting Hogan’s Beltway proposal, Elrich said, “There is no way you can widen the Beltway from New Hampshire Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue. We need a more realistic solution. [The governor’s plan] is very much a solution from the 20th century. It’s not a solution for the 21st century.”
For most of the past year, the Beltway project was THE major irritant between Elrich and Hogan.
Elrich appeared at a town hall meeting in May 2019 during which he lambasted Hogan’s plan, prompting Hogan to denounce “pro-traffic activists” who “show no regard for the hundreds of thousands who are stuck in traffic every day.”
A month later, Elrich faced off against Hogan at a Board of Public Works session on the Beltway project that resulted in a bitter argument. Laughing at Elrich, Hogan mispronounced his name as “Elrick” and denied knowing who he was until recently.
Hogan struck back when Elrich vacillated on the location of a communication tower for the county’s troubled public safety communications system. Hogan wrote on Twitter, “Inexplicably, some Montgomery County officials are considering standing in the way of a radio tower critical to our first responders. This comes after a 14-hour outage last month & firefighters raising concerns that the current system is ‘at grave risk of catastrophic failure.’”
Then came Elrich’s refusal to let a Thin Blue Line flag be publicly displayed at a county police station. Hogan said he was “offended and disgusted” by Elrich’s action, adding: “To outlaw these American flags from being hung in county buildings by law enforcement officers is outrageous and unconscionable.”
Elrich responded that Hogan “shouldn’t be mucking” in the issue, telling reporters, “I could spend my time expressing my disgust with him, but I don’t think that’s really useful. … I wouldn’t talk to him about this. It’s a waste of time. The governor should stick with trying to fix the mess he made on the [Bay] Bridge, [and] trying to stop funding on education. There’s lot of things he could spend his time on other than this.”
Hogan trolls Elrich on Twitter during the Thin Blue Line flag controversy.
Just one day later, Elrich condemned the governor’s refusal to raise taxes to pay for transportation projects.
“I’m like in disbelief. When you take on the responsibility of a government, that requires that sometimes you find the money. To say it’s not his job and he’s not going to do it is stunning. It’s like a total abdication of responsibility. … He’s basically saying, ‘I’m going to grind the state to a halt because I don’t have any money.’ And I’m just like, ‘Wow.’”
Hogan’s spokesman mocked Elrich in response, saying he “has had a rough last couple of days, so it’s understandable that he’s lashing out.”
Elrich and Hogan are about as different as two men can be.
Elrich was a left-wing student activist at the University of Maryland; Hogan was the son of a Republican politician. Elrich built his political career by opposing development; Hogan is a developer.
Elrich is a decades-long socialist who remains suspicious of unfettered capitalism; Hogan made a fortune from capitalism.
The main thing the two have in common is their intolerance for those they see as fools. This relationship was never going to be a good one.
But what has made this relationship truly disastrous is the overflowing bucket of fang-dripping venom that has come to pervade it in less than a year.
Hogan has to deal with Democrats regularly as the largest local jurisdictions in the state are mostly governed by Democratic mayors and county executives. The presiding officers of the General Assembly are also Democrats.
Hogan can get testy at times, but he has seldom used the kind of raw, personal rhetoric with them that he directs at Elrich. Hogan had a better relationship with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker than he has with Elrich, even while Baker was running against him for governor.
As for Elrich, he has grown increasingly comfortable with blasting the governor by name, something unseen in MoCo since former County Executive Doug Duncan was planning to run against Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.
Elrich’s dealings with Hogan stand in sharp contrast with the approach taken by his predecessor, former County Executive Ike Leggett.
Like Elrich, Leggett had his share of differences with Hogan. Unlike Elrich, Leggett carefully cultivated Hogan because he had two big asks of him: Build the Purple Line and put together a huge bid for Amazon. Hogan opposed the Purple Line as a candidate, but Leggett helped change his mind.
As for Amazon, MoCo did not win its bid, but that wasn’t Hogan’s fault, as Maryland’s mind-boggling incentive package exceeded the size of the winning bids by Virginia and New York combined.
The Leggett-Hogan relationship eventually became warm enough that Leggett spoke at the governor’s second inauguration and Hogan appointed Leggett to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.
When asked last year to comment on his working with Hogan, Leggett said, “The executive office of the governor in the state of Maryland is one of the most influential of any governorship in the country. The General Assembly can’t increase the budget unless the governor agrees to do so. And so, the last time I checked, Larry Hogan was the governor.
“And whoever’s the governor going forward, and he [Hogan] has an excellent chance of repeating as the governor according to what most people say in the polls, you have to work with the governor. Executives, mayors have to go through the governmental process.
“Otherwise you’re going to make it difficult to get projects done. You might be able to explain that, in the heat of campaign, you may say something or do something that [is] off-kilter, and those things should be respected. But in terms of the long term, you have to respect that relationship.”
Whatever one thinks of Hogan, Leggett’s logic is undeniable: The relationship between a county executive and a governor is totally asymmetrical. A governor has immense ability to help or harm a county. A county executive has little ability to reciprocate, at least not until the next election.
That points to one more difference between Elrich and Hogan.
The governor is leaving office because of term limits. He may one day run for office again, but he does not depend on Montgomery County for votes. (He does raise money here, but many of Hogan’s MoCo business contributors probably cheer for him when he fights Elrich.)
Unlike Hogan, Elrich is presumably running for another term. It’s not helpful for his record to have an adversary in the governor’s mansion who seems perfectly happy to use his substantial budget powers to clobber MoCo, such as by cutting the Corridor Cities Transitway.
MoCo is a large and important county, but even MoCo can’t go it alone. Regardless of whose fault this is, the fact that Elrich is now a personal enemy of the state’s most powerful elected official is not good for the county. Will that be a factor in the next election?
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.