Floreen, Elrich Clash Repeatedly in County Executive Forum Held by Local Realtors
Independent candidate hits Democrat on pledge to involve unions in government restructuring
Montgomery County executive candidate Nancy Floreen speaks during a Wednesday debate at The Universities at Shady Grove. Her opponents are Marc Elrich, left, and Robin Ficker, right.
Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for Montgomery County executive, and his Democratic-turned-independent opponent, Nancy Floreen, tangled over issues ranging from efforts to attract Amazon’s second headquarters to plans to restructure county government at a debate Wednesday sponsored by the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (GCAAR).
Floreen took aim at several campaign pledges by her long-time County Council colleague, particularly his pledge to involve the county’s employee union in restructuring efforts.
While Elrich and Floreen agreed their biggest challenge if elected would be finding ways to pay for their policy priorities, they diverged sharply when Elrich—who has had strong labor union backing in his bid for the executive’s job—declared: “We need to think about how we work, and we need to become more efficient … . I’ve talked to the unions, because they’re major players in this, and they’re willing to work with the county government to resize the county government.”
Floreen shot back: “We’re going to have the unions decide how we operate? Really?”
She added: “I respect our union folks. They are hard-working, and they deliver great services. And they have valuable perspectives. But they’re not going to determine how I run Montgomery County. And they shouldn’t, because they’re the most costly elements of our operation.”
“… Honestly, it’s beyond belief,” she declared of Elrich’s plan, while suggesting that county government costs could be reduced by attrition and improving information technology systems. “If you ask me, it’s nowhere where it needs to be,” she said of the latter.
Asserted Elrich: “Nancy’s comments show how little she understands about how people go about restructuring in the real world. Lockheed Martin and Toyota went about their restructuring by working with the workforce, because no one knew the work processes better than their workers.”
The Republican candidate, attorney Robin Ficker, took aim at both of his opponents—whom he repeatedly characterized as living in the “Takoma Park trapezoid.” Elrich is a Takoma Park resident; Floreen resides several miles to the west, in Garrett Park.
“These two folks voted themselves a self-serving 30 percent pay increase for the County Council,” Ficker, a Boyds resident, declared—referring to a move enacted by the council prior to the 2014 election. “That gave the unions the idea, “Hey, we want increases, too.”
Meanwhile, Floreen pounced when Elrich said he had asked fellow council member Sidney Katz, a long-time small business owner, to chair a task force to examine the regulation and fees imposed on those seeking to do business in the county. “I want to look at what does Montgomery County do that other jurisdictions do, what do we do that other jurisdictions don’t do—and try to adopt a common-sense approach,” Elrich said. “We keep hearing from people that Montgomery County is an unfriendly place to do business, and we’ve never actually done the work to find out: Are we unfriendly—or aren’t we?”
Responded Floreen: “I’m not going to put together a two-year task force to tell me what’s wrong with permitting and review. I spend a lot of time talking to people, we’re working out the plan already on how do you fix this.
“This is not a mystery. We do not have to have paralysis by analysis,” Floreen added—borrowing a phrase used often by former County Executive Doug Duncan four years ago in his bid to oust current County Executive Ike Leggett. Duncan, who headed the “End Gridlock” slate in 2002 that first brought Floreen to the council, is backing her candidacy this year. Leggett has endorsed Elrich.
Elrich sought to rebut Floreen’s charge, saying, “It doesn’t take two years to do that. You should be able to introduce changes to the county government relatively quickly, [but] I think the fact that we haven’t done some of these things already speaks to how little we know about the environment we’re dealing with.”
The debate, with an attendance of a little more than 100, was held at The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville. Floreen said one of her priorities if elected would be turn USG “into a world-class educational resource center … that’s not just a coupled-together effort but a real four-year institution [that] is going to put Montgomery County on the map, just as George Mason [University] has done in Northern Virginia.”
An exchange over a current priority—wooing Amazon’s second headquarters to the county—highlighted some of the broader differences between Elrich and Floreen over growth and development.
“The tone of economic development and our future comes from the top, from the county executive,” Floreen declared. “The county executive should not be in the position of having to write a letter to Amazon saying, ‘I’m really OK with business, don’t be afraid’.” It was a reference to a recent letter sent by Elrich to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, vowing to honor a package of incentives negotiated by Leggett and Gov. Larry Hogan and enacted by the Maryland General Assembly.
Elrich, responding to Floreen, contended: “I wrote a letter to Amazon because I heard people associated with your campaign publicly saying that I wouldn’t support the Amazon deal. Considering that I supported the Amazon project from when it was introduced, it was not useful to put out there that somebody who might be county executive would undo the deal. So I wanted to clarify, and my statements alone weren’t enough to do it.”
Nonetheless, Floreen implied the company would be reluctant to locate in the county if Elrich is elected. “I think Amazon is waiting to see what happens with our election,” she said.
It was part of a broader criticism of Elrich’s past positions on development. “Are we going to go forward—or we going to continue to argue about things that we have been arguing about for the past 30 years?” Floreen asked.
She later added: “The county executive has to support things like the redevelopment of Silver Spring—something that my colleague opposed way back when. The county executive has to advance our transportation initiatives, and not still fight about the [Intercounty Connector] or the Montrose Parkway. The county executive needs to be out there—supporting our business community, making them feel welcome.”
Replied Elrich: “You want to talk about Silver Spring? I supported the redevelopment in Silver Spring that got built in Silver Spring. Yes, I opposed the megamall … which the county walked away from because the developer asked for far too much subsidy. The project that got built was basically the project that I actually advocated for.”
In his closing remarks, Elrich took a swipe at Floreen’s strong support from the county’s development community, saying, “I think the county faces an inflection point … and I think we need something more complex than just saying, ‘I’m the person who supports the development community.’ That’s not the same thing as supporting the business community.”
In appearing at the Realtor-sponsored forum, both Floreen and Elrich faced a group with which they have had past differences.
Elrich has been a long-time advocate of rent control, putting him at odds with not only GCAAR but virtually all of his council colleagues in recent years. The rent control issue did not come up in the questions—prepared by the GCAAR staff—that were posed to the candidates at Wednesday’s forum.
“Realtors realize there is a cost to maintain a strong county lifestyle,” GCAAR President Tom Daley said in opening the forum. But, he pointedly added, “We want our industry to be treated equitably, and not singled out as a single financing source for every county initiative.”
Floreen, who in 2016 led the effort to increase the county’s real estate transfer tax, smiled nervously at Daley’s allusion to that increase. When the candidates were asked later if they had any plans for tax increases if elected, Floreen responded by noting her past advocacy of tax credits for homeowners—and her unsuccessful efforts to roll back an increase in the county’s energy tax enacted in 2010 during the Great Recession.
Ficker, a real estate broker as well as an attorney, noted that he was “the only candidate in this race who is a member of GCAAR,” and told the audience: “I can tell you that if either one of my opponents is elected, you’re going to be getting another 30 percent increase in your real estate transfer tax. I testified against that 30 percent increase … . I was there standing with you. My opponents voted for it. Don’t forget that.”
Throughout the debate, Ficker boasted of successful referendums he had gotten placed on the ballot: in 2008, to make it more difficult to increase property taxes beyond the rate of inflation, and in 2016, a measure imposing term limits on the county executive and the council. “I’ve won two Super Bowls,” the often colorful Ficker declared.
But, in their back-and-forth, Elrich and Floreen largely ignored their Republican opponent—who, prior to this race, had made 19 runs for elected office since the early 1970s, winning only in a 1978 bid for the Maryland House of Delegates. At one point, when Floreen rose to speak, Ficker moved from his chair to hers, complaining: “You’re standing in front of me for every question. It’s called body language.” Floreen apologized, saying, “I didn’t mean to; that was not intentional.”
She did respond to Ficker’s efforts to woo Amazon with a bit of sarcasm.
At one point, Ficker asked the audience what “BFF” stood for. When the reply came back, “best friend forever,” Ficker corrected the respondents. “Bezos’ friendship with Ficker!,” he said to loud laughter, continuing: “I took the trouble to go out to Seattle and visit more than 20 Amazon buildings, and I met with 50 Amazon employees at the Seattle Seahawks game as well.”
Gibed Floreen: “I am just grateful that Mr. Ficker found the time to have a nice vacation along with the many Montgomery county residents who I am sure enjoyed the pleasures of Seattle [in the] summertime. And I am sure the Amazon receptionists were very nice to Mr. Ficker.”
In her opening statement, Floreen noted that, “I’ve been in leadership positions on the council for the past 16 years.” She has frequently pointed out that Elrich was never elected president of the council during his 12-year tenure, a position she held twice during her four-term tenure.
Elrich sought to respond in his closing statement. “Nancy likes to say that I wasn’t council president, and they chose her,” he said. “I’ll just say my colleagues, our colleagues, chose me for county executive—everyone but one.” Of the seven Democratic council members besides Elrich and Floreen, six have endorsed Elrich and one, Craig Rice, has not taken a position.
Elrich also pointed to an endorsement from Potomac businessman David Blair, whom he defeated by a mere 77 votes in the June Democratic primary. “I’ve offered him a place in the transition and, when I’m county executive, I’m going to bring him into a place in the county government, because I think he adds value,” Elrich declared.
Floreen could be heard sighing audibly as Elrich referred to Blair.