2022 | Politics

UPDATED: Montgomery County Sierra Club endorses Blair in county executive race

Decision passes over Elrich and Riemer, stirs controversy in local environmental circles

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County executive candidate David Blair

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This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. April 26 to include information from the Montgomery County Sierra Club’s statement about its endorsement.

The Sierra Club’s Montgomery County Group is endorsing former health care executive David Blair in this year’s race for county executive, according to a statement released Tuesday by the group.

“After conducting a detailed and lengthy review of the major candidates, the Sierra Club reached the conclusion that Mr. Blair will be a strong and effective leader,” the statement said. “He combines an appealing environmental platform with personal qualities and experiences that will help him translate that platform into action.”

David Sears, the group’s political chair, noted Blair’s “track record of executive leadership” and his dedication to “working for the public good.”

“David Blair understands the urgency of addressing climate change and is running a campaign dedicated to action,” Sears said in the statement. “He has a bold, achievable vision for Montgomery County where we grow public transit, support walkable and bikeable communities, emphasize smart growth and jobs in Montgomery County, and do our part to contribute to Maryland’s transformation to relying on clean energy located in-state.”

The decision about the endorsement passes over Blair’s two major rivals for the Democratic nomination, incumbent Marc Elrich and at-large Councilmember Hans Riemer – in favor of a candidate who has no prior experience in elected office and lacks a track record on environmental issues. Word of the Sierra Club’s move – which has been spreading since the Elrich and Riemer campaigns were informed of the endorsement late last week – has stirred controversy in local environmental circles. On Monday, Bethesda Beat reported on the coming endorsement based on confirmation from a source.

The group acknowledged the controversy in its statement, saying that members “understand that our endorsement of Mr. Blair will be met with surprise and even frustration by some. Montgomery County Sierra Club, though, believes that Mr. Blair is the best candidate overall to continue and expand real environmental progress in our County.”

Blair said in an interview Monday he was “thrilled” to receive the Sierra Club’s endorsement. He said there is broad agreement between him and the group on how to address issues related to climate change and the environment.

The Sierra Club also is a leader on policy and advocacy when it comes to smart growth policies, like adding housing near Metro stations and other types of development, Blair added.

“They are thoughtful leaders on smart growth, and how to address the climate emergency that we find ourselves up against,” Blair said.

While the group noted in its statement that Blair’s platform addresses “a multitude of local environmental concerns,” it said it also recognizes that Blair doesn’t share its opposition to Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen the Beltway and I-270 utilizing toll revenue. “The Sierra Club will continue to urge Mr. Blair, the Montgomery County Council, the General Assembly and the next Governor to oppose this boondoggle,” the statement said.

Riemer declined Monday to comment on the endorsement. Elrich and Peter James, the other candidate in the Democratic primary, could not immediately be reached for comment via phone Monday.

In what appeared to be a preemptive political strike prior to the announcement of the Blair endorsement, the Riemer campaign sent out a lengthy email Sunday to supporters criticizing a number of Blair’s stances on climate change and related issues. The Elrich campaign is said to be readying an announcement of an “Environmentalists for Elrich” group including a number of local activists who are current or former Sierra Club members.

Blair, Elrich, Riemer and District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker – who 10 days ago dropped out of the Democratic primary for county executive race in favor of a bid for an at-large council seat – all filled out questionnaires and were interviewed by the Sierra Club late last year.

Blair was later brought back for a second interview. According to the source close to the Sierra Club, a three-person interviewing team was swayed by what they regarded as a strong performance by Blair during the interview process – along with his management experience and what they regarded as an open-minded attitude and willingness to bring in environmental expertise to compensate for his own lack of first-hand knowledge.

The source declined to discuss in detail who had signed off on the endorsement – other than to say that the recommendation of the interviewing team was approved by other parts of the Sierra Club structure prior to being finalized.

Elrich has had an up-and-down experience in recent years with the Sierra Club endorsement – regarded as increasingly desirable in a county where pro-environment sentiment runs strong.

He was endorsed for a third term as an at-large member of the County Council in 2014, but four years later – in his first bid for county executive – was passed over by the Sierra Club in favor of then-District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner. Berliner finished fourth in a six-way Democratic primary in 2018, behind Elrich and Blair – the latter of whom ran a close second, losing by just 77 votes.

During this year’s process, Elrich was seen by the Sierra Club leadership as being on the opposite side of its views on so-called “smart growth” – on issues ranging from affordable housing to the Thrive 2050 plan for the county’s future currently under debate.

Riemer, who was endorsed by the Sierra Club for re-election to a third council term in 2018 after being passed over four years earlier, was said to have been hurt in this year’s endorsement process by his role in getting the I-495/I-270 widening project – strongly opposed by the Sierra Club – back on track last summer.

While Blair also has been favorable toward Hogan’s toll lane plan for the Beltway and I-270, Riemer was seen as a key player in securing approval of the project after it was initially shelved by the regional Transportation Planning Board last June. Riemer, after negotiating with state officials over funding for several transit projects, spearheaded a deal with the Hogan administration that prompted a County Council majority to shift to support the I-270/I-495 plan.

The four candidates who had declared by March 15 – Blair, Elrich, and Riemer, along with Hucker – were considered in Sierra Club’s county executive endorsement process. Another contender in the Democratic primary, Gaithersburg-based technology entrepreneur Peter James – who did not declare his candidacy until later in March – was not.

Neither were the two Republicans in the contest, both of whom declared just days before the April 15 filing deadline – Montgomery County Republican Chair Reardon Sullivan and attorney Shelly Skolnick of Friendship Heights. In Montgomery County, with a nearly 4-1 Democratic registration edge, a win in the July 19 Democratic primary is considered all but tantamount to victory in November.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club Montgomery County Group plans to formally announce its 2022 endorsements for County Council later this week.

In the at-large race, the organization has decided to endorse Hucker, incumbent at-large members Evan Glass and Will Jawando, and former Gaithersburg Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles. The Sierra Club passed over the remaining at-large incumbent seeking re-election – Gabe Albornoz, currently the council’s president.

For the district seats, the Sierra Club has endorsed incumbent Andrew Friedson in District 1; Gaithersburg/Germantown Chamber of Commerce President Marilyn Balcombe in District 2; Gaithersburg Councilmember Robert Wu, who is taking on incumbent Sidney Katz in District 3; Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart in District 4; and Brian Anleu, a former aide to Hucker who recently has served as chief of staff for the Montgomery County Planning Board, in District 5.

In two newly created districts on the enlarged council, the District 6 nod went to former Planning Board Vice Chair Natali Fani-Gonzalez, while the Sierra Club has given its District 7 endorsement to Jacqueline Manger, an official of the University of Maryland business school.

Bethesda Beat staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed reporting.