Editor’s Note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not reflect those of Bethesda Beat staff.
In a prior column, I listed several things Montgomery County executive candidates Nancy Floreen and Marc Elrich have in common. Now let’s look at a few differences between them.
Leadership on the County Council
Floreen, who is running as an independent, is one of the most prominent members of the County Council. She has been elected president twice and has been chair of its Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee for eight years. In both of her years as council president (2010 and 2016), the council made major budgetary and tax decisions that Floreen worked hard to pass. Elrich, the Democratic nominee, has never been elected as council president. He has been chair of the Public Safety Committee during the current term, a consolation prize he was awarded after getting kicked off the PHED committee. Floreen will try to exploit her council leadership experience against Elrich, but it’s unclear how that will help her attract votes from the Republicans, independents and anti-tax Democrats she needs to defeat him.
This subject area probably contains the biggest disagreements between Floreen and Elrich. The council has vast powers over land use, including the authority to approve master plans, zoning changes and the naming of members of the Planning Board and the Board of Appeals. The county executive does not participate in those decisions, but the executive’s selection of department heads, especially those of the Department of Permitting Services, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, has a powerful impact on property usage. Also, the executive can veto Planning Board appointments, requiring seven council votes to override.
Land use decisions by the council start in the PHED committee. As PHED chair, Floreen is the council’s point person in brokering the compromises necessary to pass master plans, which set zoning and guidance for future development. Elrich, on the other hand, has cast the sole vote against approval of numerous master plans including Downtown Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, Kensington, Long Branch, Lyttonsville, Rock Spring and White Flint 2. All of these plans contain Metro, Purple Line and/or MARC access except for Rock Spring, leading the smart growth community to brand Elrich as an opponent of transit-oriented development.
Floreen will say that her stewardship of master plans reflects her leadership skills and her vision of intelligent, well-planned future growth for the county. Elrich criticizes many of these plans as anything but intelligent and believes the county cannot afford to build the infrastructure to support them without charging more to developers. Elrich’s “Lone Ranger” reputation on the council owes much to his master plan votes. I worked at the council in 2013, when the council adopted improvements advocated by Elrich to the Long Branch plan only to see him vote against it in the end.
Elrich responded to the questions of leadership and land use votes in this May interview with Bethesda Magazine’s Lou Peck.
I never really pushed to be [council] president. The president doesn’t have any magical powers; the president has no veto power. The one time I was interested, I discovered there was an expectation that I would trade things … to be president. And I wasn’t willing to say, “I’ll do this for you,” in exchange for a vote. …Working with people and reaching compromises—I’m happy to do. Voting for something wrong—that’s not something I will do. More broadly, I’ve always been uncomfortable—particularly on the land use stuff—being expected to defend the council. I think we have made some fundamentally wrong and irresponsible land use decisions … . So I value my independence.
After the vote on the White Flint [Sector Plan], I raised concerns that it was not working out as planned. And the moment I said that on the dais, two of my colleagues said, “You voted for it.” So there’s a dilemma: If I vote for something that I still think has issues, I’m not allowed to raise the issues—because I voted for it. If I don’t vote for it, then it’s: “You vote against everything, Marc. You don’t support anything. Why should we give you anything?” It’s like forcing people to conform and be silent.
Elrich has opposed large road projects like the Intercounty Connector (ICC) and the proposed upcounty highway M-83. He is the father of the county’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Floreen was first elected as part of the pro-ICC End Gridlock slate in 2002. She favors big road projects as well as some transit like the light-rail Purple Line, but she is at best skeptical of the BRT network. If Floreen is county executive, she will probably try to put M-83 in the capital budget and de-emphasize BRT. If Elrich is elected, M-83 will continue to languish and BRT will have a better chance of proceeding.
Elrich has said forever that he refuses contributions from developers and their attorneys. That’s not true as The Washington Post caught him taking money from a developer attorney in 2014. Still, Elrich’s development industry contributions are puny compared to those received by Floreen, who gets most of her campaign financing from that one industry.
Elrich favors rent control, something that a huge majority of economists have rejected. That said, Elrich has been on the council for 12 years and has never introduced a rent-control bill as he knows there are not enough votes to pass it. Floreen opposes rent control. The county executive cannot unilaterally enact rent control, but the executive’s selection of the next director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs has significant regulatory authority over landlords.
Floreen enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton in her runs for president. Elrich is a long-time member of the Democratic Socialists who supported Bernie Sanders. In the 2016 election cycle, Elrich criticized Clinton almost as much as he attacked the Republicans. On one occasion in June 2016, Elrich posted the graphic below lumping together Clinton, Donald Trump and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on Facebook, causing an uproar until he removed it.
These are significant differences between Floreen and Elrich, but some of them do not fall neatly on an ideological right vs. left spectrum. For example, there is no consensus progressive position on land use, which is something that folks who call themselves progressives fight about constantly. Instead, the disagreements between Floreen and Elrich tend to be over the nuts-and-bolts functions of local government, which is the level of office for which they are running.
Furthermore, while the two have been associated with occasionally opposing factions in county politics, they are not truly enemies. In fact, they are symbiotes, with each using the prospect of the other gaining more power to stir up their supporters and raise money: “If Floreen gets a council majority, the developers will pave over every square inch of grass in the county!” “If Elrich gets a council majority, every business in the county will shut down!” And so on. Substitute their names for former county leaders like Steve Silverman, Sidney Kramer, Neal Potter and Idamae Garrott and you could write a quick history of MoCo political propaganda going back decades.
As the Democratic nominee, Elrich has a big advantage in this race. But Floreen has a few advantages too, including lots of money and an emphatic endorsement from The Washington Post. Could Floreen break through? We will look at that question in a future column.
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.