Editor’s Note: In conjunction with “The race is on” — an assessment of the 2022 contest for Montgomery County executive in the January/February issue of Bethesda Magazine — the four major contenders for the Democratic nomination were interviewed at length in the fall by Bethesda Magazine contributing editor Louis Peck. This week, Bethesda Beat is running an edited version of each candidate’s Q&A interview, in alphabetical order of the candidates’ names. Below is an excerpt of the interview with David Blair, a former healthcare industry CEO making his second run for county executive.
Tuesday: David Blair
Wednesday: Marc Elrich
Thursday: Tom Hucker
Friday: Hans Riemer
In 2018, your campaign spent $5.7 million—far and away the record for a county executive race—with about $5.4 million coming from you personally. Are you prepared to equal or exceed that level of spending this year?
I can’t imagine we’ll spend that much money this time. We believe it will be less. I plan on being more efficient.
The campaign will be funded with a combination of both personal money as well as donations from outside. … I don’t know how much money we’ll spend on this campaign. Certainly, COVID has a big impact—whether we can be door-knocking and shaking hands, or whether we have to reach [voters] through TV or digital or direct mail.
Your level of spending prompted charges in 2018 that you were trying to “buy” the election. Similar rhetoric is coming this time from a couple of your rivals who have opted into the county’s public campaign finance system—which limits use of private funds. Did you consider participating in that system this time around?
My approach is to earn one vote at a time. I think that’s why I gave so much energy in the last election to door-knocking, being at the Metro [stations], attending meet and greets. Certainly, I’m not trying to buy an election. I want to earn people’s trust and their vote.
I like public financing. I think it provides a way for more candidates to get into a race. I’ve always said the more candidates running, the better that will be for the community. [But] I don’t think it’s appropriate [for me] to take public money to run. It doesn’t feel right to me.
Are you saying you feel it’s not appropriate due to your personal wealth?
You almost beat Marc Elrich in the 2018 primary. This time, he appears to start the race with a clear edge as the incumbent, according to private polling—due in large part to his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. How difficult a task do you face in convincing voters to make a change?
I was at a meet and greet [the other] night. I got maybe a dozen questions. It wasn’t about COVID. It was: “Am I going to have to drive in how-long traffic to get across the American Legion Bridge?” As a percentage of our capital budget, we have been decreasing the amount of money we spend on transportation every year for five or six years. We’re not spending enough on transportation solutions, and that shows up with the traffic.
I don’t want to say COVID doesn’t come up, but the [conversation] is more likely now to be focused on equity, education and the economy. When I was growing up here, U.S. News and World Report would report year after year that three or four of our high schools were in the top 100 in the country. And we have zero now. Newsweek reported this past summer that Montgomery County schools aren’t even the best in the state of Maryland; Howard County has passed us. Things were declining before COVID, and COVID only made them worse. So, in my conversations with residents, there’s significant concern around education. And equally, I would say, on jobs—we don’t have high quality jobs, we’re losing our jobs.
And then there are equity issues across the board that are impacting every part of our lives: It’s clear that Montgomery County is not working for everybody. One of the first things that I did when I announced I was running is release my “One Montgomery: Building Fairness and Opportunity for All” plan. This was a collaboration of hundreds of hours of time with community, faith-based, political and civic leaders to come up with the solutions we need to move this county forward.
You’ve outlined an ambitious agenda. In this contest—as was the case in 2018—several of your opponents have questioned how effective you would be in moving such an agenda forward given a lack of prior experience in public office. Can you talk about the skills you acquired as a corporate CEO that you believe would be helpful if you’re elected county executive?
While I’ve never held public office, I am not new to service to our community. For decades I’ve been involved in non-profit communities, civic advocacy. So I have a good handle of the county’s needs.
I am the only candidate that’s running that has a career’s worth of experience as an executive. I have a saying: “Don’t confuse activity with progress.” I see a lot of activity [in the Elrich administration]. We do studies, commissions, pilot programs. We don’t actually get things done. Being an executive is getting things done—and that’s a skill that I bring to the table. Every year, you need to be stamping out redundancies, finding efficiencies, and leveraging new technologies to make your budget go farther, and I actually see the opposite with our current county executive.
On the flip side of that question: As someone who has never before served in government, how much of a learning curve do you think you would face as county executive?
As an executive, the first thing you realize is that you can never be the smartest person in the room—that being an executive is surrounding yourself with talent. The executive shouldn’t know everything, because if you do, you’ve got the wrong team around you. Clearly, there are areas of government I don’t understand, and I will be relying on the team. So whether it’s health and human services or transportation, [it is] making sure we have the right people in place. And then my job is to set the vision, hold them accountable and actually move the county forward.
One of the first things that’s important is recruiting and retaining top leadership talent. And our current county executive is really struggling with that. I’m keeping track—I think we lost six top executives [in 2021]. One of the things I love about Montgomery County is how incredibly talented we are, how educated we are. So I don’t think we need to look far outside the county.
I think [hiring of] the chief of police [in 2019] was a great example. The best candidate was here in Montgomery County all along. I don’t know from a leadership perspective that you could say anything more demoralizing to a department than “we’re going to look to the outside to bring somebody in,” having spent 20 to 25 years at an organization thinking you might be eligible for the top job—and then be told you’re not. [Editor’s note: Acting Chief Marcus Jones, a 34-year veteran of the county’s police force, was named to the post permanently in late 2019 after Elrich unsuccessfully sought a chief from outside the county in a protracted, often controversial process.]
Another part of your background that has sometimes stirred controversy is that you were Republican until changing your party registration about two decades ago. What factors went into your decision to leave the Republican Party and become a Democrat?
I grew up in the Ronald Reagan era, and I didn’t know much about politics when I was a kid. He certainly made me feel good about America without my really understanding politics. So when I turned 18, I registered as a Republican. And then I built my business. I was always voting for the candidate I thought was best. Over [more than a decade], I found myself consistently voting Democratic—and my positions aligned with the Democrats. Everything being equal, I probably should have changed my party affiliation sooner. But I was busy raising a family and building a business.
Is expanding the primary electorate – be it by registering new Democrats or by ensuring that Democrats who have not voted regularly in recent primaries make it to the polls– a key to your prospects of victory this time?
Last time, there were independent voters that approached us, and of course we were going to help them to register as Democrats. But there’s no concerted effort to go after independents or Republicans.
We’re going after all Democrats. One of the interesting things is that since 2018, I believe it’s over 75,000 new Democrats in Montgomery County. And that’s phenomenal – because if someone has taken the effort to register, presumably they want to vote. [Editor’s note: Blair campaign research indicates 75,000 new residents have moved into the county since 2018 and registered Democratic. The county Board of Elections shows a net increase of just 20,250 Democrats, when those leaving the county or dropping from active voter rolls are factored in.]
I lost by 77 votes last time. There’s a lot of Democrats to go after, and I’m hopeful we can find those 77 votes.