2022 | Politics

Q&A with county executive candidate Hans Riemer

This is the last in a series of interviews with the four leading Democratic contenders for county executive

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Photo by Joseph Tran

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 three-term at-large County Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Tuesday: David Blair

Wednesday: Marc Elrich

Thursday: Tom Hucker

Friday: Hans Riemer

In the June Democratic primary, there are two contendersMarc Elrich and Tom Huckerwith strong ties to progressives, and another, David Blair, much of whose support seems grounded in the county’s business community. Many insiders privately ask where your base of supportand ultimately your lane to victorylies?

I think my lane is the widest lane. It’s the lane of practical, forward thinking progressive values—willing to make hard decisions.

I think that’s what most voters want. They have one set of beliefs about national politics and a different set of concerns about the county. They’re looking for pragmatic, thoughtful leadership. I’m not running for Congress; those politics are very different. I’m sure that Marc would like people to believe that they’re going to vote for him [as a vote] against Donald Trump—but that’s not going to happen.

I do think Marc is the frontrunner. I think the first important thing to understand about this race is that David Blair is not very strong. A lot of his supporters in [2018] were people who…didn’t necessarily love him, they just didn’t want Marc. I think Marc’s support now is probably about where it was. [Editor’s note: Elrich and Blair each received about 29% of the vote in the 2018 primary, with Elrich winning by just 77 votes.] I think David’s support is really soft, and if I can hold David to half of what he had and hold Marc to what he had, that leaves well over 50% of the vote. So I think there’s a very direct path here. Most voters are up for grabs.”

A major reason Marc Elrich is widely seen as the frontrunner by foes as well as friends is that private polling indicates that voters give him high marks for handling of the issue that has dominated his first termCOVID-19. How do you overcome that as a challenger?

The election is about the future: It’s not going to be about COVID. What I’m finding is almost an electric interest in talking about the economic future of the county. The general view that I’m seeing is that people love and appreciate this county, but they’re concerned about where we’re going to be in 10 years.

My judgment on the county executive’s performance [on the pandemic]? I remember most people in this county had to leave Montgomery County to get vaccinated through much of the pandemic. There were huge issues with the effectiveness of the operation for Latino and African-American residents, and the council had to shake [the executive branch]. There’s a lot that could have been done better, that’s for sure. At the end of a long road, we’re in much better shape than red states of America. But let’s not forget that it was a rocky road.

It’s no secret that you and Marc Elrich, a fellow Takoma Park resident, have had an acrimonious relationship for more than a decade. What’s behind this?

For a brief time, we were rivals for the District 5 [County Council] seat [in 2006]   He and I have been on that collision since then. It was a crowded field that year, and [future County Councilmember] Valerie Ervin decided she wanted to run. MCEA [the county teachers’ union] was like “Valerie’s going to get in this, she’s going to win, Marc – you’re going to have to run at large.” And they pushed him [into the] at large race. He was really pissed, but he won. 

His problem with me was that he felt like I had no right to run. He felt his time had come. He had run four times [for council] and lost – and it was: “Who is this Hans Riemer running for the office that I’m finally going to get a chance to win?” [Editor’s note: Riemer lost the District 5 primary in 2006, but was elected to the council at-large four years later.]

Elrich recently suggested his issues with you began after your 2010 election to the council. His quote: “My first glimpse of the real Hans was after he ran in the primary and opposed the tax for the ambulance fees. And then he comes to me and it’s like ‘How do I change my position?’… which told me, just as a start, that he has no deep conviction to anything. It’s whatever he thinks is politically useful to him. And I don’t function that way.” Your response?

We certainly talked about the ambulance fee, and I crafted a compromise that brought the council together with [then-County Executive] Ike Leggett. We got it done—and it’s paying for fire trucks and firefighters. It wasn’t that I was reversing my position: What I found was a way to get to “yes” that was consistent with my position.

[During the campaign], what I had said was that people should not pay out of pocket for ambulance service. What I ultimately was able to add to the legislation was a clause that county residents would not be billed out of pocket. And so I was able to keep my promise—while actually figuring out a way to address this critical need.

Even among some who praise aspects of your three terms on the council, one hears concerns that you have had a tendency to waver on controversial issuesand that it sometimes has been difficult to discern where you stand. Do you feel there’s validity to that?

I think if you look over my record, what you see is staking out very tough positions actually—sticking with them year after year. I’d refer you to 5G [cellular towers in neighborhoods], accessory dwelling units, and all the housing policies generally. I think what I have shown is a willingness to do the hard work to take the tougher positions, and navigate the process to success.

I’ve also learned a lot and grown a lot since I was elected to the office. There was a time when I was not as confident as I am today. I feel like if there’s one thing you can say about my service on the council, it’s that I do the hard work, I take the tough positions, and I try to bring people to get to yes—and not floundering around at all.

So is it fair to say these concerns may reflect your early years on the council?

I probably shouldn’t admit that (chuckles) but yeah, I think as I’ve grown in the job, I’ve learned how to really provide leadership on tough issues.

You were a political organizer and lobbyist prior to your election to the council. What in your background do you feel has prepared you to run a government with 9,000 employees and a $5 billion annual budget?

First, I think I bring to this job an orientation that this county desperately needs, which is somebody who gets it—that we’ve got to grow, we’ve got to prosper. Secondly, I think my policy experience, my coalition building, my genuine desire to serve the community…are prerequisites for serving in office.

Every job I’ve had has been in the public interest—whether a non-profit or later in elected office. Public service is a very high calling. I think it’s how you demonstrate your integrity to the community. I reject the idea that running a corporation is a good qualification for running a government. I think the last thing we need is a wealthy businessman to come in and tell us how to run our community like a business.

That sounds like a swipe at one of your opponents. When David Blair ran for county executive in 2018, there were suggestions that his lack of a background in public office made him unqualified for the job. Is that your view?

I don’t think he would be a good county executive, that’s for sure. I think he’s got the wrong qualifications. Being a wealthy businessman is not a good resume for being a successful county executive in Montgomery County. There are a lot of nuances in this county—a lot of people who have deep issues, communities that have deep issues. I think great executives are people who are open to hearing what the community has to say, and yet who are energetic and will translate what [they] hear into results

That’s what makes for a great county executive, and that’s what we’re lacking now. I will rebuild the excellence in management this county has been known for decades. We have lost some of the brightest stars in local government. One of Marc’s greatest weaknesses is that the people around him are willing to overlook his fringe views—and that’s not typically people with great qualifications to run government. He’s lost all the great managers—except for just a couple who are hanging on.