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 two-term District 5 County Councilmember Tom Hucker.
Tuesday: David Blair
Wednesday: Marc Elrich
Thursday: Tom Hucker
Friday: Hans Riemer
Under the county’s term limits statute, you were eligible for another term on the county council. Many were surprised when you announced last summer that you were exploring a run for county executive. What prompted you to opt for that course?
County residents expect Montgomery County to be a leader—a policy and thought leader on the key issues of the day. They expect us to be a climate leader, a housing leader, a leader in job creation. In one issue after another, we’ve not only been failing to lead the last three years; we’re lagging the rest of the region.
We were unique in the region losing jobs pre-COVID. For the first time in decades, Prince George’s County had more job growth than Montgomery County. It’s hard to remember pre-COVID, it’s easy to forget how bad things were before that—and it’s easy to chalk everything up to COVID. And it has nothing to do with COVID: That’s been the trajectory of the county for the last three years.
The county executive during that period, Marc Elrich, has a long-time base in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, as have you—the founder of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland before running for office. Do you see major policy differences between you and the incumbent?
Marc and I agree on certainly many issues. [But] I think it’s well-known that Marc doesn’t prioritize economic development; I do. And Marc doesn’t believe we have a housing crisis. He’ll say there are exceptions. But he voted against the [definition of] housing crisis that the whole region agreed on, the housing goals that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments adopted…And if you talk to people trying to build housing in my district, they will say they are stuck because of the county executive and his staff.
What’s more important than defining any policy differences with Marc is our approach to governing. Marc and I … have been friends for 20 years, and I’m hopeful we’re going to be friends long after this. [But] in my weekly meetings with Marc, as vice president of the council and council president, the stark differences in our approach to governing became abundantly clear to me…I feel like I’ve moved through the seven stages of grief—through concern, through frustration, through bargaining with him and making hundreds of suggestions, through sort of despair to a kind of resignation. I don’t think things are going to get better unless the county changes direction.
Marc is a very smart guy who has isolated himself a fair amount. I think he has a hard time taking other people’s advice and counsel, and asking people for involvement in building a broad coalition. And he puts people into categories, which is why he has so many enemies. He tends to get caught up in whether he likes people or doesn’t like them—instead of realizing you have a job to do to bring people together and get things done.
Some who have supported both of you in the past have expressed concern about the potential for a split in the progressive vote—which they contend could boost election of a candidate they regard less favorably. Do you see this as a possible consequence of your candidacy?
I don’t think so. I would suggest over two-thirds of the public—Democratic voters in Montgomery County—identifies as progressive or liberal in poll after poll. That’s growing, not shrinking, due to national politics. There are very few people who say “I’m a conservative Democrat” any more.
And I don’t think of Marc as a consistent progressive. If you don’t prioritize creating jobs, in the middle of a historic recession, to me you’re not progressive. And if you don’t believe in creating housing for people, to me you’re not progressive. Because those are the two things people need the most in Montgomery County right now—not the Montgomery County of 1980 or 1990 that we refer to all the time.
You appear to be accusing Marc Elrich of so-called NIMBYism—a “not in my backyard” mentality of which he has been accused by past opponents.
That’s where most of his base, his votes come from—so, yes. I don’t think it’s entirely political [on his part]. I think he genuinely believes that. A lot of people who have a house that’s paid off, that they paid for in the ‘80s or ’90s in Montgomery County, are less aware of the acute need for housing. If they have sons and daughters coming out of college, trying to move to this area, those middle-age people are very aware of the need for affordable housing.
Besides your criticisms of the manner in which the county is being run, several who know you have privately suggested your motivation for getting into this race arose as well from restlessness and perhaps some boredom after two terms on the council. Is this an accurate perception?
I don’t think that’s any major motivation. I feel like I’m a lot better at the job now than I was six years ago, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives all the time. People might certainly sense frustration when obvious solutions are available and I run into bureaucratic roadblocks, which happens every week. I enjoy the job a lot when we’re getting things done; the job can be frustrating when we’re not getting things done for unnecessary reasons. We have a lot more solutions than we use and a lot more problems than we should tolerate.
What would you bring to the county executive’s job that others don’t—given your background as a political organizer and legislator, without experience in running a large governmental entity?
I have a long history of passing many very difficult bills, not just at the County Council, but in the state legislature in a bipartisan environment, and getting every Republican on the floor of the House [of Delegates] to vote for my bills on human trafficking, on environmental issues, for expanding pre-K [indergarten], because I was able to bring people together and build consensus. That is something that is really lacking in our current administration. I think Marc and I are quite different in that I pass a lot of legislation, and Marc had a lot of trouble passing legislation [as a council member].
We have great people working for the county—and many, when you talk to them, would say they need clear direction. Many who worked for County Executive [Doug] Duncan and County Executive [Ike] Leggett will tell you that you always knew what the priorities were, that you could always get a decision—and there were repercussions if you didn’t do your job. All that has gone away in the last three years…I think it’s a fair question why so many people—experienced, successful staff who have put decades of service into this county—have decided to leave just within the last year. It doesn’t bode well for the future.
If we hadn’t hired [acting Police] Chief [Marcus] Jones [in 2019], he would have had a great cause of action against his boss. It took far too long, it demonstrated Marc’s difficulty making decisions; it was painfully incompetent. First, [Elrich] went on WAMU and said we need a Black woman to be police chief. You don’t go on the radio and say that, and it’s totally disrespectful to someone who had served honorably for 25 years…Chief Jones should have been treated with much more respect in an organized, thoughtful process. I’ve never heard anyone defend the process by which the county executive selected our current police chief, who’s a terrific guy and a great law enforcement officer.
Both the incumbent county executive and another of your rivals, Councilmember Hans Riemer, have raised questions about the qualifications of another candidate for the Democratic nomination, David Blair, due to Blair’s background as a business executive without experience in government. Do you share these concerns?
[With] a county executive who I think has shown himself to be ineffective in so many of the county’s priorities now, and another choice that’s completely inexperienced, it would be my feeling that…the public is looking for somebody who is both experienced and effective. I wouldn’t think for a minute that I could walk in and run Mr. Blair’s business, and I wouldn’t think that he or anybody else from outside without experience in the county government could walk in and run it.
I spend enough time in and around government to realize it’s very complicated [and] multi-layered, given federal, state and county requirements, and that relationships, experience and know-how matter greatly. That doesn’t mean that everybody who’s experienced is effective, but almost everybody who’s inexperienced is ineffective. Montgomery County has always voted for experienced candidates, and I think particularly after a pandemic, people are looking to make sure [those who] serve in office have proven to be effective.