2022 | Politics

Q&A with County Executive Marc Elrich

This is the second 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 County Executive Marc Elrich, first elected in 2018 after 12 years on the county council.

Tuesday: David Blair

Wednesday: Marc Elrich

Thursday: Tom Hucker

Friday: Hans Riemer

Many were surprised last summer when Councilmember Tom Hucker said he was eyeing a run for executive. Are you concerned about the two of you splitting the progressive wing of the party—to the advantage of a candidate less to the liking of progressive voters?

I think the potential’s there. I don’t think he’s going to win, but I think any votes he takes away makes it easier for somebody else. It’s frustrating, because he and I had talked about the future, and I think there’s a much better path going forward for him than this. If I didn’t run again [in 2026] he’d be an incumbent [councilmember] in four years…I was surprised, but we do have very different bases.

The widespread perception in political circles is that you’re both outspoken progressives who share a similar base. What do you see as your major differences?

His views on development and developers are pretty different than mine; he does a lot of special interest legislation, and people know that. He’s not publicly financed; he wasn’t in [2018] when he ran for his district seat. Look at his contributors. [Editor’s note: In 2018 and this year, Elrich has participated in the county’s public campaign finance program—which places strict limits on the sources and amounts of private contributions.]

And he’s not really been a champion of what you would consider neighborhood issues, community issues. Did you see him do much on [5G] cell towers, even though he made all this noise about them when we were both on the council? His approach to affordable housing is more of the same, which has not produced much affordable housing.

The pace at which affordable housing is being built is an issue on which you have received criticism from all of your challengers — Councilmember Hans Riemer and businessman David Blair as well as Tom Hucker, who contended in a recent interview: “Marc doesn’t believe there’s a housing crisisand he said that.”

I never said there’s not a housing crisis…I spent 12 years on the council. I was the no vote on a lot of stuff. That stuff was sold on “if only we could get this [building] density here, if only we could get this density there, the jobs are going to come, Montgomery County is going to move forward—and we’re going to get affordable housing.” And here we are 14 years later, and the jobs never came. They don’t know what they’re doing—because they’re not focused on actually analyzing what the problem is.

When you refer to “they,” are you talking about the county council?

Hans and some of the other council members, the head of the Planning Board [Casey Anderson] and others whose narrative is basically: “You shouldn’t muck around with requiring people to do things: The market will fix this problem.” [But] the market didn’t bring us jobs, all the density in Bethesda didn’t bring us jobs; it looks like it’s going to bring us more expensive housing.

Their prescription is basically to bleed the middle class in Montgomery County, and give money to the developers, and then hope by some miracle that we get affordable housing and a more vibrant community…The problem is that you’ve got developers who themselves have said they can’t get the rents they want for the apartments they want to build. There’s plenty of demand for low-income and affordable housing, [but] they won’t build them. It isn’t me—this is what’s happening in the market. The market’s not producing any housing below market rate.

As the incumbent, you are widely regarded as the frontrunner in this year’s racebut you won the nomination four years with just 29% of the vote in a six-person field. What steps have you taken during your first term to try to expand your base of support?

One thing we’ve tried to do is to deal with some of the issues in the business community. [District 3 Councilmember] Sidney [Katz] and I kept our promise that we made during the minimum wage debate [in 2017] that if I were to win, we would do a review of our business practices. We’ve done a lot of reforms in contracting, and how the Department of Permitting operates. The procurement reforms have meant more business in Montgomery County. We’ve hit record levels of minority contracting. The preference for local businesses is a big deal, because we’re willing to pay a little bit more and we’re willing to give more points to local businesses.  In my mind, this is a no-brainer, because the money stays in the county—then I get to tax it.

We are much more engaged to make sure…that people pursuing projects get the kind of guidance and help they need to ensure they’re not tied up forever. The feedback I’ve gotten from folks who have gone through it is that they really were surprised—given our reputation—with how easy it was to deal with people [in government] here.

Another promise you made in 2018—where you’ve faced criticism for slow progress— involves restructuring of county government to reduce positions and free up funds for other purposes. You’ve pointed to COVID as slowing progress. Have there been other impediments?

It’s been frustrating dealing with the restructuring. It’s not widely embraced by upper management. We’ve really tried to encourage employee participation, and employees sharing ideas about how things could be done and should be done—which is also not necessarily embraced at all levels of management.

One of the problems in the county [government] structurally is that if you’re the executive, the number of people that you actually hire and fire, who are at-will employees, numbers maybe a little over 40. [D.C. Mayor] Muriel Bowser has over 200. She and I had a conversation, and I said, “So, how many of these people did you appoint?” And she said: “I didn’t have to appoint very many. Everybody knows my objectives, and if you’re not working on them, you’re an at-will employee—and I can find somebody else.” [Editor’s note: Bowser’s office did not immediately respond this week to a request for comment on Elrich’s characterization of their conversation.]

Here [in Montgomery County], you have what one of my staff referred to as the “We Bes”: “We be here before you got here, and we be here after you’re gone.”

I didn’t appoint a bunch of friends to things when I came in. I looked for people I thought had talent, whether [they were] in the county or outside the county. And I would continue to do that, but I’d like more latitude. I don’t think every employee should be at will [as opposed to career merit system]. But I do think the executive has the right to make sure that the people who are in the position of executing things are actually going to execute them. How do you perform your job as an executive if you have built-in structures that just flat-out impede your ability to change stuff?

Speaking of at-will employees…Your first appointment as the county’s chief administrative officer, Andrew Kleine, resigned in 2020 amid ethics-related issues, and you replaced him with Rich Madaleno, a former state legislator and your first chief budget officer. Members of the county council seem to feel it was a change for the better.

I think so too. I think Andrew was a little too focused on process, and Rich has focused on doing stuff. The process work was important, but…sometimes the process gets in the way of doing things. And I think Rich was able to move things more quickly toward what I thought we needed to do. So, I think it’s been an advantage.

You’re a former elementary school teacher. At report card time, you undoubtedly had to deal with the category of “needs to improve.” Looking back, what aspect of your first term would you place in this category?

That we always communicated things as clearly as we needed to. That’s certainly something we could have done better. I’m not much of a publicity hound, as people may have noticed. I think when I was on the council, I might have gone 12 years with less than a dozen press releases. And so I probably haven’t put enough emphasis [on that], because all the time when I talk to people, they’ll say, “Well, what have you done?” It’s a problem that we did not deploy public relations in a way…to get the story out better.

Has this been an internal as well as external issue, given persistent complaints from county council members about limited communication from your office? 

[It’s] internal relations with the council to some extent. But when you’ve got people who are running against you from the day you got elected—like Hans—and then people who generally didn’t support you… I’ve had to work with a more overtly oppositional council.

But [former County Executive] Ike [Leggett] had the same problem—if you go back through Ike’s tenure, and how many times council members would go after him personally when he wasn’t there.  [There was also former County Executive Doug] Duncan’s relationship with the council, the fiery nature of some of the stuff that went on. This is not news; it’s a continuation of a pattern. Term limits makes it worse, because people run out of places to go.