2019 | Politics

Where Are They Now?

One year after a bruising primary for county executive, Democrats who fell short forge new paths

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Top row, from left: Bill Frick and George Leventhal. Bottom row, from left: David Blair and Roger Berliner.

Photos by Liz Lynch for Bethesda Magazine

One year has passed since voters picked Marc Elrich from a record six-candidate Democratic primary field for county executive in one of the closest political contests in Montgomery history.

The candidates spent more than $5 million on the race and Elrich won a squeaker. After a 20-day wait for certification of the 134,000-plus ballots cast, Elrich beat political newcomer David Blair by 77 votes and went on to victory in the November general election.

The election also was notable on two other fronts: It was the first under a public financing system that provides up to $750,000 in public matching funds if candidates accept smaller individual donations and agree not to take money from PACs. And a Democratic council member, Nancy Floreen, switched parties to run as an unaffiliated candidate in the general election, a move that drew criticism from some who said the maneuver detracted from Blair’s momentum.

All of the Democrats have moved on – to other jobs or volunteering – and only Blair remains active in the county’s political scene. The Potomac businessman started a public policy think tank last month that is focused on bringing more teachers of color into classrooms and forming business partnerships with area universities.

Blair, who poured $3 million into his campaign, has also joined several boards, including the board of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America and the Universities at Shady Grove’s Board of Advisors.

In an interview last month, Blair said he is working with the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce on incubator programs aimed at employing students, as well as a telemedicine program, which he said was set to launch last week.

Blair said the county’s economic development strategy should focus on building talent from within the county, as opposed to courting outside companies from cities with a reputation for an entrepreneurship culture.

“We need to create a culture of entrepreneurship that we’re lacking. We’re not just trying to recruit firms from Silicon Valley [California] and Boston. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to get companies to move to Montgomery County,” said Blair, who worked for more than 20 years in the health care services industry.

Blair said economic development was one of the key areas where he and Elrich differed during the campaign, and that the county needs to invest in its small businesses. But he didn’t want to criticize Elrich too harshly.

“He’s [Elrich] been in office for seven months, and so I think it’s a little early to tell how he’s doing. Marc and I have different visions for how to move Montgomery forward,” Blair said.

Blair praised Elrich for his initiative to expand early childhood education in the county.

Asked whether he planned to re-enter politics, Blair said he wasn’t sure, but isn’t ruling it out. He said the campaign was “one of the most rewarding experiences he had professionally” and made relationships that “will last a lifetime.” But as a first-time candidate, he said he might have “overdone it” physically.

“You’re on seven days a week, and then on the weekend you double it up. You struggle to find time to exhale,” he said.

Asked if he would have done anything differently during the campaign, Blair said he wished he had been more critical of the County Council in their approach to planning infrastructure and wishes he had had a more aggressive media strategy.

“I could have leveraged The Washington Post endorsement better, and responded better to attacks,” he said. “I think I needed to come out of the gate stronger than I did. Once I got into the race, I felt I could build up momentum, and it allowed other individuals stronger.”

Outgoing Democratic County Executive Isiah Leggett declined to endorse a candidate during the primary but backed Elrich in the general election, along with the majority of other state and county Democrats.

Of the other candidates, former County Council member George Leventhal is director of community health for Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland at the managed health care association Kaiser Permanente.

Leventhal said he has enjoyed being out of public life, especially since he doesn’t have to work on the weekends and can spend more time with his children, who are 24 and 20.

“There’s a lot of sacrifices involved [in politics]. The family makes a lot of sacrifices,” he said in an interview.

Leventhal finished 24,000 votes behind Elrich for fifth place. He also said because his office is in Prince George’s County, he feels “less confined to one county” as he did on the council. In his current job, Leventhal said he is continuing to work on issues he tackled while on the council such as access to healthcare for the uninsured, affordable housing and food insecurity.

One project Leventhal has been involved in is a partnership with community development specialists, developers and local governments to prevent gentrification and residential displacement along the Purple Line, a light rail system that will connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties by early 2023.

Another former council member, Roger Berliner, said since leaving the council to become a part-time consultant to local governments in the region, he has had more work-life balance.

Berliner advises governments and the private sector in areas such as management consulting, communications strategies, civic engagement and building public-private partnerships.

“I was enlivened by my 12 years on the council, and I will say in this moment it feels like something out of that ‘Star Wars’ line “in a galaxy far, far away,” he said last month.

Fourth-place finisher Berliner, who fell 20,000 votes short, said he “would have been honored to have lead the county,” but that life in politics takes its toll.

“Even as I was running, the lifestyle was not something I was looking forward to. And not having to make that sacrifice has been a blessing,” he said.

A former state delegate, Bill Frick finished in last place in the primary joined a legislative and policy law firm in Washington in January. He said he is enjoying practicing law and spending more time with his family, but prefers not to think about the election, particularly because it coincided with a personal tragedy.

“Two-thousand eighteen was a very challenging year, given the destruction of our house in the March wind storm and an election that did not go as I had hoped.  But I am happy to report we are building a new home, I am building a promising new law practice, and enjoy getting to spend nights and weekends with my family for the first time in a decade,” he wrote in an email.

Third place finisher Rose Krasnow, who was 17,000 votes short, decided after the election that it was time for a “fresh start,” and moved with her husband last month to a residential community just south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Krasnow, a former Rockville mayor, picked the location because and her children both attended the University of North Carolina, and she has a personal affection for the place.

“We’ve made the trip many, many times, and I had long said before I ran for office that we would move to Chapel Hill,” she said in an interview.

Krasnow said the move isn’t exactly retirement, as she plans to continue to remain active in national political organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Compassion & Choices — an organization that advocates for the right of terminally-ill patients to end their own lives under certain conditions. She also believes her vote will carry more weight in North Carolina, which has come to be viewed as a swing state during presidential elections.

“I strongly believe that my Democratic vote will count a lot more down here, which is exciting,” she said.

When asked about the performance of Elrich, Frick, Leventhal and Berliner all declined to comment.

Floreen, who is now volunteering with social justice groups, said she is “trying to stay out of the fray.”

Nancy Floreen

“I’m trying to not follow what’s going on, but it’s always a challenge, because my friends are very engaged. It’s interesting seeing it all seeing it from a distance,” she said.

Floreen said she misses some aspects of policymaking from her 16 years on the council, but she is happy to have more free time and does not plan to re-enter politics.

“I actually have time for my family. I’m home in the evenings and on weekends. That’s where the biggest loss is for people in public service. Your life gets shoved aside,” she said.

Floreen said many of Elrich’s proposals, such as 9% raises for some union employees are “so Marc.”

“It’s exactly as predicted. Marc has always been consistent, and that’s what he’s doing,” she said.

Krasnow said Elrich needs time to “find his way” but that she is “surprised he hasn’t been more assertive to put the county in a better financial position.”

Krasnow also said Elrich needs to do more in the areas of school crowding and racial equity.

“I think that our school system, which we’ve always touted, is in a dangerous place, and I’m waiting for him to do something constructive. I know he’s concerned about racial equity, and that’s important, but it can’t be just talk,” she said.

Elrich faced Floreen and the Republican candidate, Robin Ficker, in November’s general election.

Ficker, who was unopposed in his party’s primary, said he is not pleased with Elrich’s performance mainly because he has not landed any new businesses.

“If they’re not bringing in businesses, the only source of revenue will be a tax increase,” he said.

Although Elrich avoided raising taxes this year, Ficker still said the county executive did residents no favors by dipping into the health benefits trust fund to help make up a revenue shortfall.

Ficker also criticized Elrich, who he said is a “nice person,” for not supporting Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen Interstate 270 and the Beltway.

“He’s fighting the plans to increase the capacity of our two major highways. Companies don’t locate because of the gridlock. People don’t want to be on a bus, they want freedom. They want the freedom to go anywhere the car will take them,” he said.

Robin Ficker

Ficker, who is also an attorney, sponsored a term limits referendum that voters passed in 2016, which limited the county executive and County Council members to three, four-year terms.

The Republican has said he will not run for office again, but is working on another referendum placed on the 2020 ballot that would prevent the council from raising property taxes above the rate of inflation.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdmagazine.com