For much of Marc Elrich’s first term as Montgomery County executive, voter attention has been focused on governmental efforts to protect their health and finances during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Will COVID-19 remain the focus of voters come June’s primary election, or will their attention turn to long-range needs such as jobs, affordable housing and improved transportation?
The answer to that and other key questions could determine whether Elrich is nominated for a second term in a jurisdiction where success in the Democratic primary has become tantamount to election in November, given the Democrats’ nearly 4-1 edge in registered voters.
Among the other questions:
- How will Elrich and the three other white men starring in the Democratic primary for executive—businessman David Blair and county councilmembers Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer—position themselves to represent a liberal jurisdiction in which a solid majority of residents are people of color? And will a Democratic primary electorate that has remained disproportionately white begin to more closely resemble the county’s changing demographics?
- In a contest that’s fundamentally a referendum on Elrich, will his longtime base among progressive voters and his ties to county unions provide enough reinforcement in the face of attacks over his vision and effectiveness?
- Will Hucker’s surprise entry into the contest, combined with his progressive credentials, split the left side of the party, providing opportunities for Blair and Riemer, with their appeals to more centrist Democrats?
Four years ago, to the dismay of many in the local political and business establishment, Elrich, then a county councilmember, emerged as the winner of a six-way primary by the narrowest of margins. This year, rivals as well as allies consider him the early front-runner.
At 72, Elrich has been a presence in county elections—and often a lightning rod—for more than three decades. He’s a policy wonk with a soft voice who has nonetheless been blunt in taking on local development interests. He was an outlier during 12 years on the council but found success on issues ranging from early advocacy of a bus rapid transit system to sponsorship of the law raising the hourly minimum wage to $15.
Related story: Q&A with County Executive Marc Elrich
The issue that has dominated Elrich’s first term—COVID-19—has yielded high approval ratings for him in recent private polling. The county boasts vaccination rates among the highest nationally for large jurisdictions, and it has implemented strict policies to stem the virus’s spread.
That has hardly discouraged this year’s major Democratic challengers, whose criticism of the incumbent on substance and style presages a reprise of the negative tenor of the 2018 race, when two so-called independent expenditure campaigns underwrote attack ads: one in an effort to elect Elrich, the other in a bid to defeat him. (Such campaigns can’t be coordinated by or with candidates and are typically financed by corporations, unions or political action committees.)
Blair, the target of one of those efforts four years ago, is making another run after finishing just 77 votes behind Elrich in the 2018 primary—when he poured $5.4 million of his personal assets into his first bid for elected office, a campaign that emphasized economic development. The 52-year-old Potomac resident was CEO of Catalyst Health Solutions Inc. until he sold it in 2012. He appears more at ease as a candidate this time, following an intervening period in which he founded a local advocacy and research group and supported a multibillion-dollar education reform package that cleared the General Assembly in 2021.
Related story: Q&A with county executive candidate David Blair
Elrich also will be confronted on the ballot by two former council colleagues. Riemer, 49, is a fellow Takoma Park resident with whom Elrich has had a strained political and personal relationship dating back to when they briefly went head-to-head for a council seat in 2006. The affable Riemer is in the final year of his three-term limit on the council, where he was president in 2018. Riemer and Elrich have been at odds over Riemer’s support of high-profile initiatives ranging from the construction of accessory dwelling units (so-called “in-law suites”) to the placement of 5G towers in neighborhoods and the opening of a portion of the county’s Agricultural Reserve to solar panel arrays.
Hucker, meanwhile, is a longtime Elrich friend who has fallen out with his former colleague over management of the county during Elrich’s first term. A 54-year-old Silver Spring resident with an intense demeanor, Hucker founded Progressive Maryland, an advocacy group, before winning two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. He’s in his second term on the council, where he was president in 2021.
Related story: Q&A with county executive candidate Tom Hucker
Challengers’ prospects may rise or fall on an ability to change the subject from COVID to issues where they contend Elrich is vulnerable, ranging from economic development to climate change.
“I’m talking to voters at my house parties, and what I’m finding is almost an electric interest in talking about the economic future of the county,” Riemer says. “They’re concerned about where we’re going to be in 10 years.”
But former Councilmember Steve Silverman, once a county executive candidate himself, is less optimistic than Riemer that economic development will capture voter attention.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic is still with us, as is the need for more vaccinations, more testing, more rental assistance, more food banks,” says Silverman, a lobbyist with close ties to Empower Montgomery, which was behind the independent expenditure effort targeting Elrich in the general election four years ago. “And those issues continue to crowd out a lingering problem—which is a lack of new businesses in the county, and the jobs they produce.”
In the aftermath of his narrow loss in 2018, Blair says it “probably took me more than three full months before I slept all the way through the night,” as he contemplated what he could have done differently. He began discussing a second run for executive in late 2019, and by 2020 “it became pretty clear to me that I wanted to run again,” Blair says. “I think watching the continued deterioration of the county led me to that.
“The stats are shocking that we have less businesses here in Montgomery County than we did 10 years ago, and that we have less private sector jobs,” Blair says.
Riemer has made little secret throughout his final term of his interest in taking on the incumbent.
Related story: Q&A with county executive candidate Hans Riemer
Growing up in Oakland, California, he says, “the primacy of economic development, the importance to families and communities of having good jobs, has been something to me of overriding importance. So, coming to Montgomery County, I was sort of bewildered to see local elected officials and a local politics where the primary mission seemed to be to get in the way of economic development.”
He regularly invokes the epithet “NIMBY,” echoing criticism aimed at Elrich throughout his career for being in the corner of those with a “not in my backyard” attitude toward economic development and housing growth. Riemer gibes that “there is one piece of property in Montgomery County that [Elrich] can support development on without pissing off his NIMBY supporters”: the Metro-owned parcel in White Flint that Elrich hopes will become a hub for life sciences firms.
In turn, Elrich accuses Riemer of pursuing a strategy that is “very Koch Brothers, Reaganesque—like, let the private sector solve everything. …He never met a developer he didn’t like.” Elrich levels similar salvos at Blair, contending he “had his hands all over” a report Empower Montgomery released in June, triggering an opening volley in the 2022 executive race.
The report found that over 12 years ending in 2019, the county lost more than 14,000 jobs in “key industry sectors” to other jurisdictions in the region, notably in Virginia, and proposed a $275 million incentive fund for companies to locate or expand in Montgomery. Blair, who says a 2017 listing of him as a co-founder of Empower Montgomery overstated his role in that organization, insists he had nothing to do with the report. Both he and Riemer, as announced candidates at the time of its release, praised its findings.
Elrich dismissed the report as “a piece of garbage” and, in a subsequent interview, complains: “I hear about Virginia all the time. But there’s no examination of why we lose—it’s just like, ‘You should give away more money.’ …This has been the most frustrating part of dealing with some people on the [county] council and in the business community in general.”
At the same time, Elrich boasts of streamlining processes in areas such as contracting and procurement, while working with individual developers to remove bureaucratic logjams.
Like the other challengers, Hucker has been critical of Elrich on economic development. He and Riemer blast what they say is the incumbent’s undercutting of the Viva White Oak commercial-residential project near the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s campus in the county’s eastern section.
Elrich contends the developer, Jonathan Genn of Percontee Inc., has “got all these acres over there, and he hasn’t done a damn thing in a decade.” In a recent statement to Bethesda Beat, Genn responded to Elrich’s criticism by saying, “Perhaps it would be best if we just agree to disagree; and let what actually happens at Viva White Oak, in both the near term and the long term … be the best evidence of whose perspectives turn out to be most accurate.”
If Blair and Riemer were long seen as likely challengers to Elrich, Hucker’s July 2021 announcement that he was exploring a run came as a surprise to political insiders. (He confirmed in November that he was indeed planning to run.)
Generally, Hucker seems to be taking aim less at Elrich’s policies than what he sees as an inability to produce results.
“Marc and I agree on certainly many issues,” Hucker says. “[But] as a friend and longtime supporter of Marc’s who defended him to so many people four years ago—and said that he would be open-minded and transparent, and would bring in the best people—none of those things have come to pass.
“…I don’t think things are going to get better unless the county changes direction. …There’s a lot of disorganization, there’s a lot of confusion, there’s no accountability—and there’s a lot of mismanagement.”
Over nearly three hours of interviews, the incumbent is alternately dismissive and defiant toward criticisms, asserting, “We’ve put together, I think, some major advances here.”
“It’s so easy to talk,” Elrich says. “It comes from being able to say, ‘You should do this and this and this,’ with no knowledge of how you actually make something work.” His soft voice rising, he says, “It comes particularly from Tom, who doesn’t have to run anything.”
While Elrich and Hucker are widely seen as sharing a base among progressives and labor, Hucker dismisses suggestions that they could split that base—to the benefit of another candidate. But supporters of both men worry.
“I have personally told Tom there is that risk,” says Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, the union that represents most county government employees and has long backed Elrich and Hucker. “It makes it difficult for the union when two allies square off.”
As county council members received their weekly COVID briefing at the height of the pandemic in August 2020, new data confirmed the worst fears of Gabe Albornoz and Nancy Navarro, the council’s Latino members: Over a four-week period, more than 78% of the county’s positive test cases were among the Hispanic community—which accounts for only one-fifth of the county’s population.
“That was a shocking number. It just jumped off the screen,” Albornoz recalls. “Since the very beginning of the pandemic, we had been talking about the need for multicultural outreach, bilingual operators, health promoters in Spanish—and we kept being told, ‘It’s in the works.’ … But there was not nearly enough action.”
Albornoz and Navarro met the next day with officials of the county’s Latino Health Initiative, and a program to deal with the situation—Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar (For Our Health and Well-Being)—was quickly formulated. The result was clear: When shots became available, the vaccination rate among Latino residents often surpassed that of the county’s overall population.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated Elrich’s first term, the amount of credit he deserves for what has been widely regarded as a success story has emerged as a point of contention.
“Overall on the county’s response to COVID, the proof is in the pudding with our high vaccination rates and what we’ve been able to work out,” Albornoz says. “[But] there were numerous instances that were difficult and painful and didn’t have to be.”
Hucker is more pointed. “The outstanding Montgomery County response to COVID has been in many ways despite Marc and his approach, and not because of it,” he says. “It was the members of the council who had to step in and close the racial equity gap.”
Elrich lauds the efforts of Albornoz and Navarro, but challenges Hucker’s characterization, declaring: “I made the changes in the structure in the county government, I made the changes in saying we’re going to put our money into these efforts, I made the decision to reduce…the traditional government role and extend more of the community involvement in all this. The council didn’t order anything.”
Riemer and Hucker suggest that the comparatively late arrival of a mass vaccination site in Montgomery County hurt residents of color. “Most people in this county had to leave this county to get vaccinated through much of the pandemic,” Riemer says. “That was devastating.” Despite being the state’s most populous county, Montgomery was the 12th of 13 mass vaccination centers set up around Maryland; the site at Montgomery College in Germantown opened months after some other locations.
“…We didn’t get our fair share of vaccines, and some people would say that’s due to Marc’s toxic relationship with the governor,” Hucker says. Elrich downplays the fallout from his feuding with Gov. Larry Hogan and attributes the late opening of the Germantown site to the county’s high vaccination rates.
Multiple sources, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss private conversations with the governor’s office, say Elrich’s office largely remained on the sidelines in efforts to procure a mass vaccination site, with members of the county’s legislative delegation conducting the ultimately successful lobbying effort. It received a quiet boost from former County Executive Ike Leggett.
The debate over the county’s pandemic response—particularly as it has affected communities of color—comes as census figures released last summer show 20.5% of Montgomery’s population is now Latino, with Black people accounting for more than 18% and those of Asian ancestry at more than 15%.
Quiet efforts to recruit a county executive candidate from among the four current council members who are Black or Latino were unavailing. “Not having any people of color or women in the race for executive—I think that’s a problem. It’s not representative of who we are,” says Councilmember Will Jawando, who is African American and has decided to run for reelection to his at-large seat.
Jawando and Albornoz, another at-large member seeking reelection, are seen in political circles as potential future candidates for the executive post. But this year the Democratic field is five white men (including longshot Devin Battley; see sidebar, page 147) reaching out to the county’s large electorate of people of color.
Elrich can highlight the appointment of Black people to numerous positions in his administration. Hucker chose Kaldi’s Social House, a Black- and immigrant-owned business in downtown Silver Spring, to announce his exploratory campaign last summer—with a diverse array of testimonials. Speakers included Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville, who is Indian American and a senior member of the county’s legislative delegation; Navarro, the county’s longest serving Hispanic officeholder and now a candidate for lieutenant governor; and state Sen. Will Smith of Silver Spring, who is Black and a rising power in Annapolis.
Hucker and Riemer have pushed legislation on police reform, an issue of particular concern to communities of color. A Hucker bill approved in November seeks to boost police accountability with random reviews of body camera footage; a 2019 law sponsored by Riemer created a Policing Advisory Commission designed to bring community leaders together with police and union officials.
In 2019, Blair personally financed the creation of the Council for Advocacy and Policy Solutions, billed as a combination of a local think tank and an advocacy group. Among its numerous minority-related initiatives: a “Rise and Run” program to help Black leaders prepare to run for office, and an entrepreneurship lab at The Universities at Shady Grove.
“A third of our residents were born outside the United States,” Blair says of the county population. “It’s entrepreneurial in and of itself just learning a new language, culture, systems.”
Navarro says of Latino support in this year’s county election: “I think it’s still wide open.” Navarro, who encouraged Hucker to run for executive, adds: “This is a community that is definitely maturing quite a bit when it comes to civic participation. …It’s not a monolith, and they’re going to be very curious about who understands the nuances and needs of this community.”
It’s Silverman’s observation, however, that Democratic primary voters remain “overwhelmingly old and white, and that, I believe, is where the ultimate focus is” among the primary electorate’s policy priorities.
While on the all-Democratic council, Elrich’s relationships with his colleagues were often strained. He was never elected president and was often on the losing end of 8-1 votes.
Today, his relationship with the council is perhaps even more tenuous. Over the past 15 months, it has overwhelmingly overridden three Elrich vetoes.
Elrich says he faces a “more overtly oppositional council” than previous executives did, pointing to council members’ term limits as a reason some are “running against you since the day you got elected.” Still, he likens tensions with the council to those faced by his predecessors as county executive, such as Leggett.
But Navarro, who joined the council during Leggett’s first term, feels relations have worsened. “Even when I had disagreements with the Leggett administration, at least I knew I could rely on a solid response, a timely response,” she says.
Hucker recounts weekly meetings with Elrich during his tenure as vice president and then president of the council, saying, “In general, …Marc likes to have an endless freewheeling debate, about every possible issue, but is uncomfortable with deadlines and is uncomfortable with decisions.”
“I’ve always been thoughtful,” Elrich responds. “… In terms of laying stuff out on the table, I’m not laying stuff out there until I understand whether it’s going to work and what the consequences are going to be.”
He cites police reform as a key issue to emerge since the 2018 election. While Hucker charges that there’s been “next to nothing—a commission” from Elrich, the incumbent says that “the council has legislated willy-nilly on police reform.”
He says the commission he created has brought in an outside group of experts, including former officers. Recommendations are expected early in 2022.
Elrich also has faced complaints for slowness in delivering on a 2018 campaign promise to restructure the government—and find cost savings. Elrich blames part of the delay on COVID, but also points at some senior civil servants within the executive branch. “It’s been frustrating dealing with restructuring,” he says. “It’s not widely embraced by upper management.”
In a swipe at Hucker and Riemer—both political organizers before running for office—Elrich says, “I have more of a management background than anybody but David Blair. I’ve worked in business and actually had to run things.” He cites experience as a manager at the Montgomery Ward retail chain and the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-Op early in his career.
At $5.7 million, Blair’s campaign spending in the 2018 primary more than doubled the previous record in a county executive race. That included $5.4 million in contributions and loans that he underwrote. Financial disclosure forms filed that year showed Blair with personal investments exceeding $50 million.
Blair’s campaign budget was nearly six times what was spent by Elrich, who opted for the county’s public campaign finance system. In exchange for access to government funds, the public system places strict limits on the size and sources of donations a candidate can accept.
“I can’t imagine we’ll spend that much money this time,” Blair says.
Hucker is expected to reach a decision on whether to utilize public or private funding after annual campaign finance disclosure reports are filed in January. Hucker has not ruled out initially relying on private financing and later switching to public funding.
Elrich is again tapping into public funding, as is Riemer, whose criticism of Blair’s background goes beyond limited governmental experience.
“David Blair, first of all, is a former Republican,” Riemer says. “He has spent probably more of his life as a Republican than a Democrat, so that’s a real concern.”
Actually, Blair switched his registration to Democratic in 2003, according to state Board of Elections records, following about 15 years as a Republican. After growing up in “the Ronald Reagan era,” knowing little about politics, Blair says, he eventually switched his registration because “I found myself consistently voting for Democratic candidates, and my positions aligned with the Democrats.”
Blair’s past political affiliation was highlighted four years ago in an independent expenditure campaign by Progressive Maryland, which endorsed Elrich in 2018.
That effort also pointed to a $15 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Catalyst Health Solutions, alleging fraud in the marketing of catastrophic insurance policies. The suit was settled in 2017 with no admission of wrongdoing, five years after Blair left the company, although it covers activity while Blair was CEO.
Riemer terms the suit “very relevant” to this year’s campaign, charging that Blair’s firm “sold a phony insurance product.” Blair, noting that the lawsuit was filed a year after his departure, bristles at the allegations: “I don’t remember the specifics, but here’s what I do know—we were one of Fortune magazine’s most admired health care companies. … I am so proud of what we built here in Rockville, Maryland. We created thousands upon thousands of jobs.”
Riemer’s attacks reflect a belief that the jockeying between Elrich and Hucker for the party’s hard-core progressive base leaves him and Blair in competition for the remaining Democratic electorate. “The important thing to understand about this race is that David Blair is not very strong,” Riemer says. “A lot of his supporters in 2018 were people who really didn’t like Marc.”
Riemer’s stance on labor issues diverges from the views of Elrich and Hucker. He has opposed generous union contracts and advocated a vaccine mandate for county employees this past fall.
Union leaders accused Riemer of a conflict of interest because his wife is a Washington-based lobbyist for Pfizer, which manufactures one of the COVID vaccines. Riemer quickly produced an opinion from the county’s ethics commission saying there was no conflict.
On the county council, Riemer has sought to straddle constituencies. “He’s trying to say, ‘I’m the business-friendly guy and I’m also the progressive,’ ” says one veteran of county politics who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. “That’s one of those, ‘How do you get endorsements from either The Post or the teachers?’ I think that’s a problem.”
It’s a reference to The Washington Post and the Montgomery County Education Association’s “Apple Ballot,” both of which have been influential endorsements in county elections. The Post backed Blair four years ago, while Elrich captured the MCEA endorsement. Earning either endorsement could be key to another candidate gaining traction this year.
For his part, Blair—running in the primary of a party that has been moving leftward in Maryland and nationally—is seeking to avoid the “business candidate” label. Rather, he appears to be positioning himself as the outsider, and his opponents as part of a failing establishment.
“I would broadly describe it as two lanes, in which one lane is the status quo—which is a county that is losing jobs, struggling to pay for our basic services, watching our schools deteriorate; and there are three choices for that lane,” he says. “The lane that I’m running in is about action, it’s about…actually creating jobs, building businesses.”
Blair’s background—“I am the only candidate running that has a career’s worth of experience as an executive”—could cut both ways politically. Blair notes that he “ran a business with a similar size budget” to Montgomery County’s (Catalyst had annual revenues of $6 billion when Blair sold it). But his rivals have signaled that Blair’s lack of governmental experience remains fair game.
“You’ve got to know how the county works…you’ve got to know how to work with the council,” Riemer says. “And David Blair doesn’t know any of them.”
Blair seems ready for such criticism. “For decades, I’ve been involved in nonprofit communities, civic advocacy—I was even on Ike Leggett’s [economic advisory] committee,” he says. “I have a good handle on the county’s needs.”
Riemer has previously appeared on the countywide ballot three times. Hucker has never run countywide. His prospects may hinge on whether the county government unions shift their support—and the get-out-the-vote efforts that accompany it—from Elrich to Hucker.
At present, that appears unlikely. “Our endorsements…are not rubber stamps of decisions we’ve made in the past,” says MCGEO’s Renne. “However, in a race as sensitive as the executive, given the relationship we have with the [current] executive—he’s been a good partner—he certainly has an edge over other competitors.”
Meet the candidates
Age: 52; born Aug. 20, 1969, Silver Spring
Home: Potomac; married, six children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Clemson University, 1991
Professional background: health care industry (executive chair, Accountable Health Inc., 2013-2017; CEO, Catalyst Health Solutions Inc., 1999-2012); minority partner, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards, 2013-present; founder and chair of the board, Council for Advocacy and Policy Solutions, 2019-present
Political experience: ran for Montgomery County executive, 2018; co-chair, Vote No on [Ballot Questions] B & D, 2020
Age: 49; born Sept. 5, 1972, Oakland, California
Home: Takoma Park; married, two children
Education: bachelor’s degree, University of California Santa Cruz, 1995
Professional background: policy associate, Save Our Security Coalition, 1995-1996; founder and director, 2030 Center (public policy organization for young people), 1996-2001; senior policy analyst, Campaign for America’s Future, 2001-2003; political director, Rock the Vote, 2003-2007; national youth vote director, Obama for America, 2007-2008; senior adviser, AARP, 2008-2010
Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2010-present (chair, Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, 2018-present; council president, 2018; council vice president, 2017); ran for county council, 2006 (District 5)
Age: 54; born April 9, 1967, St. Louis, Missouri
Home: Silver Spring; married, two children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Boston College, 1988
Professional background: regional campaign director, U.S. Public Interest Research Group/Environment America, 1990-1995; director, Progressive Montgomery, 1998-2001; founder and executive director, Progressive Maryland, 2001-2006; consultant, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2009-2011; consultant, Natural Resources Defense Council, 2013-present
Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2014-present (chair, Transportation and Environment Committee, 2018-present; council president, 2021; council vice president, 2020); member, House of Delegates, Maryland General Assembly, 2007-2014
Age: 72; born Nov. 2, 1949, Washington, D.C.
Home: Takoma Park; divorced, four children
Education: bachelor’s degree, University of Maryland, 1975; master’s degree, Johns Hopkins University, 1993
Professional background: teacher (Rolling Terrace Elementary School, Takoma Park, 1990-2006); retail store manager (Montgomery Ward, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op)
Political experience: Montgomery County executive, 2018-present; member, Montgomery County Council, 2006-2018; member, Takoma Park City Council, 1987-2006; ran for county council at-large, 1994 and 2002, and in District 5, 1990 and 1998
Louis Peck has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level for four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.