At a November event celebrating the opening of a new science and engineering building at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Marc Elrich found themselves standing just feet apart.
They ignored each other.
Just days earlier, Elrich and Hogan had engaged in a long-distance war of words after Elrich declined a gift to a local police station—a wood carving of an American flag bisected by a thin blue line. Elrich contended the thin blue line flag had become a “divisive” symbol to many in the community and elsewhere; it has been used by some groups seeking to counter the Black Lives Matter movement that demands accountability for police officer-involved shootings.
Hogan responded with a series of tweets, terming Elrich’s action “disgraceful” and calling on the county executive to “reverse this terrible decision and to apologize to the police and the citizens of Montgomery County.” In turn, Elrich accused the governor of indulging in “dog-whistle politics.”
For Elrich, it was another in a series of acrimonious disputes he’s engaged in since being sworn in a little more than a year ago to run Maryland’s most populous county. At times he has sparred with the state’s Republican governor, but more often he has been at cross-purposes with his fellow Democrats on the county council.
For critics of Elrich, including many in his own party, the disputes have been unnecessary and counterproductive, and a symptom of a larger problem early in his administration: a failure to set clear priorities and get things done.
“I struggle to identify anything where I can say, ‘Wow, there is a clear direction that we’re headed,’ even if I don’t agree with it,” says former Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp, who differed with Elrich on several key issues when they served together on the council.
Elrich spent 12 years on the county council (and, previously, 19 on the Takoma Park City Council) but had no executive experience inside or outside of government. As he now oversees a county government with an annual budget approaching $6 billion, even some Elrich supporters voice concerns—albeit more quietly than the critics—about his difficulties making the transition across Rockville’s East Jefferson Street from the Council Office Building to the county’s Executive Office Building.
Such doubts have been fueled in part by the slow pace in filling leadership positions at the county’s 21 principal departments. Most visible was the messy process of installing a new county police chief, which took more than nine months to resolve. “It’s a question of the priorities versus the urgencies,” says a longtime Elrich supporter, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’s looking at the urgency of handling individual issues at the county level, and he’s not looking at the priority, which is putting a structure in place to handle the urgency. And that’s a classic problem for any organization.”
No stranger to criticism throughout a turbulent public career, Elrich disputes or dismisses most of the complaints aimed at his tenure to date—often shaking his head vigorously in disagreement with the premise of a question. He ticks off a list of areas where he feels his administration has made significant progress, starting with a stepped-up regimen of inspections at rental housing units, a rare point on which he has earned praise from both friends and foes during his first year.
“I feel like in general I got a lot of stuff done that I wanted to get done—or at least got it into motion,” Elrich says. But in a nod to critics he adds, “I think people who wanted more in a couple of areas don’t understand how I wanted to go about doing things.”
The comment is consistent with a frustration that Elrich has voiced frequently in his new role: Amid an earlier career in which he was often best known as a blunt-spoken naysayer, he clearly feels another side of his persona—a diligence and deliberation in seeking alternative solutions—often has been overlooked.
“I don’t tell my staff, ‘Hey, I got this great idea. Go tell me why I’m right,’ ” he explains. “I kind of say, ‘Let’s do some research on it and see what’s the best way to do it.’ I feel you’re a better decision-maker when you focus on ‘Do I know everything I need to know?’ not ‘Can I get something out there and get a press headline?’ ”