The first year
A political gadfly for most of his career, County Executive Marc Elrich’s transition to being the person in charge has not been easy
After winning the June 2018 Democratic primary by a mere 77 votes in a field that included two of his longtime county council colleagues, Elrich—viewed as an outlier throughout his three terms on the council—employed a tactic for which he was not usually known throughout a 30-year career in public office.
He offered an olive branch.
In a meeting, Elrich told councilmembers that he didn’t want to “pick fights” with them. “I told them point blank that…I don’t want to be the county executive who…tries to drive a wedge between the things I’d like to do and what the council wants to do,” he said in September 2018. “I think I take a pretty cooperative view of things.”
A year later, the relationship between Elrich and the council on which he served for more than a decade is contentious. Publicly, the new county executive has been reversed or thwarted on controversial issues ranging from pay raises for county workers—on which Elrich blasted the council’s criticism of his plan at the time as “hyperbolic and fundamentally untrue”—to the design of a new county emergency communications network, on which he was forced to yield under pressure from both the council and Hogan.
Councilmembers have complained about difficulties in obtaining information from the county executive’s office or county departments. Those complaints spilled into public view in June, when then-council President Nancy Navarro sent a memo to Elrich and Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine asking about “how we can strengthen communications between the executive and legislative branches of government.”
Elrich’s most outspoken critics on the council are not surprised at how things have worked out. “Tigers don’t change their stripes,” says Councilmember Hans Riemer. “He’s never been a collaborative person. He was a rogue—he was one against eight,” a reference to Elrich often being on the losing end of 8-1 votes during his years on the council.
Councilmember Craig Rice points to Elrich’s failure to be chosen as president or vice president during his council tenure. “Marc, while he was here, never really communicated with us about a lot of what he did; he would just spring stuff on the council,” Rice says. “Quite honestly, that’s the reason Marc was never elected council president.”
Adds Rice: “It isn’t because Marc wasn’t capable. The challenge is that to be a team leader, you have to believe in team—and if you don’t believe in team, there’s no way you can then be a county executive who has to work with the county council.”
Riemer and Rice, both barred by law from seeking another term on the council, are widely believed to be eyeing runs for county executive in 2022. For his part, Elrich contends that his job has been complicated by a “politicization” of the council in the wake of the 2016 referendum that imposed term limits on councilmembers.
“I didn’t think I’d start out the first year with this incredibly politicized environment, so that’s frustrating,” Elrich says. “When I was a councilmember, I voted for people’s legislation whether or not I agreed with them or whether or not I liked them. I never tried to carry it over to ‘I knew I was running against somebody, so let me see if I can sabotage them.’ I think if people weren’t eyeing the [county executive] job, there’d be more patience.”
The current situation, he adds, “makes it very hard to talk about things” with councilmembers and has meant that there’s “not a lot of interest in knowing as much as sometimes people should know.”
In the view of several councilmembers, the Elrich administration suffered in the early going from a poorly defined liaison structure to deal with the council—a contrast to the highly regarded liaison operation that existed under Ike Leggett, Elrich’s predecessor. Kleine says the Elrich administration is moving to beef up its staffing on this front.
Some of the criticism aimed at Elrich throughout his first year, from both inside and outside the council, has specifically been targeted at Kleine. Many Elrich supporters and critics wonder whether the new county executive, lacking in executive experience, would have been better off hiring a CAO with a broad management record.
Kleine was Baltimore’s budget director for 10 years before being hired by Elrich. “I’ll be honest with you: I did not agree with Marc’s choice of Andrew as the CAO,” says Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, a leading backer of Elrich in 2018. Renne, whose union represents a majority of county government employees, adds: “We did a little due diligence, and he had strained relationships in Baltimore. The other concern that I had was that he had no demonstrated experience—even remotely—in running an institution of this magnitude. But Marc believed strongly that he has the skill sets needed to change the business model.”
In August, Renne—a driving force behind Elrich’s plans to restructure the county government workforce—joined two other union leaders in a letter to the county executive, accusing Kleine of “undermining” the county’s chief labor relations officer, a post created by Elrich. “I think it may have served the purpose, because it got people’s attention,” Renne says of the letter. “I believe the relationship between the unions and the CAO will change for the better.”