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
In early June, Hogan convened a meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works to advance his plan to widen both the Beltway and I-270 through a public-private partnership. After hearing from state transportation officials, the governor called upon opponents of the plan—with Elrich the first to speak. Their exchange quickly became nasty.
“First of all, Montgomery County was never consulted,” Elrich began.
“That’s not true,” Hogan interjected.
“It is true,” Elrich replied. “We were not part of this process. You did a press conference…before you talked to anybody.”
Hogan cited a 2017 news conference announcing the plan, attended by Leggett, Elrich’s predecessor. “Ike Leggett was there and a part of the discussion. I didn’t know who you were at the time,” Hogan pointedly told Elrich.
Elrich persisted. “It’s not true that you worked with us,” he told Hogan. “There’s a difference between talking with people and working with people.”
In between the Board of Public Works confrontation and the verbal warfare over the “thin blue line” flag five months later was the controversy over the county’s emergency communications system. Hogan took to social media to complain about “inexplicable” delays in installing a new system before Elrich abandoned his effort to relocate two towers that were the subject of protests by citizen groups. Installation of a new 22-tower network—designed to replace an aging, trouble-plagued system—will be completed by the end of this year.
In contrast to the Montgomery County charter, which established an executive office with relatively weak powers in relation to the county council, the Maryland Constitution vests power in the governor that’s virtually unrivaled in any of the other 49 states. It has prompted some insiders to question the political wisdom of Elrich taking on Hogan publicly on numerous occasions.
Elrich points the finger at Hogan for escalating the hostilities—“Look, I didn’t set the relationship off. I didn’t go after the governor”—while contending that he has a good relationship with many in the Hogan administration. “There are departments where we get pretty good cooperation,” Elrich says.
He adds that he hasn’t “seen any evidence in general that [Hogan] has been more difficult with us” than he was with Leggett—whose amicable relationship with the governor led to an appointment to the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents after Leggett’s retirement as county executive. If others may take issue with Elrich’s comparative claim, it does underscore the sharp shift in governing styles—and the resulting adjustment for the body politic—between Elrich and the more cautious, lower-key Leggett.
“Ike was very rarely out front until he felt he knew what the winning position was going to be—and then had an unbelievable ability to get out front. Marc will charge out front,” observes one insider who knows both men well. “Marc is the ‘I’m going to go out and tell you how I feel. If it’s the popular opinion, great; if it’s the unpopular opinion, you’re going to get my honest assessment.’
“It’s a dramatically different style.” It’s late October as Elrich hosts a public budget forum in downtown Bethesda, the second in a series leading up to the introduction of the county’s operating budget early in 2020. While it’s a friendly audience, Elrich at times appears to be addressing his critics.
“We think we have a strategy of trying to grow the economy at all levels,” he tells the gathering. With more than a hint of irritation, he adds, “I told people I was going to do this when I ran, and I think a lot of people misunderstood my intentions—or chose to misunderstand my intentions.”
As he begins his second year in office, Elrich is under pressure to demonstrate significant movement on issues that he highlighted in the course of the 2018 campaign.
During the forum, he proceeds to list efforts to reform the county’s procurement system, to give local businesses a boost in bidding for county government contracts, and to improve and expand the county’s three existing business “incubators.” A lengthy series of “listening sessions” throughout the county—co-sponsored by Councilmember Sidney Katz, a longtime small business owner with whom Elrich forged something of an “odd couple” relationship while on the council—is expected to yield legislation in early 2020 to streamline business regulations in the county.