By Bruce DePuyt
Second of two articles
So what’s the mood of the electorate in Montgomery County, less than a year after term limits won big at the ballot box?
We’re about to find out.
For only the third time in the last quarter century, the race for county executive will not have an incumbent. And as potential candidates begin to jockey for position, there’s every indication that a historically wild and woolly race is in the offing.
For some great background, read Lou Peck’s contribution to Bethesda magazine (http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Magazine/March-April-2017/The-Montgomery-County-Executive-Race/).
We decided it would be fun to get former County Executive Doug Duncan’s take on the race. Duncan (D), who served from 1994-2006 and lost a political comeback attempt against current Executive Ike Leggett (D) in 2014, now runs Leadership Greater Washington. [Disclosure: I’m in the LGW Class of 2017.]
Before he was willing to talk about individual candidates, Duncan wanted to lay out what he views as the “major challenges ahead of us.” They include a growing school system, an increase in the number of students “who need more resources,” and a “tax base that’s not doing well.”
The county is “drifting,” Duncan says. “And it’s going to be a real challenge for the next executive to turn that around.”
What Montgomery needs, in the former executive’s view, is a renewed focus on growing the commercial tax base. Failure, he says, will mean over-reliance on residential property taxes, which will lead to service cuts, which puts more pressure on homeowners — a vicious and unsustainable cycle.
“The huge tax increase we had last year, that’s the first of many to come. If nothing changes, that’s the first of many to come,” he warns.
“We’ve laid down and let Annapolis walk all over us. We’ve been more interested in helping Baltimore with their school issues than in Montgomery County’s school construction needs.”
So how does Duncan view the field of potential Democratic candidates — a group that could swell to close to a dozen?
The conversation starts with term-limited Councilmember Marc Elrich of Takoma Park.
— “Marc Elrich is the NIMBY standard-bearer. He is the NIMBY candidate. And he will start with a 25 percent base of support in the Democratic primary. The challenge for him is how does he expand that. His philosophy is ‘let’s just stop everything.’ … And there’s a strong group of people in the Democratic primary who support that.”
— “Then the ‘status quo’ group are the current elected officials where they’ve been part of what’s been going on in the county for however many years they’ve been elected. They’re part of the Leggett legacy of… drift… where we’re going to ignore economic development.” Duncan says Councilmembers George Leventhal and Roger Berliner will be attractive to this wing of the Democratic electorate. Councilmember Craig Rice, Del. Ben Kramer, and former Councilmember Michael Knapp fit here too, he says.
— “Then there is the group that says ‘we want change, we want something different to happen here… and we need a different kind of leadership to make that happen.’” Duncan sees David Trone, the Total Wine & More CEO who ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives last year, appealing to “change” voters. But good luck with that, Duncan seems to think. “We’re very much of a status quo kind of county.”
“We need an executive who is going to focus on private sector job growth,” Duncan concludes, pointing to the need for revitalization of the I-270 commercial corridor and the Rock Spring Office Park, which soon loses Marriott, a longtime fixture, to more transit-proximate downtown Bethesda.
“People don’t want to be located in suburban office parks anymore. They want to be in a 24/7 environment. They want to be near transit… How do you make (far flung parcels) attractive again?”
Other nuggets from our look at the 2018 landscape:
— Trone starts with the best name ID, based on the $13 million he poured into his congressional bid, which he used to saturate local television and radio.
— “Once (Leventhal) decides something, that’s it. He’s very hard to persuade… He’s very hard to have a discussion about different issues with, once he’s made up his mind. George has a reputation for… ‘my way or the highway’ — and that’s a problem.”
— Of all the current and former officeholders, Berliner may be best positioned to encroach on Trone’s appeal. “Roger has (more) flexibility. He will be somewhat more business-friendly than Leventhal. His challenge is going to be to show… leadership.”
— The term limits vote, which came after many years of failure for petition organizers, “was a real rebuke to Leggett and the County Council” — and a sign that Montgomery voters, like voters nationally, are restless.
“This will be the most open primary we’ve had in quite some time, because of the public financing that is enabling people to run who would not have run before.”
Trone, Berliner and Leventhal have all asked for advice, Duncan says, and he’ll happily talk with anyone who calls. Will he endorse? It’s not clear.
“The question in the Democratic primary is — are they worried enough or mad enough to want change, and then what kind of change do they want? If you get more than five candidates, that’s going to be a very interesting race.”