A roomful of 250 Montgomery County business leaders and their allies. A provocative new report with dire warnings about the county’s future from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s favorite economist, the man who helped Hogan build the case against former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s record. And all six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive on hand and expected to respond.
This was no ordinary candidate forum Friday – and there have been several in recent weeks.
In fact, the event at the Universities at Shady Grove, sponsored by a pro-development entity called Empower Montgomery and other business groups, seemed to encapsulate the entire election for county executive.
“You can see what this is about,” County Councilman Marc B. Elrich, one of the six Democrats running for executive, said in an interview after the two-hour program concluded – all but pointing to himself.
That may have been a bit of a politician’s high self-regard. But it may not have been so far from the truth, either. Some leaders are hesitant to say so publicly, but there is a genuine fear in various corners of the Montgomery County business community that Elrich is going to wind up winning the county executive race.
Most public and private polls on the June 26 Democratic primary show Elrich slightly ahead – though undecided voters still make up about half of the electorate.
In this field, with six strong, credible contenders, including one free-spending political novice, anything can happen and no one should be written off. But the way endorsements are lining up – with unions, progressive organizations, civic groups and slow-growth advocates offering their support – and the way Elrich has conducted himself during his 12 years on the council, it is impossible to conclude that he’s anything but one of the top-tier contenders. He could be the man to beat, especially in a race where 30 percent may be all that’s required to win.
Economist Anibar Basu issues dire warnings about Montgomery County’s economic future Friday as candidates for county executive look on. Photo by Bruce DePuyt
But will the business community – can the business community, which has so often punched below its weight class in Montgomery County elections – unify around someone to beat Elrich? And is that even the point?
“I don’t know that the business community is going to get there,” said Steven A. Silverman, the former councilman and county economic development director who was one of the founders of Empower Montgomery. “I think the business community is concerned about Marc Elrich as county executive. But I don’t know if that translates into, ‘let’s pick another person’ – especially with six credible candidates.”
It certainly felt at times, though, as if the other five candidates were auditioning for the role Friday.
The forum was designed to make news, and it surely did: Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of the Sage Policy Group, the rare economist who can make statistics and economic trends seem lively and entertaining, summarized his study on “the coming storm” in Montgomery County, which, he argued, could wash away the county’s financial stability.
High taxes, bad traffic, perceived hostility to business interests, a balky government bureaucracy and the possible shrinkage of the federal government put Montgomery County’s economy in jeopardy, the report found – and county leaders haven’t been doing enough to prime the economic engine.
“There are some people out there who think business is the enemy,” Basu said. But a backdrop to Basu’s report is the fact that Montgomery County remains a finalist to win Amazon’s secondary corporate headquarters and is a strong contender by most accounts, thanks in part to a generous incentive package put together by state and local officials.
“You need more of a strategy than ‘let’s get lucky with Amazon,’” the economist warned.
But, he added only half-jokingly, “if you get Amazon with these 50,000 jobs, everything is absolved.”
Basu didn’t point fingers for Montgomery’s possible economic predicament at outgoing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) or the county council – three of whose members, having been termed out by a resounding countywide vote in 2016, are now running for executive. But he didn’t have to – others were willing to run with Basu’s conclusions.
“Friends, this should outrage you,” state House Majority Leader C. William Frick Jr., one of the six Democratic candidates, said during the forum. “Instead of handing out bagels and muffins, they should be handing out pitchforks and torches. … It’s an indictment of the people on this stage.”
David Blair, a wealthy businessman making his first run for office, hit on many of the same themes.
“It gets to the core of why I’m running,” he said. “I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied. We can do better. I was the CEO of a publicly traded company. If I had these results, I’d be fired. Or in this case, termed out.”
Later, Blair added, “I feel comfortable that if you elect the same people with the same policies, you’re going to have the same problems.”
The four other candidates, all of whom have been connected to county government for years, had more nuanced reactions.
Councilman Roger Berliner, who cast himself as “progressive and pragmatic,” acknowledged that the county could be doing more to enhance its reputation as a haven for business. But he argued that voters should not be taking their chances on candidates who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of county government.
Councilman George L. Leventhal admonished his opponents – and business leaders – about publicly criticizing the county, saying it did nothing to help the cause of improving Montgomery’s business climate. He also noted that county business leaders do not work the county government as aggressively as certain other special interests.
“If the business community wants to be heard, it has to speak to us,” Leventhal said.
Rose Krasnow, the former Rockville mayor who has spent 13 years as a top county planner, touted her credentials as an urban planner as the county sits “at a tipping point.”
She said she sought to transform the county in myriad ways and also wanted to sharpen the government’s focus on assisting small businesses.
As for Elrich, he suggested – as Leggett did later Friday, in an interview with Bethesda Beat, that Basu’s report cherry-picked data to paint a bleaker than accurate picture.
Montgomery County Councilman Marc B. Elrich/Josh Kurtz
“That was an interesting presentation, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered,” he said.
Elrich attempted to argue that he’s been anything but hostile to business interests, and that his signature proposal, to create bus rapid-transit lines around the county, would encourage development by taking cars off the road.
“It’s not like I don’t talk about this,” Elrich said. “I want this county to grow.”
Led by the forum’s moderator, Bruce DePuyt of Maryland Matters, the candidates delved into a range of specifics, touching on everything from taxes to business permitting, from marketing to how to stimulate growth in specific communities, from the county’s competitive position compared to the rest of the region to how to attract more millennials.
“I thought it was a great discussion. … Every one of these candidates heard the business community,” Gigi Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview. “It’s a two-way conversation.”
At the beginning of the forum, and at its conclusion, business leaders reminded the crowd that the June 26 Democratic primary is the race that matters, and they urged their supporters who are not enrolled Democrats to change their party registration in time for the primary – even if they change back later.
The primary winner will be heavily favored in November over Robin Ficker, the longtime Montgomery County gadfly and presumptive Republican nominee.
“The takeaway message is suit up, get in the game, vote in the Democratic primary on June 26,” Godwin said.
But what the business community is prepared to do to amplify the message is hard to say. The Chamber of Commerce hasn’t had a political action committee for years.
Silverman said Empower Montgomery isn’t going to make endorsements – though it does intend to release a scorecard based on answers the candidates furnished on a questionnaire.
“I think this was incredibly useful to get the facts out there and let people respond,” he said of Friday’s forum.
A few random, private conversations with business leaders Friday revealed a range of opinions about Elrich – some downright nervous (“Can you imagine him negotiating with Marriott?”), others personally hostile (“The guy won’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance”).
Elrich has vehemently denied never standing for the pledge and calls that charge “an urban legend.”
Some business leaders were more sanguine.
“Sure, he’s a socialist,” said one. “But he asks good questions and he’s capable of listening.”
Whether Elrich versus The Field winds up being the final storyline as June 26 approaches is anybody’s guess. But it was hard not to catch the vibe at Friday’s forum.
“My job was to come off as stable, sane and friendly as I could possibly be,” Elrich said when it was over. “I’m not interested in punishing business.”