Analysis: Did Montgomery County Executive Primary Just Become a 2-Man Race?

 The giant sucking sound you heard over Montgomery County this weekend, along with the thunder and lashing rain, was the possible implosion of four of the six Democratic candidates for county executive. That’s because The Washington Post weighed in with its highly anticipated endorsement this weekend – and the editorial board has gone with wealthy businessman David Blair over his five vastly more experienced opponents. The Post has had an outsized influence in Montgomery County elections for decades, rivaled only by that of the teachers’ union, which has yet to decide on the executive race. But with six well-qualified candidates for executive – and literally dozens of candidates up and down the Democratic primary ballot in the state’s most populous jurisdiction, sowing confusion if not outright chaos among voters – the Post’s blessing could be more important than ever. And given the dynamic of this year’s primary for executive, the Post may have all but definitively created a two-man race, between Blair and County Councilman Marc B. Elrich. As analysts have been suggesting for weeks, Elrich, a favorite of most unions, civic groups, progressive organizations and NIMBY’s, was destined to be one of the frontrunners. The Post endorsement was going to be a major boost – in fact, nothing short of a lifeline – to most of the others candidates (that the newspaper wouldn’t endorse Elrich, given its hostility to some of his major supporters, was a foregone conclusion). But by lifting up Blair – who has had the airwaves to himself in recent weeks and has an ability to spend unlimited resources between now and the June 26 primary – the Post may have cut off the other candidates’ oxygen. Blair may have been able to withstand losing out on the Post endorsement; it’s not clear if the others can.  David Blair  None of the other candidates has the base of support that Elrich enjoys, and all were competing, to one extent or another, to be the favorite of the county’s business community. The Post endorsement likely sealed the deal for Blair. The editorial began with the assertion – advanced in a new, highly controversial study that several business groups paid for – that the county is about to confront a period of economic stagnation and peril. “The central question,” the newspaper wrote, “is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” While the editorial acknowledged that all the candidates are “smart and substantive,” it called Blair, a former health care company executive, “a dynamic political newcomer with business acumen, energy and passion for innovation.” Coincidentally, the editorial was delivered just a day after one of the more influential business groups in the county, the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors endorsed state House Majority Leader C. William Frick in the county executive primary. But the Post endorsement will almost certainly be more determinative. And in another coincidence — or maybe it wasn’t — Elrich’s campaign over the weekend released an economic development plan, focusing on five principles: encouraging entrepreneurship; moving people, goods and data efficiently; developing the workforce; making regulations “more sensible;” and promoting opportunity for all. Is it hopeless now for the other Democratic contenders – Frick, former Rockville mayor Rose G. Krasnow, and County Councilmen Roger Berliner and George L. Leventhal? Not necessarily. Krasow, as the only woman in the race, has undeniable potential, and as a veteran urban planner, exudes competence. Leventhal and Berliner are accomplished officeholders and canny politicians with a wealth of contacts in the county and a history of electoral success. Frick is a charismatic lawmaker who is aggressively working to point out the flaws in the current county government. Anything can happen in six weeks. Someone can have a breakout moment. Someone can stumble terribly. And even in anointing Blair, the Post conceded that he’ll have a “learning curve” if he’s elected – an admission that is sure to fuel the drive of his opponents, and that they will point out again and again. But it’s hard to see other business groups and their allies straying from the Post’s recommendation. If Elrich indeed is the enemy – a debatable proposition, but one that has almost become an urban legend in certain quarters – then why would business leaders want to break with the Post editorial board and a self-funding multimillionaire? Whatever his flaws, no one is going to be able to compete with Blair’s financial firepower in the home stretch. So the Post has weighed in; that leaves the Montgomery County Education Association and departing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) as the two biggest endorsements yet to come. Elrich, a former teacher, will unquestionably be the choice of the teachers, informally if not formally. The question is whether he can reach the union’s threshold needed for a full-throated endorsement. Leggett, despite rumors to the contrary, is likely to remain neutral. He sees the good and the flaws in all the candidates, and while it may not make sense for him to publicly embrace Elrich, the councilman has been too loyal to the executive through the years for Leggett to forsake him by backing someone else. And here’s an unintended consequence of the Post’s decision to endorse Blair: It could precipitate a backlash. The Post editorial board, as a rule, values governing experience. It decries the influence of money in politics – including the imbalance a self-funder like Blair can bring to a political race. It praises candidates with a demonstrable record of service to minority communities. But here it has gone against its long-held beliefs, and Montgomery County voters are smart enough to take notice. Who would be the beneficiary of any such backlash, if it materializes? Most likely, Marc Elrich. [email protected]

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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