With the debates winding down and early voting upon us, the Democratic race for Montgomery County executive has hit the home stretch.
It’s a six-candidate affair with no real clunkers. All the candidates in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction have either deep pockets (former health care company executive David Blair) or have had prior electoral success at the municipal, county or state level (all the others).
So, who has a real shot at winning — and becoming the presumptive successor to retiring three-term executive Isiah Leggett (D) — on June 26?
Maryland Matters surveyed several elected officials (past and present), strategists and pollsters who have had success in county-wide races. Our experts were promised anonymity in exchange for their most candid assessments.
What follows is their consensus view:
* Three candidates, in the view of our political pros, have a strong, viable path to the nomination. They are:
Blair caught lightning in a bottle when he snagged the endorsement of The Washington Post, which called him “a dynamic political newcomer with business acumen, energy and passion for innovation.” While the paper’s endorsement isn’t as influential as it once was, Montgomery County may be the last place where it still helps, particularly in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Takoma Park and Silver Spring, where many activist, plugged-in Democratic voters reside. Several of our experts said Blair’s prospects were boosted significantly by the paper’s support.
A wealthy self-funder, Blair has donated or loaned himself nearly $2 million, giving his campaign far more resources than any of his rivals. The prototypical “millionaire businessman with no political experience” — as one person put it — Blair is the 2018 version of David Trone, who almost pulled off a win in a Maryland congressional race two years ago and is bidding to do so again this year.
Blair’s appeal, in the view of one longtime politico, is to “voters who are tired of the same-old, same-old.” He appears very well-positioned to be the consensus vessel of choice for those worried that the early favorite, Councilman Marc B. Elrich, sits too far left, and may be too aligned with organized labor, to be a suitable choice for executive.
Marc B. Elrich:
The top vote-getter in the 2014 County Council at-large race, Elrich’s strength comes from his long tenure as an advocate for progressive causes and his slew of endorsements from left-leaning organizations and civic groups with the ability to put boots on the ground. While many believe he has a ceiling in the 23 to 27 percent range, that could be enough to win in a crowded field. A former teacher, he won the coveted endorsement of the Montgomery County Education Association.
Elrich’s base consists of civic activists, the slow-growth/no-growth crowd, transit advocates, Bernie Sanders voters and labor. “He’s the NIMBY candidate,” one seasoned politico said derisively. “He’s against everything.”
Long aware of such criticism, Elrich insists he’s been a much more pragmatic legislator than his reputation. One of our experts — no fan — said Elrich “has met a lot of people over the years,” suggesting it may be tough to demonize him as an extremist.
Rose G. Krasnow:
No woman has ever served as Montgomery County executive. In fact, no woman has sought the post since Carol Trawick was defeated in the 1994 Republican primary. Given the current focus on gender equality issues, Krasnow may benefit from being the only woman candidate in a field chock-full of men.
The former mayor of Rockville (and longtime county planner) is believed to have a decent base of support in the mid-county.
“She’s a woman, an independent voice [and a choice for people who are] tired of the same old faces,” is how one of our experts put it.
Despite that potentially advantageous profile, Krasnow’s campaign has been somewhat lackluster. “She got in way too late,” one of our insiders said. “That dilly-dallying probably cost her. She seems half asleep much of the time, but she has a great resume.”
Krasnow is one of three candidates taking part in the county’s public financing system; she has lagged behind in fundraising, which will almost certainly hurt her in the stretch drive.
* The following candidates are on the bubble. They’ve got a shot at victory, but the stars will have to align just right.
The three-term Council member’s path to victory become trickier when Blair won the Post endorsement and the teachers union decided to go with Elrich. He has a decent base of support in District 1, the district he has represented since 2006, but he’s not super-well-known outside Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Friendship Heights.
Berliner’s path was as a “moderate, sensible, business-friendly progressive,” in the view of one of our experts, but Blair “got into his lane and pushed him out of it.”
Berliner has raised decent money — almost $800,000 in the most recent report — but not nearly enough to match Blair dollar for dollar, or even come close. On the stump it is clear that Berliner is steeped in county and regional issues, and he’s given much thought to the county’s challenges, but some find his “smartest man in the room” vibe to be a turnoff.
The candidate has won plaudits from the “clean energy” crowd and for his battles with Pepco, but he will be competing with Elrich for the green vote.
George L. Leventhal:
The longtime Council member, an ally of the immigrant community, is “trying to put together a mosaic of different minority groups,” according to one politico who knows him well. If there’s a groundswell of support for him among Indian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino voters, Africans and others, Leventhal could pull off a surprise.
Unfortunately for Leventhal and his allies, he appears to lack sufficient funds to get his message out. Like Krasnow and Elrich, he’s taking part in the county’s new public financing system.
One old Rockville hand said Leventhal benefits from “decent name ID” and is generally respected, but he has “needlessly squandered goodwill” over the years.
Elrich will certainly eat into some of his Takoma Park base.
* That leaves the candidate with — in the few of our experts — the slimmest path to the nomination:
C. William Frick:
A power player in Annapolis, where he serves as majority leader in the House of Delegates, Frick is little known in most of the county, a reminder that State House big shots are often virtual nobodies in a county that focuses much of its energy on national politics.
Frick’s campaign has not caught fire. His geographic base — the Bethesda district he’s represented in the State House since 2007 — is also Berliner and Blair territory. He shares the “business-friendly moderate” lane with the same rivals, and while he has aggressively criticized the council members running for executive, he isn’t as fresh a face as Blair.
Frick has lagged badly in fundraising, a case of “donor fatigue” in the view of one of our experts, who notes that his frequent campaigns (re-election, Attorney General, Congress and now executive) may have exhausted his supporters.
“He’s alienated himself from the people who are active in Montgomery County politics,” a longtime office-holder observed.
Said another: “He’s not into it” – a view shared by many.