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Government & Politics

Could Anti-Development Candidates Win 3 Big County Executive Primaries?

Of all the political cross-currents at play in Maryland as Tuesday’s primaries approach, one little-noticed trend in key suburban jurisdictions could have a profound impact on the state’s economy.

In Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, candidates who are highly critical of real estate developers – and skeptical of rampant development – are among the leading contenders in Democratic primaries for county executive. In Anne Arundel County, the presumptive Democratic nominee for county executive, horse farmer Steuart Pittman, is also running as a slow-growth advocate.

The three anti-development candidates in the primary – state Sen. James Brochin in Baltimore, County Councilman Marc B. Elrich in Montgomery, and former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards in Prince George’s – may not win on Tuesday. Pittman for now is the underdog against Anne Arundel County Executive Steven L. Schuh (R).

State Sen. James Brochin

But they all could win: Brochin led the most recent public poll on the race, two weeks ago. Elrich is considered one of two frontrunners in his primary. And Edwards is a well-known figure running a scrappy campaign.

The end result could be the biggest collection of anti-development county executives in large jurisdictions since 1990, when three incumbents fell in primaries or the general election.

Brochin and Edwards – neither of whom have served in county government – are using provocative rhetoric about “pay-to-play” tactics in the governments they want to lead and the cozy relationships between developers and policymakers.

Elrich is finishing his 12th year in the County Council and served for 19 years on the Takoma Park City Council before that. He has a long and nuanced record on development issues and a complicated relationship with Montgomery County’s business leaders. In a TV ad, he asserts that it would be “revolutionary” for developers to not always get their way.

All three of these candidates are using their stances on development and developers to signal their independence to the voters. And it’s unquestionably resonating with a significant segment of the electorate.

Ex-Rep. Donna F. Edwards

“There’s definitely a sentiment in the counties against what some folks see as development not taking into account what the community wants,” said Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the government watchdog group.

Neighborhood groups and civic associations can hold plenty of sway in county affairs. But they almost never have the means to throw around campaign cash the way real estate interests do. That’s something voters are often aware of as well.

“It’s something that really resonates with people – the idea of pay to play,” said Mileah K. Kromer, political science professor at Goucher College and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. “It’s something that smacks of politics as usual.”

The consequences of development – or more precisely, a local government’s inability to adequately address them – are easy for voters to observe.

“You can see the disappearance of green space,” Kromer said.

Just as significant at election time, the consequences of development can impact people in their daily lives, with heavy traffic and overstuffed school buildings. But does that automatically fuel anti-development fervor?

Montgomery County Councilman Marc B. Elrich

“People in my opinion are not anti-development,” said Steve Silverman, a former Montgomery County councilman and one-time county economic development director. “They just want to send their kids to schools that aren’t overcrowded and get out of their streets in the morning.”

Silverman argued that in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, Edwards and Elrich are drawing their strength from progressive groups and labor organizations, which are funding broadcast ads, mailers and ground troops on their behalf – or against their top opponents.

Just as there are no statewide anti-development organizations linking the Brochin, Elrich and Edwards campaigns, the state’s leading business groups aren’t mobilizing to influence the elections in these counties. Lawrence A. Richardson Jr., vice president of government affairs with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, and Duane Carey, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, said their organizations are primarily focused on tax and economic policy at the state level.

But there are robust efforts in all three counties to oppose the slow-growth candidates.

In Baltimore County, developers and other real estate interests are funding a political action committee, Baltimore County Votes PAC, to boost one of Brochin’s Democratic primary foes, County Councilwoman Vicki L. Almond. Former Baltimore County executive Jim Smith (D), who was close to county developers, is also aiding Almond’s effort, with a PAC he set up to help 15 candidates, though she is the main beneficiary.

In Montgomery County, a business entity called Empower Montgomery is spending at least $110,000 on mailers to promote its favorite candidates – and work against Elrich. Businessman David T. Blair, a co-founder of the organization, is considered Elrich’s prime competition in the primary.

And in Prince George’s, most business leaders are supporting Edwards’ leading opponent in the primary, Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks.

Silverman, who has been advising Empower Montgomery, predicted that voters by and large would reject the anti-development candidates’ line.

“Shutting down development doesn’t relieve traffic or get schools built,” he said.

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Could Anti-Development Candidates Win 3 Big County Executive Primaries?