Josh Kurtz: Something Smells Fishy in Montgomery County

In 1986, former Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, who came from one of the most storied Democratic families in U.S. history, left the Democratic Party to make an independent run for governor in the Land of Lincoln. Stevenson, the son of a two-time Democratic nominee for president, and the great-grandson of a former vice president, was the Democratic nominee for governor at the time. But in a freak occurrence, an ally of the political extremist Lyndon LaRouche had won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, and Stevenson said he could not in good conscience allow a “neo-Nazi” to be “one heartbeat away” from the governorship. (In Illinois, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary but the winners form a ticket in the general election.) So Stevenson, with the blessing of many Democratic leaders, began the arduous process of getting off the ballot as a Democrat and launching his own political party, The Solidarity Party, to challenge three-term Republican Gov. “Big Jim” Thompson, who had beaten Stevenson by just 5,000 votes four years earlier. As might be expected, Stevenson’s effort fell short. Thompson, in a Democratic year but with no Democratic challenger on the ballot, took advantage of the confusion and beat Stevenson by 10 points. Stevenson took a principled stand and was willing to suffer the political consequences. Comes now Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen, who is renouncing her longtime membership in the Democratic Party in an attempt to wage an independent bid for county executive. If she proceeds and collects the sufficient number of petition signatures to get on the ballot, Floreen would compete against her fellow county council member, Marc B. Elrich, who days ago was declared the winner of the Democratic primary by just 80 votes, and the Republican, attorney Robin Ficker, a gadfly and perennial candidate. In a high-minded statement Wednesday announcing that she had changed her party registration to unaffiliated and would pursue a bid for the top job in the state’s largest jurisdiction, the four-term councilwoman portrayed her decision as a boost for democracy and an attempt to avoid the polarization that has come to define the national political discourse. “I am a candidate for County Executive – unexpectedly, I admit – because it would be a terrible loss for this county to fall into the sort of polarized posturing that has poisoned our national politics,” Floreen said. “That’s not my way. I want to get things done for all of us. We need to attract good jobs for our people, provide housing for everyone, and reinforce our tax base so we can continue to provide the services people need. That’s what I want to do. I hope the voters will help me work to do the things we need to do and leave the posturing to others. “The critical interests of Montgomery County families are ill-served when any candidate can prevail with barely 29 percent of the one-third of Democrats who turned out, the Republicans had no choice at all, and the county’s 150,000 independent voters were prevented by law from voting in either contest. There is no mandate here. Most county voters have yet to be heard from.” Which is all well and good. Floreen is certainly within her rights to change parties and launch an independent bid for executive. She’s an accomplished and serious public servant. And for voters, having more choices is usually a good thing. But Floreen is not only going to have to scramble to collect the thousands of valid petition signatures she’ll need by early August to get on the November ballot. She’ll also have to work to show that she’s something other than a puppet of the developers and other business leaders who are now cheering her on. She’ll have to explain why, at a time when Democrats all over Maryland need to come together to defeat Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) and advance other shared priorities, a distracting independent bid is good for the party she’s long served as a leader. And Floreen will need to show skeptics that, if somehow the Democratic primary results are reversed, and wealthy businessman David T. Blair is declared the winner over Elrich, that she is every bit as committed to this independent run and is not just waging an anti-Elrich campaign, as many people suspect. It sure will be interesting to see where Floreen’s funding is coming from. We don’t recall anyone threatening to launch an independent bid for Congress when now-Rep. Jamie Raskin won the Democratic primary in the 8th District with less than 34 percent of the vote in 2016. No one has yet questioned the legitimacy of Benjamin T. Jealous, who won 40 percent, as the Democratic nominee for governor – with the possible exception of Hogan, who apparently would like to be the nominee of both parties if only he could (and leave Jealous to scrounge for the Gus Hall vote). In Baltimore County, where the Democratic primary for county executive was even closer than Montgomery’s, no real estate cabal is searching for an independent alternative as far as we can tell. Floreen and her allies will no doubt tout the fact that voters now have an opportunity to back a woman with a long history in local government – someone who was mayor of a Montgomery County municipality and is intimately familiar with the planning process. This ignores the fact that voters already had that opportunity in the Democratic primary, when former Rockville mayor Rose G. Krasnow ran, with Floreen’s blessing. She got 15 percent of the vote (media reports say Krasnow is now supporting Floreen). As to the question of forgotten voters who did not turn out in the primary – there usually isn’t a surge of voters in midterm general elections in Montgomery County. Since the 2006 election cycle, every local office but school board has been decided in the primary, not the general election. With all due respect, a three-way race for county executive is not going to swell voter turnout in the fall. And the “sky is falling,” red-baiting of Elrich is a tired trope straight out of the McCarthy Era – not worthy of so-called progressive Democrats in the second decade of the 21st century. It’s time for Elrich’s supporters and fellow Democrats to call out those who are engaging in the practice. And shame on those who are. When Adlai Stevenson III left the Democratic Party to run for governor of Illinois as an independent, he named his party The Solidarity Party as a tribute to the history-changing Solidarity labor movement that Lech Walesa launched at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland 40 years ago. The only thing Nancy Floreen’s independent bid for Montgomery County executive has in common with the Gdansk shipyard is that it smells awfully fishy.  [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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