Marc B. Elrich, an unconventional and unscripted politician who has often plowed a lonely road in Montgomery County politics, was sworn in Monday as its seventh county executive, voicing the same candor and progressive ideals that have driven his long career.
In a ceremony filled with pageantry at the Strathmore Hall Music Center, where the nine Montgomery County Council members also were sworn in, Elrich moved quickly to challenge Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on his proposal to widen the Capital Beltway, and sought to reassure business leaders jittery about his agenda. He vowed that there would be no tax increases in his first year on the job.
Elrich credited the county’s new public finance system for helping to elect him.
And the 69-year-old lawmaker spoke in starkly personal terms about what formed his progressive worldview and said he is propelled by his former role as a public school teacher, at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. He just completed 12 years on the county council and spent 19 years on the Takoma Park City Council.
“In my heart, I’m still a teacher,” Elrich said toward the end of his 25-minute address. “I feel you owe people an explanation for why you don’t get sound bites from me.”
Elrich then quoted from the former teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who was killed in the 1986 Challenger spacecraft explosion.
“Christa McAuliffe said, ‘I teach, I touch the future,’” he said. “That’s what my administration will be about – how we touch the future.”
Elrich pledged to tackle the enduring problem of the achievement gap in Montgomery County’s public schools – which now have a 70 percent minority population – with a new sense of urgency.
“I’m not an incrementalist, and I’ll never be,” Elrich said more than once.
He told two emotional stories about his childhood that informed his desire to fight for social justice and a more inclusive education system. At one point, growing up in Washington, D.C., he asked an African-American neighbor who had just graduated from high school whether she was going to college. She told the young Elrich that she wasn’t – because an uncle with a college degree was working as a janitor, “and it just isn’t worth it.”
Around the same time, Elrich said, two white real estate agents showed up at his family home, urging them to sell their house before their neighborhood became all-black.
“That stuck with me through my whole life,” Elrich said. “And as I got older, I started to put that into context. … It was a scary conversation to listen to.”
Elrich said it has become difficult to tackle the achievement gap because it has existed for so long and people have grown to accept it.
“If we wait for people to get comfortable with the notion of justice, we will wait a very, very long time,” he said, adding that Montgomery County is the ideal place to confront the problem. “If you can’t get it done here, I don’t know where you can get it done.”
Elrich, who inspired fear and loathing among many business leaders during his long political tenure and in the recent campaign, sought to offer assurances.
“I know a lot’s been assumed about my attitude toward business in Montgomery County,” he began, to nervous laughter. But he went on to say, “I know we can’t achieve the things I want to achieve – the things we want to achieve – without a healthy business climate.”
Elrich vowed to steer clear of a tax increase in next year’s budget, arguing that he wants to take a close look at the county’s fiscal policies first.
“As long as taxes are the only answer that we know, we’re not examining what we’re all about,” he said.
Elrich added that his administration would launch a study of Montgomery County’s codes and regulations and compare them to other jurisdictions in the region. He said he’s willing to do away with rules that don’t work or don’t make sense.
“I’m not going to sacrifice safety, I’m not going to sacrifice the environment,” Elrich said. “I just don’t want to do dumb stuff.”
Elrich then spoke at length about protecting the environment, and included what appeared to be a throwaway line about Hogan’s desire to widen the Beltway and Interstate 270: “Note to the governor: No Beltway widening.”
Hogan’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Elrich also reiterated his desire to fight for “tenants’ rights and truly affordable housing.”
But his association with the slow-growth movement in Montgomery County has produced some skeptics among affordable housing advocates, as outgoing County Council President Hans Riemer (D) implied during his short address Monday at Strathmore.
“We have a housing crunch, but there’s not enough supply,” he said.
Elrich said Leggett “made the table bigger” in Montgomery County, and has made “a lasting contribution” to the county’s transformation.
In a county of about 1.2 million people, and with a county government of almost 9,000 workers, Elrich is slowly putting together the top players in his administration. Andrew Kleine, a Silver Spring resident who is a former Baltimore City budget director, has been nominated to be chief administrative officer.
Besides Riemer, who gives up the county council gavel Tuesday, the other council members who were sworn in on Monday were Gabriel Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, Tom Hucker, William O. Jawando, Sidney Katz, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice. Albornoz, Friedson, Glass and Jawando are newcomers.
The council will elect its new officers at a meeting Tuesday. Navarro is expected to be elected council president for the year, with Katz likely to become vice president.