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Government & Politics

Does Marc Elrich Have an Inner Circle?

Debbie Spielberg (center) and Dale Tibbits (right) are longtime advisers to new Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. Photo by Josh Kurtz

First in an occasional series on Maryland’s five new county executives and their “kitchen cabinets.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Marc B. Elrich (D), now the new Montgomery County executive, spilled out of his favorite Takoma Park eatery, Mark’s Kitchen, with a group of contemporaries.

“These are my SDS friends,” Elrich told a couple of acquaintances who were on their way into the restaurant, referring to the Students for Democratic Society protest group Elrich belonged to when he attended the University of Maryland.

The 69-year-old former teacher’s history of activism is well documented – and it informs his worldview and his governing philosophy. It’s part of what sets him apart from most other high-ranking Maryland politicians.

But less well known is who Elrich calls upon for practical political advice. Who are his closest advisers? Does he have a “kitchen cabinet,” as many political leaders do? Who does he listen to? And who should supplicants seek out if they want a favor from the new county executive, or if they want to lobby him?

Now two weeks into his job after a dozen years on the Montgomery County Council and another 19 as a Takoma Park city councilman, Elrich is slowly putting his administration together. The transition – from a legislator who never had more than a handful of staffers to call upon to an executive presiding over a large and complex government with almost 9,000 workers – is challenging, as it is for every new county executive in Maryland.

But Elrich’s reputation, as a maverick who was never completely in accord with his County Council colleagues or with conventional Montgomery County political group-think, may make the task of identifying his political intimates more challenging than it is with other officeholders.

Elrich has a long history in county politics – and knows a lot of people. He has spent a lot of time thinking about issues and the county’s political structure.

As an at-large member of the County Council, Elrich represented all of Montgomery County, and developed contacts in every diverse nook and cranny. On any given issue affecting any corner of the county, he knew who to seek out for information – and he quickly recognized who his allies were.

So on environmental matters, for example, he’ll talk regularly to Diana Conway, the civic activist and early supporter from Potomac, among others. On education, he is often in sync with Jill Ortman-Fouse, whose term on the school board just ended.

But Elrich has strong and often well-formed opinions on every issue that county leaders face – and isn’t accustomed to having a large team of advisers in the classic sense.

Throughout his tenure, Elrich has been generous with his cell phone number, and even with an unconventional political style was generally considered accessible to his constituents. Since being elected, and even now that he’s taken office, he’s had far more listening sessions than his counterparts around the state. And his unusually large transition team, featuring more than 180 members, creates a sense of inclusiveness and helps build good will.

“Marc talks to everybody – and makes himself available to everybody,” said one county official.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate into an identifiable political inner circle. And just as Elrich has had a small group of County Council staffers, he assembled a lean campaign operation as he ran for county executive (and saw some of his political team disperse after he won the Democratic primary, when they assumed – incorrectly, as it turned out – that he would not have to sweat the general election).

Any discussion of Elrich’s team must begin with two longtime Council aides, Dale Tibbits and Debbie Spielberg, both of whom are now serving in special assistant roles in the county executive’s office (though their official titles may change).

Like Elrich, both are progressive activists and policy veterans who reside in the county’s most liberal enclave, the 20th legislative district. Tibbits has helmed all of Elrich’s successful countywide campaigns. Spielberg has Capitol Hill experience, including working for U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon.

Andrew Kleine, Elrich’s choice to be chief administrative officer will also be a key adviser. While Kleine spent 10 years as Baltimore City’s budget director and was a federal employee before that, like other top Elrich intimates he also lives in inside-the-Beltway Silver Spring and has been civically active.

For practical advice on the nitty-gritty of running county government, Elrich and his team have been getting a lot of help from Joy Nurmi, a veteran of almost two dozen years in county government – the last several as a special assistant to Elrich’s predecessor, former county executive Isiah Leggett (D). Nurmi, who is now chief of staff to rookie Councilman Gabriel Albornoz (D), is not only literally telling Elrich and his aides where the light switches and electric outlets are, but is walking them through the duties and responsibilities of an executive, attempting to illuminate the demands and expectations beyond the obvious policy questions.

Elrich is likely also to depend heavily on his new budget director, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., whose three-term tenure as a state senator is coming to an end. Madaleno’s lifetime of contacts in Annapolis will be every bit as valuable for Elrich as his numbers-crunching prowess.

While Elrich is a creature of the County Council, and he has longstanding relationships with many of the Council members, the Council features disparate personalities with a wide variety of policy priorities and personal agendas, and they may prove to be less agreeable than Elrich imagines. Look for Councilman Tom Hucker (D), a fellow progressive with a pragmatic streak whose district includes Elrich’s home turf, to be his steadiest ally there.

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Does Marc Elrich Have an Inner Circle?