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Government & Politics

After Narrow 2018 Defeat, Blair Works to Up His Profile in Montgomery County

Businessman David Blair at a news conference on Montgomery County ballot initiatives earlier this month. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

Businessman David T. Blair is pulling no punches while critiquing Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, laying the groundwork for what seems like an inevitable Democratic primary rematch in 2022.

“The county government needs to step up ― candidly, at the top,” Blair said in a mid-September interview following a news conference in Silver Spring, where he announced his role as co-chair of a new coalition that aims to defeat two ballot initiatives in the 2020 election.

Blair said there isn’t enough being done to support low-income Montgomery County families who are struggling the most due to the coronavirus’ effect on the economy and education.

“With a $6 billion budget, you’d think we’d have more solutions,” Blair said. “It is horrendous.”

He said a potential fix to get younger children back in the classrooms could be to place them in the larger, vacant spaces in the county’s empty high schools. There, they could learn in person while safely following social distancing guidelines.

In early September, when Elrich said he was “again taken by surprise,” by Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s announcement to ease restrictions and begin moving to Phase 3 in the state’s coronavirus recovery plan, Blair called that posture “inexcusable.”

“It speaks volumes to the relationship with the county executive and our governor,” Blair said. “He wants to pick a food fight with a governor who has the authority to cut million-dollar checks.”

Elrich, who is in his first term as county executive after newly imposed term limits forced him off the County Council, said he was surprised by Blair’s comments ― especially in a time when people should be working to unite the county.

“This moment calls for leaders who seek to unite us. My focus remains on fighting the virus so we can reopen our community as quickly and as safely as possible,” Elrich said.

The county executive called Blair’s claims “outlandish,” saying his administration has secured more than $100 million from the council to help businesses, nonprofit organizations, and residents struggling to pay rent and provide food for their families.

Elrich said it was Hogan who failed to collaborate with county executives across the state — a statement the state’s other Democratic county executives have corroborated.

“My fellow executives and I praised the governor for his early engagement with us. It has been disappointing to us all that he has withdrawn from these efforts,” Elrich said.

The coronavirus has disrupted everyday life in Montgomery County.

Certain zip codes in the county have remained hot spots since the virus surfaced in Maryland last March. As of Tuesday, Montgomery had the second highest recorded number of COVID-19 cases in the state — 22,512 — following Prince George’s, but it led in most deaths at 808.

(For more information, see the Maryland Matters data on COVID-19 in Maryland.)

Montgomery got caught up in a COVID-19-related conflict with the county’s private schools.

In late August, county officials abruptly ordered all in-person education to be halted — days before some schools were set to open. A brisk confrontation with the Hogan administration ensued, and a few days later the county reversed its position.

Hogan has also been critical of Montgomery County Public Schools — and other school systems in Maryland — for their reluctance to welcome students back to school buildings.

Byron Johns, the NAACP Montgomery County Education Committee and Parents’ Council chair, said the county isn’t where it ought to be on the education front during the coronavirus.

“I will say we as a county are behind other counties and cities,” Johns said. “We need to accelerate the investment in these areas, and we’re going to need cooperation at the state level to operate additional sites.”

Johns said that in early September, Fairfax County opened up 37 school sites where programs serving over 2,000 low-income children are operating. In Baltimore City, 15 child care support sites just opened serving about 1,000 children.

“We have four pilot hubs for education and enrichment open today,” Johns said Tuesday. “At this point, we are advocating to open up [more] school sites.”

A leading member of a major Democratic club in Montgomery County, who requested anonymity to speak freely for this article, said leaders in the county are in a nearly impossible position.

“Everyone needs help, from small businesses to our most vulnerable residents, and they need it now — or yesterday,” the longtime Democratic activist said. “But I think the go-slow approach to reopening, here and in our neighboring jurisdictions, is key to holding down the COVID rate — and keeping people alive. I look at places like New York City that recently reopened schools — their positive test rates have tripled in the last few days.” 

Blair is paying attention to these policy debates — and thinking about solutions.

Since Blair lost to Elrich by a mere 77 votes in the six-way Democratic primary in 2018, the Potomac businessman and philanthropist has spent the last two years increasing his visibility in the county.

$30,000 to Maryland Democratic Party

In August, Blair’s family foundation sponsored a virtual breakfast for the Maryland delegation during the Democratic National Convention. The original event was supposed to take place in Milwaukee, but the DNC cancelled an in-person convention due to the coronavirus.

“It was a phenomenal platform to bring three important topics to the attention of the entire Maryland delegation,” Blair said in a telephone interview. “Close to 400 individuals tuned in for that virtual breakfast for issues we wanted to bring up: health care, the disparities in health outcomes and how we could better leverage telemedicine access and quality, economic development … and the environment.”

Months earlier in March, through his company Accountable Health Services, Blair contributed $30,000 to the Maryland Democratic Party.

Blair said normally he contributes $10,000 annually to the party through his foundation, which he did again this year. But this is the first time ― that he can think of ― where he’s made a contribution through his company.

Launching a think tank

In May 2019, almost a year after his loss to Elrich, Blair formed the Coalition For Advocacy And Policy Solutions (CAPS), a nonprofit think tank designed to bridge underrepresented community needs with politics.

“We help those without voices get their voices heard,” Blair said. “CAPS identifies the needs and advocates, and oftentimes the family foundation puts dollars up.”

In April, CAPS launched a community-based initiative distributing learning and activity kits to children sent home after the COVID-19 forced school closings. To date, 1,700 kits have been given out. Blair said the organization partnered with Identity, Community Bridges and IMPACT Silver Spring, to hand out the packages.

Earlier on, CAPS advocated for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, education funding legislation in Annapolis. In 2019, CAPS hosted a community forum in Montgomery County to increase awareness of the Democratic-backed legislation. In 2020, the organization hosted a breakfast meeting where former University System of Maryland chancellor William E. Kirwan ― the chief architect of the blueprint ― was the keynote speaker.

Other CAPS initiatives include a student-based business incubator program for Maryland college undergraduate and graduate students.

Over the summer, Blair partnered with County Councilmember William O. Jawando (D) and the Greater Washington Community Foundation to create the Montgomery County Food Security fund for those who are facing financial peril during COVID-19. The county contributed $10.3 million.

“Our family foundation committed $100,000, and Washington Gas contributed $100,000 and the Kingdom Fellowship Church, too,” Blair said.

At the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Blair is chairing an advisory committee on behalf of the Blair Family Foundation for a newly created entrepreneurial program for students. The kickoff meeting was in early September.

“I think I can add value to economic development,” Blair said. “That is something I am passionate about.”

The health care CEO is also involved in an African American health program.

“We’ll be deploying telemedicine in a number of key locations across the county,” Blair said.

Most political professionals expect a second Blair run, and he will not have any trouble raising the necessary campaign cash if he does make a bid. For the 2018 Democratic primary, Blair laid out $5.4 million — most of it from his own pocket, outspending Elrich, who participated in the county’s public financing system, by millions.

Elrich had yet to raise a dime for the 2022 election cycle as of January, according to his campaign finance report, leading to whispers in certain Democratic circles that the 70-year-old incumbent may not seek a second term.

County Councilmember Hans Riemer, who is term limited in 2022, may also run for county executive then. The conventional political wisdom in Montgomery County is that Elrich will benefit, as he did in the 2018 Democratic primary, if his opposition is fractured.

“There’s a high probability that [Blair] will run for county executive in two years,” former county councilmember and county economic development director Steve Silverman said. “He’s created a more public presence with the ballot initiative effort, he’s supporting the coalition of elected officials, unions and other union groups in opposing Ficker’s charter amendment, and he’s also taken some steps to be more community-engaged.

“His efforts on the food supply issue are significant,” Silverman said. “He’s chosen to stay engaged and pick his spots. At this point, I’d be surprised if he didn’t run for county executive.”

According to UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, AFL-CIO Union President Gino Renne, Elrich’s support among organized labor is soft after nearly two years in office.

“At this point in time,” said Renne, whose union represents most county government employees, “it’s premature for us to make any decision regarding the executive race. But here’s what I can say: Our membership and the representing leadership of unions, are starving for leadership from the top down in this government, and that includes both sides of the street ― executive and the legislative branch.”

Currently, county officials are projecting a $600 million shortfall for fiscal year 2021 and 2022.

“There’s no conversation about the kickstart of economic development and attracting good paying jobs to our county,” Renne warned. “That fails us all.”

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at [email protected]

(Disclosure: The Blair Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Maryland Matters.)