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Josh Kurtz: The incredible shrinking county

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), left, displays gifts she received from Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), right, at her last Board of Public Works meeting on Wednesday, as Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (center) looks on. Franchot presented her with a series of photos of the governors and comptrollers with whom she has served since 2002. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, keeps growing; some might say the place is busting at the seams.

But at the same time, its political influence is diminishing in the state, and it was never that high to begin with. How is this possible? And do we blame the county’s politicians, or the voters themselves?

As recently as December, two of the three members of the state’s powerful Board of Public Works were from Montgomery County: Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). Come January, there will be zero. Kopp retired and Franchot will be leaving in January after losing the Democratic primary for governor.

Through her long public career, Kopp was what you might call a globalist, someone who always took a statewide perspective on an issue, sometimes to a fault. Franchot, during his time as comptroller, has oriented himself more toward places like East Baltimore County, where he could rile up outrage on issues like school air conditioning, and was never terribly in sync with his home base.

Still, there was some symbolic comfort for Montgomery County in knowing that Franchot and Kopp were on the BPW, and soon, that will be gone. Add in the looming retirement of Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), another veteran Montgomery County leader who won’t be replaced by someone from the county, and the power lineup shrinks further.

During the just completed Democratic primary for governor, pundits and political professionals noted the preponderance of candidates from Montgomery County. But did that result in a MoCo candidate winning? Of course not.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Tom Perez had 47.31% of the Democratic vote in Montgomery County — the highest percentage for any candidate in any jurisdiction, a tick higher than the 46.93% Wes Moore got in Prince George’s County. Collectively, the Montgomery-based Democratic candidates — Perez, Franchot, John King, Doug Gansler, Jon Baron, Ashwani Jain, and Jerome Segal, took three-quarters of the primary vote in their home county.

Imagine if Montgomery County leaders had spoken in near-unison about their preferences in the gubernatorial primary. Imagine if they had preached the desirability of having a Montgomery resident in the governor’s office. Could that have moved the needle in the primary and gotten Montgomery its first elected governor in forever?

Perhaps. But Montgomery County leaders are constitutionally incapable of thinking and acting strategically in that way.

So maybe Montgomery County accepts some consolation prizes. Wes Moore was born in Takoma Park. Brooke Lierman grew up in Bethesda. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) also grew up in Montgomery County. And former Del. Aruna Miller (D), assuming the Moore-Miller ticket wins in November, will preside over BPW meetings whenever Moore is away. She’d be the first lieutenant governor from Montgomery County since Blair Lee III.

We’re inclined to believe it when Moore says he intends to utilize Miller to the fullest in his administration. But it’s still a job without a portfolio.

Meanwhile, the Montgomery County legislative delegation, already the largest in Annapolis, is about to pick up one senator and two delegates whose districts will be centered in Howard County. That brings the Montgomery delegation to 35 seats out of 188, and the percentage of Montgomery Countians in the Democratic caucuses is even higher.

Even so, the influence of the delegation is waning.

Barring unforeseen developments, Montgomery County will have two committee chairs when the General Assembly reconvenes in January: Sen. Will Smith as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Del. Kumar Barve as chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. Both are important panels, to be sure, but they aren’t the fiscal committees or the “money” committees that donors and lobbyists flock to.

Montgomery County Del. Anne Kaiser was replaced as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee last fall. And while Senate Finance Committee Vice Chair Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) could be in the running for the committee gavel in the next legislature, the smart money says that job will go for a variety of reasons to Prince George’s Sen. Melony Griffith.

Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) is the most consequential House majority leader in Annapolis in recent memory, and Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery) is majority leader in that chamber. Despite some initial awkwardness, she’s become a loyal member of Ferguson’s leadership team. Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery) is chair of the powerful Capital Budget subcommittee, and several Montgomery lawmakers are committee vice chairs; the new vice chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery), has been the legislature’s most forceful voice on strengthening abortion rights.

But are Montgomery voters right to expect more?

Not counting the three Howard County slots, and if the general election goes as assumed, Montgomery County will only have two new members in its legislative delegation: Joe Vogel in the House in District 17 and Aaron Kaufman in the House in District 18. The stability suggests Montgomery lawmakers can build some seniority in Annapolis.

On the other hand, the most polyglot jurisdiction in the state, which is now 58% non-white, and whose school district is more than 70% non-white, continues to be represented in the State House disproportionately by white folks (only 12 Montgomery lawmakers are people of color). This makes it harder for Montgomery County to erase the stereotype in the rest of the state that the county’s streets are paved with gold.

And speaking of which, what happens in Annapolis if wealthy businessman David Blair is elected Montgomery County executive? Of course, rich political leaders, even political leaders who were born rich, can be effective advocates for poorer constituencies. And if Blair is elected, maybe he can get the county’s economy moving again in dynamic ways that his immediate predecessors could not. Maybe whatever successes he enjoys in office, if he’s elected, will radiate to Annapolis and get the new administration and the legislature more on board with helping Montgomery solve its myriad problems and achieve its goals.

But just as likely, Blair will be viewed as just another rich white guy in Annapolis if he’s elected county executive, a guy who wakes up in a mansion overlooking the Potomac and who is a minority owner in D.C. professional sports franchises. How does that help the county’s cause or political stature?

Not that the current executive, Marc Elrich, has so much stature in Annapolis, either. Half the time, he has been fighting with the Hogan administration over transportation priorities. And while Elrich has a good working relationship with some members of the county’s legislative delegation, other members are just as likely to disparage him, snickering when he missed a spot shaving or had his shirttails out, or chafing at his political inflexibility.

Every time Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski comes to Annapolis, he’s greeted like a returning hero. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s appearances in the capital breed excitement and media coverage. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is always treated with deference in Annapolis. Elrich should be so lucky.

At least Elrich in the latter half of his tenure as county executive has brought people into prominent positions who have a wealth of contacts in Annapolis, including former Sen. Rich Madaleno as chief administrative officer, Jake Weissmann as assistant CAO, and Tom Lewis working on economic development projects near the old White Flint Mall.

Political leaders in jurisdictions are never monolithic; there will always be divisions based on ideologies, personal and policy agendas, and a host of other factors. Yet Montgomery County’s inability to punch anywhere near its weight in the state’s political arena remains one of the enduring mysteries of our time.

But perhaps this is to be expected in a county where so many more people seem concerned about who’s serving as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce than who’s representing them in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Disclosure: The Blair Family Foundation was a financial supporter of Maryland Matters in 2020.