By Glynis Kazanjian
The moderator of a Democratic breakfast club may have been joking when she said Montgomery County county executive candidate Marc Elrich had a poster of Che Guevara, a Cuban Marxist revolutionary leader, hanging in his County Council office.
But it didn’t stop Susan Heltemes from asking the candidate to respond to the perception that some or many in Montgomery County view County Councilmember Marc Elrich as a socialist.
“You have gotten some heat for being a socialist,” Heltemes said. “What can you say to a room full of Democrats that you merit the Democratic mantle to be the next executive?”
Elrich laughed, denied having a poster of the communist revolutionary in his office and then answered the question.
“I’m a registered Democrat, apparently that’s gotten missed in all of this,” Elrich responded. “What we are supposed to do as elected officials is not write policies through an ideological lens, but write policy through a lens of what works. . . Most of the legislation I’ve introduced gets passed, so if I’m a socialist then I’ve led the county on a socialist path and apparently there are eight other socialists on the council and you need to route them out.”
Elrich lists the endorsement of the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America on his campaign website. A recent exchange of articles on the Seventh State blog run by progressive Democrats accused him of being a socialist, but Elrich responded “you would be hard-put to classify me.”
Elrich, along with David Blair, attended a candidate’s forum at the Tastee Diner in downtown Silver Spring Wednesday morning. Heltemes, a decades long Democratic activist, is hosting a series of forums for Montgomery County candidates as part of her monthly Legislative District 18 breakfast club.
The questions were pointed, and as each candidate answered, a contrast between two potential leaders in the race emerged.
“We know that you were a Republican not long ago and that your father ran for the Senate as a Republican,” Heltemes said to Blair. “Your voting record is less than stellar so what can you say to a room of Democratic activists to convince that you merit the Democratic mantel to be executive?”
After registering as a Republican at 18-years-old, Blair said he knew since he was in his 20s he wanted to be affiliated with Democratic values. He changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in his early 30s, a campaign spokesperson said after the event.
“My voting record hasn’t been great,” Blair said. “I missed a bunch of primaries. I screwed up, and I regret that.”
Elrich proud of $15 minimum wage
Elrich said of all his legislative achievements, he was most proud of passing a $15 minimum wage for Montgomery County residents.
“The best way to fight poverty is to raise incomes and raise wages,” Elrich said. “Raising the minimum wage means a couple earning $15 an hour working 40 hours a week is going to make a little over $60,000 a year – which puts a whole bunch of housing in their reach that’s not within their reach today.”
While Blair was not asked about the $15 minimum wage law passed by the council in November, he is on record saying he’ll push other local jurisdictions and the state to join Montgomery County so the county can stay competitive. He also supports education and job training programs to help workers earn more than $15 an hour.
On raising taxes, Elrich said he does not regret his vote for the council’s last tax hike that some say led to term limits for elected county officials. The county struggles to fund schools, he said, and his regret is that they didn’t have higher impact taxes on developers.
Blair’s platform promises not to raise taxes on Montgomery County residents.
On economic growth, Blair said he created a 22-page plan to create jobs that would help to make much needed improvements in the county.
“We need to expand the tax base by creating jobs,” Blair said.
Elrich said the issue is not as simple as saying it’s all about job creation. Elrich said he feels the Discovery Channel, which is moving its headquarters from Silver Spring to New York, decided to leave because the county lacked infrastructure and a quality ecosystem.
“I don’t think much could have been done,” Elrich said. “There are all these economic studies out there that say people don’t locate on taxes. They locate based on quality of life. Quality of life is schools, transportation, parks and recreation.”
Discovery cited proximity to business, investment and production partners as the reason for its move to New York in a statement.
But neither candidate believes strong tax incentives, like those being offered to Amazon, is productive in getting companies to relocate to the county.
As an immediate market stimulant, Blair suggested the county should encourage residents to buy locally through a formal large-scale buy local program and it should be steering government procurement dollars back into the county.
Find budget savings
Blair said the county needs to find the savings in the county’s $5.6 billion budget.
Blair said he also advocates for replacing in-school health clinics for Montgomery students with telemedicine.
“We have these amazing wellness centers in 12 of our elementary schools.” said Blair, a healthcare executive. “They also cost about $800,000 each. I could put telemedicine in all 130 elementary schools for 25% of the cost. We spend $300 million a year on healthcare. We need to do a better job getting that reimbursed from third party payers – Medicare, Medicaid. “
Blair also said the county should be buying less expensive Ride-On buses instead of spending $20 million on 40 buses.
Last week the Washington Post endorsed Blair for county executive. Political insiders were not surprised that Elrich, who is largely backed by labor unions and progressive groups, didn’t receive the endorsement.
“The Washington Post has never been my favorite newspaper, and I’ve never been their favorite candidate,” Elrich said. “And what they said about development and me is not true.”
Elrich said he would make affordable housing a priority in his administration and he wouldn’t be able to build the units fast enough. He’d like to do that through purchasing more commercial properties and by partnering with nonprofits.
“Rent stabilization, affordable housing, more MPDU’s,” Elrich said of his priorities.
He said he likes development, but he wants it to come with a proper infrastructure plan to support it.