WASHINGTON — Two veteran members of the Montgomery County Council with two very different visions for the county and a perennial Republican candidate are vying in a rare three-way race to be the next chief executive of Maryland’s most populous county.
Marc Elrich, a three-term member of the county council, just barely eked out a victory in Democratic primary in June by a slight 77 votes. His slim margin of victory and his stance on issues, such as development, prompted Nancy Floreen, a four-term member of the council, to temporarily jettison her Democratic Party affiliation and jump in the race as an independent.
Also throwing his hat in the ring is frequent Republican candidate Robin Ficker, who has a reputation of being a gadfly but who also successfully steered a term-limits ballot measure to victory two years ago.
The election has been framed in some quarters as a referendum over the future of the county: How much growth and development is too much? Does Montgomery County need to be more business-friendly? And how should county leaders combat congestion and other transportation headaches in the county to keep residents moving — literally?
Why should voters pick you?
In the Democratic stronghold that is Montgomery County, Elrich touts his strong base of support, pointing to endorsements from prominent Democrats in the state, including Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Jamie Raskin.
Elrich, who’s known for his deep skepticism of many development projects, also boasted of a recent endorsement from a Realtors’ group.
Floreen won an endorsement from The Washington Post, which urged voters to support the “tough-minded pragmatist.” In an interview with WTOP, Floreen said she is “determined to improve the county’s schools, parks and future with a strong fiscal spine and balanced, responsible … leadership.”
In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 and in which voters haven’t elected a member of the GOP to the executive seat since the Nixon administration, Ficker said he represents needed change.
“When you’ve been there 16 years, you can’t stand for change,” he said. “I’m the only candidate who does.”
He also pointed to the effort two years, which he spearheaded, establishing term limits for members of the county council. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.
What are the candidates pledging as the top item on their to-do lists?
Elrich cited education.
“One thing at the top of my list is to deal with the achievement gap,” he said. “It’s the same gap we’ve had for 50 years and too many kids start school behind and leave school behind, and after all this time, it’s really time for us to figure out what we’re going to do.”
Elrich pointed to a two-part strategy: First, make sure schools get adequate funding to address overcrowded classrooms and teacher shortages; second, invest in early childhood education.
Floreen said her top priority is improving the business climate. Some business groups have warned that the Montgomery County is plagued by sluggish job growth and is borrowing too much money to pay its bills.
“We continue to suffer from a reputation of not being welcoming to business investment and the creation of jobs for our future and I’m committed to changing that reputation,” she said.
Floreen also said she wants to expand the county’s relationship with federal agencies on technology initiatives, look at the potential for a four-year research institution in the county and consider creating a regional transportation authority similar to one in Northern Virginia.
Among his priorities, Ficker said, is attracting more jobs to the county, which he characterized as “over-regulated and overtaxed.”
“Businesses want certainty, and they can be certain I’m not going to give them any tax increases for four years,” he said.
The former one-term state delegate told WTOP he also wants to make improvements to Interstate 270, in particular the section from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg. “We’ve been Takoma Parked; we haven’t been moving,” he said. “And I’m going to get Montgomery County moving.”
What sets you apart?
Al three candidates are known quantities in Montgomery County. What does each of them think should set him or her apart in the minds of voters?
Elrich, who was elected to his at-large council seat in 2006, pointed to his vision of responsible development. Though he has a reputation for being tough on developers, he said he’s not opposed to growth in principle.
“If we’re going to grow, we need to do it the right way,” he said. ”We need to make sure that our residents feel that we’re looking after their quality of life and making sure that their kids aren’t sitting in portables and they’re not parked in their driveways trying to get out on the road.”
Floreen, who was first elected to her at-large council seat in 2002 and twice served as council president — including in the aftermath of the Great Recession — cited her leadership experience.
“I have a real track record of rolling up my sleeves and building consensus and getting things done,” she said. “I established the county’s first fiscal plan. I’ve led on our advancement in affordable housing. I’ve … led in the creation of tax credits for seniors in their housing. I cut the first deal with the county board of education in advancing our educational needs and I have long been a leader in creating our economic development workforce program as well as how we have been privatizing how we reach out to the business community.”
For his part, Ficker pointed to donations both Elrich and Floreen have taken. Floreen has raked in contributions from developers; Elrich is backed by union groups.
“I am financed only by the ordinary citizens,” Ficker said. “My two term-limited opponents are financed by union and union PACs and developers and developer PACs — the special interests. I am financed only by the average person, not the special interests.”
What the candidates say to their critics
The race at times has turned testy and personal.
Critics have charged that Elrich’s anti-development stance will jeopardize economic growth in the county, which is still the state’s most affluent.
Elrich said the criticism is disingenuous.
“The developers can’t run a campaign that says ‘Marc Elrich wants us to pay for infrastructure — that’s a bad thing,’ because I would get every vote in the county,” he said. “So what they’ve turned this into is that well, you know, business doesn’t like Marc Elrich.”
He said that he and Floreen actually have a similar records on many issues that have irritated the business community, such as minimum wage and paid sick leave.
“This is not about what’s good or bad for business,” he said. “I really want to attract business I’d say as much as she does. This is about whether you’re giving away the store to developers, which is a totally different issue.”
Floreen has been accused of being a spoiler who could drain Democratic votes away from Elrich.
Floreen said she has a long history in the Democratic Party. “But I had to step away because I really felt that Montgomery County needed a better choice for county executive,” she added. “And I am putting the county above partisan politics right now.”
Floreen has said she will rejoin the Democratic Party after the election. But she added, “At the end of the day, partisanship does not play a role in addressing our schools, addressing our congestion and addressing our future.”
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.
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