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In six months, Montgomery Democrats will decide whether Marc B. Elrich deserves a second term as county executive.
In 2018, Elrich — then a three-term member of the County Council — eked out a 77-vote victory over David Blair, a wealthy businessman seeking elective office for the first time. Each received 29% of the vote in a six-way race.
The 2022 primary is shaping up to be a four-person affair, pitting Elrich against Blair and two members of the council — Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer.
Early polls show that Elrich has expanded his base of support. According to a source who has seen multiple polls — including one conducted for a consortium of unions and another for a business group — Elrich enters the campaign with “strong favorables” and support in the “high 30s.”
The source is not connected with any of the campaigns and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Although the numbers signify that Elrich has built on the plurality that propelled him to a narrow win in 2018, they also make it clear that many Democrats’ first choice — at this stage — is someone else.
For that reason, next year’s race has drawn a crowd, unlike in Prince George’s County and Baltimore County, where first-term executives Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and Johnny A. Olszewski Jr. (D) are widely expected to win party primaries with ease.
According to two sources, Riemer and Blair have the support of approximately 12% of Montgomery Democrats surveyed, while the newest candidate, Hucker, is in the high single digits. (County Councilmember Will Jawando (D) was included in the union poll even though he is not a candidate, and he was the choice of 10% of those surveyed, surprising some observers.)
The filing deadline is still two months away, and it is possible that other candidates will enter the race.
Based on the contest as it currently stands, here is an early assessment of each candidate’s path to victory, as described by political strategists and the candidates themselves. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Blair is the founder of a pharmacy benefit management firm, Rockville-based Catalyst Health Solutions. Since leaving the company, he has become involved in philanthropic endeavors to boost educational achievement and job opportunities for residents of color and to reduce food insecurity.
His 2018 bid was fueled primarily by his ability to self-fund his campaign. He poured an eye-popping $10.5 million from his personal fortune into the effort — and he had pro-business groups helping him through a political action committee. Blair won the endorsement of The Washington Post, whose editorial page regarded him to be the most viable candidate to block Elrich.
He enters the 2022 race with the same deep pockets and a smaller field. He is also a more-experienced candidate. In a county where residents are more likely to focus on national politics, Blair is still not a household name.
He is unlikely to get union or environmental endorsements, but business groups may well see him as the best choice to lead the county going forward.
In an interview, Blair said voters he’s spoken with since launching his second bid are primarily concerned about Montgomery’s lack of affordable housing, “access to good-paying jobs,” and a sense that the county’s celebrated school system is slipping.
“Because I’m a known quantity — people know me — it’s been much easier getting in front of organizations and voters than it was before,” he said.
Due to the pandemic, “our residents have a much better understanding of local government now than they did four years ago.” Of Elrich, Blair said that “any incumbent who hasn’t grown his base of support in four years has reason to be concerned.”
Blair’s path to victory broadens if he again gets the Post endorsement. He also needs the three candidates with prior electoral experience to divide the vote fairly evenly.
If the election was being held now, Elrich would clinch the party nomination, according to the polls.
Voters approve of the job he has done guiding the county through the pandemic, according to the early polls. Fears that the former Takoma Park City councilmember was too far left politically — or lacked the managerial experience needed to run a county larger than some states — have largely dissipated.
Still, he is not the top choice of more than 60% of Montgomery Democrats. (Just 14% of Montgomery’s voters are Republican, meaning that whoever wins the Democratic primary is almost assured of victory in November.)
Elrich has close ties with the county’s unions, and their support — assuming he gets it — will provide crucial boots on the ground during the campaign.
Never a prolific fundraiser, Elrich participated in Montgomery’s public-financing system four years and plans to do so again. That system encourages candidates to attract a large number of small-donor contributions.
In an interview, Elrich said, he will run an aggressive campaign despite the early polls. “My view is you always run like you’re behind.”
Elrich said voters appreciate the county’s overall approach to the pandemic — from its focus on masks and distancing to its vaccine rollout. Montgomery’s vaccine strategy earned recent plaudits from Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has occasionally clashed with Elrich.
“Montgomery County, no question, has been a real standout” in getting people vaccinated, Hogan told Maryland Matters in October. “People there, they’ve done a good job. … Our other counties could look to places like Montgomery County and Howard County and see what success looks like.”
Elrich said Montgomery has made progress in other areas, but its been obscured by the pandemic. “People don’t know that we’ve consistently expanded early childhood education. People don’t know that Montgomery College is announcing an east-side campus. They don’t know what we’ve done with [Metro] in terms of moving toward a joint development agreement on [a life sciences hub at] the White Flint Metro.”
A former two-term state delegate from the Silver Spring area and the founder of Progressive Maryland, Hucker now represents southeastern Montgomery on the council.
Although he just finished a year as president of the nine-member panel, he is not as well known across the county as Riemer, a three-term legislator who serves at-large, or Elrich, who held an at-large seat from 2006 to 2018.
Hucker backed Elrich’s candidacy four years ago — and the two continue to have overlapping supporters and philosophies. He is running for executive even though he would be a strong favorite to win a third term on the council.
Central to Hucker’s pitch to voters is his belief that that Elrich lacks urgency and focus in the way he tackles the county’s challenges, a charge the incumbent rejects.
“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s really taught us that the county government can respond very quickly to severe challenges when it chooses to, to set priorities,” Hucker said. “And that we need to bring the same urgency we brought to COVID to our other stated priorities, including our housing crisis, our climate emergency, our longstanding racial disparities, and our economic development.”
Hucker appears confident of his ability to pull together a coalition of labor, business and civil rights leaders behind his candidacy — and that he will build on his current standing in the polls as he becomes better known in communities beyond his district.
He is not expected to participate in the county’s public financing system.
Hucker and Riemer would both benefit if the other dropped out of the race. Because he lacks Blair’s ability to self-finance and Elrich’s ability to generate headlines, Hucker may have the most to gain from winning the most sought-after endorsements in the county — The Washington Post and the Montgomery County Education Association.
When Montgomery Democrats went to the polls four years ago, they were confronted with a daunting list of 33 candidates competing for four at-large seats on the council.
Hans Riemer, then seeking his third term, finished first, with 54,584 votes, far outpacing the second-place finisher, Jawando.
Barred from seeking re-election by the county’s term limits law, he hopes to unseat Elrich by building on his past victories.
“I am well known in the county,” he said. “I have a relationship with the voters that runs a little deeper.”
Prior to running for office, Riemer helped lead the fight against Republican efforts to privatize Social Security, then served as national youth vote director for then-Sen. Barack Obama.
In an interview, he derided Blair as “a former Republican” and accused Elrich of having “a fringe background.”
Like Hucker, he thinks the county needs a chief executive with a stronger sense of urgency.
“While people love the county, there’s also a sense that we need to be moving faster, that we are at risk of slipping, and we need stronger leadership to get the county positioned for success,” he said.
(Elrich rejects the criticism from his former colleagues. He says the budget deficit he inherited when he took office and the pandemic have made it difficult to roll out new programs, while initiatives he has enacted haven’t gotten attention because of the public health crisis.)
Like Elrich, Riemer is participating in the county’s public financing system, which rewards candidates who have large numbers of smaller donors.
He said he has received contributions from more than 1,000 donors so far. “I’m building a campaign to win.”
(Disclosure: The David and Mikel Blair Family Foundation has been a financial supporter of Maryland Matters.)