Caption: Marc Elrich (center, in blue shirt) celebrates Montgomery County Council’s passage of a $15/hour minimum wage plan.
We’ve just completed a very full and complex primary election season here in Maryland. The Democratic party races included those for U.S. House and Senate, Governor, and the entire state legislature. I live in Montgomery County, a large, populous, relatively affluent, and 65% Democratic county northwest of Washington, DC. This election cycle included Democratic primary races for our County Executive, the nine-member County Council, the school board, circuit court judges, and sundry other county offices, as well as the Central Committees of both parties.
Newly retired, I had decided to re-commit myself to the political process as the fateful 2016 presidential race unfolded. I was an early backer of Bernie Sanders’ bid, but shifted my efforts to Hillary after she garnered the Democratic nomination. I volunteered to fill the empty precinct-leadership job for our local Democratic party and spent the presidential election day manning a Democratic candidate information table at our local polling place.
Hillary’s defeat was devastating for us Democrats, but after emerging from the trauma of it, I decided to re-double my commitment. After the historic Women’s March of January 2017, my wife and I formed a small Indivisible group and committed ourselves to meeting regularly with a group of similarly minded friends to take up specific political projects. We enlisted our efforts in support of the “Fight for 15” minimum wage campaign in our county and were gratified that our efforts paid off in a victory after a year-long battle within our County Council. We attended rallies and meetings, testified at public hearings, and met privately with Council members who were on the fence. This process acquainted us with many of the local political leaders who would emerge as candidates in our recent primary election.
I spent a lot of time this spring reading and getting to know many of the candidates via numerous public debates. The candidate who I ended up focusing the most energy on was Marc Elrich, who I had known from our days living in Takoma Park, MD in the 1980s and ‘90s. Marc is a three-term Councilman-at-Large in Montgomery county, and was running for the County Executive slot the in the Democratic primary. I had known him personally during his multi-term service on the Takoma Park City Council. Marc was also a community organizer, best known for his indefatigable work in getting the Takoma Park Food Co-op started (the Co-op is still flourishing some thirty years later). I reconnected with Marc during the year-long “Fight for 15” which he single-mindedly shepherded through to its final Council approval last fall. Seven other Democratic candidates were also running campaigns in the County Executive primary, two of them fellow Council members who we had witnessed during numerous open Council meetings.
At first, I wasn’t convinced that Marc would make the best Executive. His two rivals from the Council, George Leventhal and Roger Berliner, both seemed more polished in their mastery of the Council’s complex political machinations. In addition, George was another Takoma Park political activist who I’d known and admired, and Roger was the father of one of our son’s friends in grade school.
One of the highlights of this year’s county elections was the implementation of a long-awaited public-private funding mechanism for candidates who meet the criteria in terms of number of donors and amount raised. To receive the public subsidy, candidates had to limit total individual donations to $150 and refuse financial help from other entities. The entire process is carefully regulated and stands as a major advance in the democratization of our county’s election process, long plagued by large-scale property developer donations to candidates who may then be beholden. Participation in the “public option” is entirely voluntarily. For the County Executive race, three of the candidates opted for it, and another four pursued purely private funding.
Both Marc and George were early participants and I actually gave preliminary $50 donations to both of their campaigns. The public option rewards the first $50 from a donor with three times that much in county funding. So my initial $50 to each candidate netted $150 from the county as well.
Around New Years, my wife and I decided to unequivocally back Marc. The reason was that Marc was consistently prioritizing the well-being of the county’s middle and lower-income families. Montgomery county had become prohibitively expensive for many working people, such that even county teachers and police often had to live in less expensive areas outside the county. Marc’s championing of the $15 minimum wage had been an attempt to ameliorate the large income gap. He had also been in the forefront to guarantee that a percentage of all new housing units in the county contain affordable units for lower income families. And he was also insisting that new housing constructed around new Metro extensions not obliterate existing low-income housing units.
A newcomer to county politics, the wealthy businessman David Blair soon became the lead contender in the Democratic County Executive primary. Blair didn’t participate in the public funding system, opting instead to take unlimited private donations as well as spending some $3 million of his own on his campaign. Blair garnered the endorsement of the Washington Post, which was long opposed to Marc Elrich’s brand of citizen activism, and more comfortable with Blair’s carefully centrist and business-oriented focus.
By the spring, I’d maxed out with my $150 contribution to the Elrich campaign. I put up a yard sign and began talking Marc up with friends and relatives. Marc had a fiery pre-election pep-rally attended by the wide spectrum of his political base: labor union members, immigration rights activists, Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” members and supporters, Hispanic and African American civics groups, community-based environmentalists, and an eloquent spokesperson for the burgeoning movement of young people for gun control. I was inspired to volunteer in passing out campaign literature at busy Metro stops. I got a “Marc Elrich for County Executive” tee shirt and started wearing it regularly.
By election day, local polling was reporting a close race between Blair and Elrich. I worked the polls for the Democratic party but had to maintain neutrality there for all Democratic primary races. I was encouraged that other groups were out in force advocating for Marc at my polling place, including the Jews United for Justice organization and a polite, articulate young man from the Democratic Socialists of America.
The election returns yielded a virtual tie between Blair and Elrich, each with about 30% of the count. Marc was ahead by 80 votes, but the absentee and provisional ballots remained to be hand-counted. This labor-intensive process took over a week to complete and Marc maintained his slim lead. Blair lodged a challenge and a selective re-count was performed. Marc’s victory held for the re-count and Blair finally conceded in late July.
But Marc’s victory in the Democratic primary, which usually guarantees success in November against the outnumbered Republicans, had still one more storm cloud on the horizon. A few days after the election, another longtime Democratic Council member, Nancy Floreen, announced her intention to run an independent campaign for County Executive in the fall election. Floreen had spoken out against what she claimed was Marc’s “socialist agenda”, and hoped to garner support from the more centrist, business-oriented elements of the Democratic party. She’ll need to garner some 4,000 signatures before August 6 in order to get on the ballot.
This primary election has only confirmed my belief that it is not the time for Democrats to play business-as-usual in the 2018 elections. We need candidates who have a proven track record of working for the 90% of Americans who aren’t sharing in the current economic expansion. Marc Elrich is one of the few politicians I know who has remained committed to improving the lot of the 90% of our citizens who struggle every day to make ends meet. Like Bernie Sanders, he articulates a clear and convincing message of working for the greatest good of the greatest number. He is neither anti-business nor anti-development, but wants to make sure that businesses and developers pay their fare share from the prosperity they continue to enjoy in our wealthy county.
John Bayerl, 7/26/2018