The Contrarian of the County Council

Marc Elrich has been known to follow the path of most resistance. That’s what worries his critics—particularly when they hear he could be the next county executive.



“They shouldn’t be scared of me,” Elrich says of critics. “[Nothing] that I’ve supported is going to change the business climate or alter the universe in any dramatic way.” Photo by Michael Ventura

It's about halfway through a two-hour breakfast at Silver Spring’s Parkway Deli, and Marc Elrich has been listening as an interviewer recites a veritable menu of criticisms aimed at him from the local business establishment.

“You hear any good stuff?” the two-term Montgomery County councilmember finally asks with a bemused, if weary, smile, gamely hoping to hear some kindly words to offset the sniping.

Well, yes and no. 

Meet the man who today is arguably Montgomery County’s most unconventional and controversial elected official—a man both friends and foes say could have a shot at being the next county executive. Elrich hasn’t committed to running for the top job, but confirms he would “seriously” consider it if the current officeholder, Isiah “Ike” Leggett, sticks to his declared intention to retire in 2014. If he does end up running, Elrich could face stiff competition from a crowded Democratic primary field that already includes former County Executive Douglas Duncan and at least two of Elrich’s county council colleagues, Philip Andrews and George Leventhal

The very prospect of an Elrich candidacy has the 63-year-old’s critics quaking. He has long been a lightning rod, thanks to his college days as a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); his nearly 20 years on the city council of Takoma Park, often viewed as the most left-leaning bastion of a liberal county; his longtime status as an outspoken skeptic of new development in Montgomery County—ranging from the Intercounty Connector to early reconstruction plans for downtown Silver Spring; and his frequent demands that developers pony up additional taxes and fees to underwrite public infrastructure.   

“I believe Marc Elrich is the most dangerous politician in Montgomery County,” declares one area developer who declines to be identified. “The first reason is that he is basically anti-capitalist. The second is that he is the most skillful politician in Montgomery County—the best at having an instinct for every constituency’s hot button and how to appeal to it.”

Elrich responds to the criticisms in a soft, measured voice between bites of his Egg Beater omelet. “They shouldn’t be scared of me,” he says. “[Nothing] that I’ve supported is going to change the business climate or alter the universe in any dramatic way.”  

Love him or loathe him, everyone agrees: Marc Elrich is smart. 

“He’s like the kid in school who either never opened the textbook or opened it the night before and then aced the test,” says Bruce Williams, the current mayor of Takoma Park who served alongside Elrich for 14 years on the city council. 

He is persistent. He ran for county council no fewer than four times before winning an at-large seat in 2006.

He is hard-working. He displays a seemingly endless appetite for both constituent outreach and policy detail. He spent, for instance, countless nights researching transportation patterns in the county and mass transit options across the globe before spearheading a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) system beginning in 2008 that some developers see as key to future growth.  

Both friends and foes agree that Elrich’s core beliefs have changed little since he was first elected to public office a quarter-century ago, when the now-balding councilmember occasionally sported a ponytail. But some do perceive a style shift involving more than his coiffure from those early days, when he likened the county’s development community to a “tumor.” 

“I think on his exterior he’s much mellower,” says Leggett, who has known Elrich since the mid-1980s.

Perhaps Leggett is choosing to overlook the time in 2007 when Elrich infuriated him by trying to invite representatives of Venezuela’s socialist regime to discuss possible areas of cooperation with the county council. “[To say] I was pretty animated would be an understatement, I guess,” chuckles the low-key Leggett, who found out about Elrich’s plan while on a trip to Israel and quickly quashed it. “I was pretty upset.”

Then there was the tension between the two over county and state financing of The Fillmore concert hall in downtown Silver Spring. In 2010, Elrich went as far as to file an affidavit supporting a lawsuit against the project, prompting charges he’d violated county ethics policy in doing so. Leggett, who strongly backed the project, says he and Elrich subsequently discussed the matter and “agreed to disagree.” 

Despite all that, Leggett gives Elrich his due. He contends that Elrich’s “passion for some of the things that he believes in” can be misinterpreted as intractability. But “he is more practical than people give him credit for,” Leggett says. “I’ve seen that when he believes and understands that there is a better way, he’s persuadable.”

Elrich’s edgy political profile may not evoke an avuncular image, but he is, in fact, a grandfather of “four nice grandkids.” He has resided in Takoma Park for more than 30 years, and lives a block from his ex-wife and two blocks from his daughter’s family. He taught fourth and fifth grade for nearly two decades at Takoma Park’s Rolling Terrace Elementary School. In addition to two biological children, there are two foster children—including a foster son with Down syndrome who joined the family at age 8 and is now 45. He has been living with Elrich’s ex-wife, but was about to move in with Elrich. 

“I’ll get to be a father again, which is sort of a strange and unusual thing at this point,” he muses. 

Elrich grew up just over the city line from Takoma Park in the District of Columbia, with the family moving to Silver Spring when he was 10. He was the lead singer and played rhythm guitar and keyboard in a rock band while attending Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. Today, he plays the guitar to relax, and “I fantasize about taking a guitar lesson once a week if I can ever get my life straight.”

After high school, Elrich attended the University of Maryland, where he helped organize and lead demonstrations for SDS—activities that continue to play a role in perceptions of him nearly a half-century later. 

“There were a lot of things wrong with society,” Elrich says. “There was an outrageous war going on in Asia—immoral, unjust. …I got involved like a lot of other young people got involved. I just happened to be good at writing things and good at public speaking, so I played a little more active role.”

Years later, Elrich and other elected officials were arrested during a silent protest of apartheid held outside the South African embassy in Washington. But Elrich managed to avoid jail during his College Park days. “Back then, [the police] were really brutal,” he says. “…I remember we were out on Route 1, and they brought down reinforcements—these guys from Baltimore. They got off the buses and took off their badges and IDs so you couldn’t say it was Officer So-and-So who beat the crap out of you.”

Williams, the Takoma Park mayor, says that period was no mere phase for his longtime friend.

“A lot of people feel like they thought certain ways and did certain things when they were young, and now they’ve moved beyond that,” Williams says. “But Marc will say, ‘No, I’ve thought about those very clearly, I took certain stands [and] I’m proud of those. They’re part of who I am today.’ ”

Others view it less kindly, however. “Marc still clings to a political philosophy that most of us shed after sophomore year of college, once we began to grow up,” one critic says. 

Indeed, some maintain Elrich’s SDS days made him not only hostile to capitalism, but turned him into a socialist.

“I’ve had to deal with that [criticism] for many years,” Elrich says with irritation. It’s “because I’m from Takoma Park, I’m clearly left of center, and I do have strong views of how workers should be treated, and notions of fair wages.”

Elrich declines to say whether he considers himself a socialist. “It’s irrelevant,” he says.  “…I was in the business world. I appreciate how things are done. I’m not doing anything that will undo the business world or bring socialism to Montgomery County.”

In fact, Elrich worked at one of the mainstays of retail capitalism after college—Montgomery Ward, where he became a manager in the automotive department and was regularly sent out to help open new stores. “I actually have a real business background,” he chuckles.

But by the time he was elected to the Takoma Park City Council in 1987, those days were behind him. He had gone on to help run a food cooperative that served Takoma Park and Silver Spring, and returned to college to earn a master’s degree in teaching from Johns Hopkins University. Even so, he says people underestimate the business acumen he gained from his early career. 

When he joined the city council, “I was a fiscal conservative,” he says. “I would take apart line item budgets. I would want to know why we were buying an IBM computer rather than an off-brand computer that had the same processor.”

Just as he had throughout college and the 1980s, however—when he would protest U.S. involvement in Central America, accompanied by his offspring—Elrich didn’t shy away from raising more global, hot-button issues. In 1992, he and a colleague sought to do away with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of council meetings. His effort failed, though the practice was later dropped.

It’s one of the few issues that Elrich is sheepish about today, perhaps cognizant that sensibilities about patriotic expression have shifted since 9/11.

Nonetheless, “I don’t believe in loyalty tests,” he says. “I don’t believe that you should look at what somebody says and decide whether they’re loyal or not. …It’s a lot more complex issue than people give it credit for.”

Williams, who says he would have supported Elrich’s position on the pledge had he been on the council at the time, observes that “Marc pushes the envelope more than I would on those issues.” Still, “I salute him for it. I think it shows a certain bravery. A lot of people just go along to get along.”

“To get along, go along,” the late U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to advise incoming legislators. Elrich clearly isn’t one to take that particular approach. Consequently, his relationship with his colleagues is, well, complicated.

On the plus side, several councilmembers say they appreciate his forthrightness and work ethic.

“Give me an issue, and I can tell you where Marc is going to be on that issue,” says Councilmember Nancy Floreen, who frequently finds herself on the opposite end from Elrich. “I can’t say that of other people. He is less truly political; he’s very policy-based.” 

Councilmember Roger Berliner has found himself allied with Elrich on several issues, including the BRT. “He single-handedly has brought this issue to the forefront of the county’s transportation agenda,” Berliner says. “That took an extraordinary amount of work on the concept and the details. That’s one of Marc’s great gifts: Not only is he not afraid of the details, he loves getting into the details.”

And not just the policy details. This child of the ’60s introduced iPhones to the county council information network. “When I was told we couldn’t have them and they wouldn’t work, we actually proved to people we could have them and they integrated perfectly into the system,” Elrich recalls.

Beneath the surface, however, the relationship between Elrich and his fellow legislators has been bumpy.

It hasn’t been unusual to find Elrich at the losing end of an 8-1 vote. At times, fellow legislators have sought to woo him, hoping a unanimous decision on a particular issue will thwart criticism from the liberal activists who form part of Elrich’s base. Call it the “Mikey” school of politics, as in the 40-year-old TV commercial in which two older brothers foist Life cereal on their sibling, declaring: “Let’s get Mikey. He hates everything.”

 

Elrich regrets some of the times he has played along. He cites the White Flint redevelopment plan, passed unanimously in early 2010, as an example.  

“When my colleagues were under pressure from civic people, asking, ‘Why did you vote for that, it’s a really bad decision,’ [the response was]: ‘Even Marc voted for it. He thought it was OK,’ ” Elrich says. “I don’t want to provide that kind of cover.”

The flip side of that is that Elrich doesn’t shy away from occasionally using his legislative colleagues as a foil. Take the recent inaugural meeting of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, a group formed to push for protections for renters.

“I tried a couple of years ago: I circulated a [rent control] proposal to all of the council members,” Elrich tells a sympathetic audience of more than 100 at the Silver Spring Civic Building. “Not a single one wanted to talk to me about it.”

 Urging listeners to attend a forthcoming county council committee meeting on the subject, he notes: “My colleagues need to see other people in the audience [rather than just landlords and land-use attorneys] so that they know there are other people paying attention.”

Elrich later concedes that he isn’t likely to meet with any more success on rent control than he has in the past with his colleagues. But “I want to have the discussion,” he says. “We are losing an enormous amount of affordable housing just to rent increases. There is no credible program anyone has come up with that will replace the number of affordable units that get lost every year to changes in rents.”

Privately, some of Elrich’s colleagues grouse about him raising a proposal assured of going nowhere. Furthermore, they worry that a high-profile debate of the issue could reinforce past perceptions of Montgomery County as unfriendly to business.

Tension over issues such as this perhaps explains why Elrich, unlike colleagues with similar or even shorter tenure, has yet to serve as president or vice president of the council or to hold a committee chairmanship. Given his interest in land-use and development issues, Elrich sought the chairmanship of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee in early 2011. But the council’s president at the time, Valerie Ervin, passed him over for Floreen.

“I got screwed,” Elrich said with characteristic bluntness at the time.

Ervin’s take: “At that time, I believed a majority of the council thought his views were pretty extreme, more extreme than the eight other councilmembers. And after talking to a vast majority of my colleagues, it was very clear that was not the direction people wanted to go.”

Though Ervin says she thinks Elrich has since “grown into his role as a more moderate member of the council, if I had to do it over again, I would still choose Nancy Floreen.”

For his part, Elrich says he’s probably more mainstream than his colleagues credit him with being. He points to his first-place finish in the 2010 Democratic primary for at-large county councilmembers. His championship of the BRT, which is designed to reduce traffic congestion, has brought him more in line with local business interests, as well. 

Elrich began thinking seriously about the idea not long after first being elected six years ago. “It was apparent there was no way you could build an auto infrastructure adequate to support future development,” he says. “So I was curious to see if there were ways of moving people so that we’d continue to have ways to grow rather than shutting the place down.”

The future of the BRT proposal remains unclear. Many are taking a wait-and-see attitude, citing questions of cost and the ability to get riders out of their cars and into high-end buses.

But Stephen Elmendorf, a partner in the Bethesda-based law firm of Linowes and Blocher, praises Elrich’s “willingness to look for ways to solve the problem that has always been raised for not allowing more development to occur—which is the traffic issue.”

Just after his election in 2006, Elrich was invited to breakfast with attorneys at Linowes and Blocher. “He asked me if he had to bring his food taster,” Elmendorf recalls with a laugh. 

Today, Elmendorf says, those in the business community “know Marc better, and they know they can talk to him. [But] I don’t think there is a belief that he has suddenly changed his core values.” 

That’s why much of the county’s business establishment continues to regard Elrich’s future political intentions with a degree of nervousness.

Elrich is already taking swipes at one potential rival, Duncan, over development issues. “I can’t pay for anything if I don’t have a successful business community—but having a successful business community doesn’t mean that they get everything they want,” he says. “In fact, giving them everything they want doesn’t necessarily mean the government is going to have the resources to do the things that the government has to do.”

He continues: “Duncan’s years [in office] are a perfect example because we had all this growth in the county and we did no infrastructure—because nobody wanted to go after the residents and say, ‘We’re not making developers pay, you’re going to have to pay.’ So here we are: We don’t have the fire stations you need, we don’t have the police stations you need, you don’t have the libraries you need, and [we] let the schools get overcrowded.”

That said, Elrich also acknowledges that part of deciding whether he seeks the county’s top job is “what kind of council [I’d] be working with.” 

“It’s not much good to be an executive in a hostile environment where you don’t think you can get things done,” he says. 

The Contenders

The contest for Montgomery County’s next county executive includes a lot of wannabes and what-ifs

The 2014 race for Montgomery County executive could turn out to be the most wide open since the office was created more than four decades ago.

Or, it could turn out to be a Battle of the Titans, with the two men who have held the post over the past two decades—incumbent Isiah “Ike” Leggett and his immediate predecessor, Douglas Duncan—facing off.  

Publicly, Leggett has been saying since 2011 that he plans to retire at the conclusion of his second term in 2014. But there’s rampant speculation both in Rockville and around the county that Leggett, who turns 70 next year, will decide to run again—reflecting, perhaps, a desire on the part of the political and business establishment to avoid uncertainty and head off any upheaval in the way the county is governed.

Leggett has left himself ample wiggle room to change his mind. Asked in an interview last fall whether he was still planning to retire, he responded: “I will have to say that a lot of people have asked me to re-evaluate that. But I haven’t found any compelling reasons as of yet to do that.”

Leggett left the door further ajar—saying he would announce a decision this year after meeting with supporters—following Duncan’s appearance before a group of business leaders at a Gaithersburg hotel last November. 

“Make no mistake: I am running for county executive,” Duncan was quoted as telling the closed gathering. Such statements notwithstanding, he has since kept a low profile, prompting questions by some political insiders about whether he will indeed get into the race if Leggett seeks re-election. (Duncan did not return several calls seeking comment for this story.)

A poll commissioned by Duncan is said to have found that a race between him and Leggett—whose personal styles and governing philosophies contrast starkly—would be highly competitive. Some see that scenario as likely clearing the field of most other potential candidates, all of whom are Democrats (no Republican has been elected county executive since 1974).

If Leggett opts to depart, the focus would turn not only to Duncan, but to the prospect of a wholesale turnover in the Montgomery County Council—where a majority of the nine members appear to have some interest in moving around the corner in Rockville from 100 Maryland Ave. to 101 Monroe St.

One would be Councilmember Marc Elrich, an outspoken critic of county development policy who has said he would seriously consider running if Leggett does not. Other members of the potential field:

Councilmember Philip Andrews, who says he is “definitely” running regardless of who else enters the fray. A member of the council since 1998, he’s a former Maryland director of Common Cause whose reform image is bolstered by his refusal to take contributions from either developers or PACs. He has not been afraid to take on both developers and the county employee unions, whose contracts he considers “unsustainable.”

Councilmember Valerie Ervin. “I do think it’s intriguing that Montgomery County has never had a woman executive before,” Ervin says. At press time, she was reported to be in “serious discussions” about running, telling The Washington Post that “I’m getting a lot of incredible feedback that people want to see me move ahead.” She expected to make a decision by early March. Meanwhile, council observers say she has been working to repair relations with county labor unions that were damaged in an often nasty budget battle while she was council president in 2011.

Councilmember George Leventhal, who recently confirmed he’s in the race. A onetime aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, Leventhal has lined up with labor and pro-development forces during much of his council tenure. But he recently has found himself teaming with development skeptic Elrich on some issues.

Others expressing public or private interest in the county executive contest include Councilmember Nancy Floreen and former Councilmember Michael Knapp, an ex-congressional aide who left the county council at the end of 2010 after serving two terms from an upcounty district. 

In addition, state Del. Benjamin Kramer, son of former County Executive Sidney Kramer—who served one term from 1986 to 1990—has been exploring a run. But the younger Kramer, who lost a run for county council in 2009, has been quoted as saying he would not take on Leggett.

Then there’s Steve Silverman, the county’s current economic development chief and a former member of the county council who lost to Leggett by a wide margin in the 2006 Democratic primary. But even if his current boss, Leggett, were to retire, it’s widely thought that Silverman’s political base would be largely pre-empted with Duncan in the contest.

As the political establishment awaits Leggett’s next move, the possibility of a crowded field has provided parlor-game fodder, even as it has created nervousness over future county governance. As one local developer put it, “If you get three or more candidates, that ball can bounce any way—because, all of a sudden, 30 percent to 40 percent [of the primary vote] is a winner.”

Louis Peck, a Washington-based journalist for three decades, has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level. He lives in Bethesda and is on the faculty of Boston University’s Washington, D.C., Journalism Program.

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