The Montgomery County Executive is a powerful position, an independent executive with authority akin to a big-city mayor for a county of over a million people. Six Democrats and one Republican are running to replace Ike Leggett, who is stepping down after 12 years. After considering candidates' responses to our questionnaire and in-depth interviews with finalists, we endorse George Leventhal for Montgomery County Executive.
Leventhal has served as an at-large member of the Montgomery County council since 2002. Although his primary focus has been as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, he’s also developed a reputation as a passionate and consistent advocate for effective transit in the county, as well as a staunch and uncompromising champion for growing affordable housing.
Leventhal was an early champion for the Purple Line, and has been a strong advocate for real Bus Rapid Transit in dedicated lanes throughout the county. He told us in the interview, “If you’re running it in mixed traffic in Randolph Road, that isn’t BRT and we shouldn’t call it BRT.”
Leventhal is a passionate voice for allowing more housing and affordable housing in a sustainable and transit-oriented way, accommodating the growing and increasingly diverse population of the county. He’s also been creative in looking for solutions that are feasible and affordable on these issues. We’ve been very impressed by his engagement of local faith leaders to bring their organizations together with the county to construct affordable housing on disused land adjacent to their buildings. He’s also led on programs to address homelessness within the county, and recently even obtained a PhD in Public Policy in 2017 with a focus on homelessness.
Leventhal has had the commitment to show leadership in the face of political peril to defend the county’s commitment to its least fortunate residents. In 2008, he attempted to secure affordable housing for a homeless family in a historical home in Hillmeade in 2008 despite opposition from the community and several councilmembers. He’s worked hard to build ties with different ethnic communities(he is the only candidate for county executive who is fluent in Spanish), and has a reputation for being responsive and accessible to all of his constituents across the county.
Last year, Leventhal was the steadfast proponent of an aggressive plan to allow more density for affordable housing within walking distance of the Bethesda Metro station — a plan that was ultimately cut back in part by his opponents Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner (see more below). Leventhal’s view brings this issue back to the bottom line: “for all the scaling back… …there are some neighbors who just can’t be satisfied, so they [still] aren’t satisfied, but what you do get is a whole lot less affordable housing.”
Leventhal is also realistic about economic growth. He joins other candidates who are keen on expanding the biotech industry presence in Montgomery County. He said, “Northern Virginia is very good in the death sciences, we’re very good in the life sciences with NIH, and that’s a core industry that we ought to build on. A lot of what the biotech sector wants is exactly what Greater Greater Washington promotes. They want thriving intellectual nodes where there’s lots of services, access to public transportation, and bicycling, and restaurants and cafes.”
However, only Leventhal seems to connect the decisions of employers to select sites for their offices with the presence of (and thus cost-restraint to) suitable housing for the potential employees of those businesses. This county needs a County Executive who will balance keeping the needs of the vulnerable front and center while encouraging growth in the county (both population and economic) that will benefit new and existing residents and is necessary if the county is to maintain the services that its current residents have come to expect and rely on.
Leventhal is also a combative person, and his style rubs some the wrong way. In fact, in our interview, he sparred briefly with the interviewers over whether a question we'd asked was a "litmus test" or not. We recognize that this trait may make some look for a more polished person to vote for, but we see in this that Leventhal is genuine and unafraid to be honest even at the risk of alienating people instead of just trying to tell everyone what they want to hear. We wouldn't mind seeing that forthrightness in the county executive even if that means he vocally disagrees with us from time to time.
Other candidates, great and not so much
The field of candidates is broad and includes other potentially great choices, though we had some concerns for each as well.
Roger Berliner has represented District 1 (Bethesda, Potomac, Chevy Chase) since 2006. He’s been a consistent ally on transit investment around the county and strong proponent of transit-oriented mixed-use development, including the new Pike and Rose development in North Bethesda. He’s even proved his commitment to a transit-oriented future by moving to an apartment in Pike and Rose.
We feel Berliner has been too deferential to neighbors who oppose needed housing by scaling down development plans in places like Bethesda, Westbard and Chevy Chase Lake. These compromises did little to mollify neighborhood opposition while significantly reducing the number of affordable units in these plans. Likewise, he has been reluctant to push for flexibility in single-family neighborhoods where the addition of small multi-unit dwellings could make housing more affordable. Bringing affordable housing into more parts of the county will upset some neighbors, but unless we're willing to have that conversation, the problem of socioecomonic and education segregation in the county cannot be fixed.
Berliner earned the endorsement of the Sierra Club for his environmental leadership including on transportation, and has been a valuable ally in the county council.
Rose Krasnow’s history as deputy director of the planning department, and mayor of Rockville suggested both the experience in land use and the executive experience necessary for the job of County Executive. She understands that our economic success depends on growing more housing, and in a forum earlier this year, signaled an openness to accessory dwelling units and others ways of increasing the capacity of single family neighborhoods.
However, we’re concerned about her support for building M-83 and considering a second Potomac River crossing. She may be correct that there’s not currently political will to accomplish those things, but the next County Executive will absolutely set the tone on expanding Bus Rapid Transit beyond Route 29, and on that she recently told Bethesda Beat, “I’m not sure it is the way we should be going right now,” instead proposing essentially more use of Uber.
Montgomery County absolutely must increase its transportation options if it is to grow sustainably, and we have concerns about Krasnow's commitment to this goal.
David Blair has received the endorsement of the Washington Post, but we view him skeptically. His response to our candidate questionnaire included some potentially effective ideas, like making the Ride On bus system free, but overall did not seem grounded in the real opportunities and challenges facing transportation and housing issues in the county.
His emphasis is on economic growth, but without real attention to inclusion and ensuring that the benefits of that growth are widely shared. Further, he seems to overestimate the extent to which the county government can shape the economic activity of the county, without giving significant consideration to the specific tools it has, and discussing how those would result in the growth he anticipates.
We would prefer to see a candidate with more experience in local government and policy for the job of running such a large and diverse jurisdiction.
Marc Elrich has been a dedicated public servant for almost thirty years, twelve of those serving as an at-large member of the council. In that period he’s been an advocate for the less privileged residents of the county. While his lapses into hyperbole and invective might give one pause, we don’t doubt the sincerity of his commitment.
Unfortunately, we do have questions about the policies Marc advocates for as he tries to work to make the county more inclusive. The policies he promotes, such as preventing existing suburban neighborhoods from accommodating smaller units or being asked to contribute financially to needed infrastructure when affordable housing is built in the more urban parts of the county, will end up exacerbating the very problems he seeks to solve.
We realize that many people who share our values are considering supporting Councilmember Elrich because of his ideals, and so we’re publishing a separate article discussing his views in detail, and our reasons for believing readers should make a different choice.
Delegate Bill Frick did not return our questionnaire, and Republican candidate Robin Ficker's views on most key issues do not reflect our priorities.
The winner of the Democratic primary is virtually certain to win in November. The next county executive will set the direction of the county for years to come, and will be especially influential with a county council where newcomers will hold four or more of the nine seats. We recommend readers vote for the candidate with the best campaign ad; and more importantly, the candidate who has been most committed to mass transit, growing affordable housing, and building an inclusive community: George Leventhal.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. All endorsements are decided by our volunteer Elections Committee with input from our board and other volunteer committees. Want to keep up on other endorsement posts? Check out our 2018 primary summary page and sign up for our weekly elections newsletter.