Marc Elrich, a candidate for Montgomery County Executive, has been saying Greater Greater Washington took his words out of context in an opinion article, “Why Marc Elrich is not the right choice for Montgomery County Executive.” We did not misrepresent him, and stand by our reporting.
Elrich contacted us after the article went up asking for the audio from the 80-minute conversation he had with Montgomery County residents Sanjida Rangwala and Sean Robertson and county native Rahul Sinha, all members of our volunteer Elections Committee. He then shared it (without discussing whether that was okay) with Bethesda Beat and Seventh State.
Andrew Metcalf of Bethesda Beat didn't find anything unfair in our summary of the discussion. David Lublin, a former Town of Chevy Chase mayor and Seventh State blogger who's attacked Greater Greater Washington and members of our community on many prior occasions, took Elrich's side.
The immediate controversy surrounded a statement of Elrich's in which he said, “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick.” He came under fire for that statement, including from the Washington Post editorial board. He did say that, and everyone agrees. There certainly was a context to it, which we relayed in the original article.
To clear the matter up, we told a number of people on Twitter that we'd release audio from that segment of the discussion. However, Elrich campaign manager Ben Spielberg emailed on Saturday and asked us not to release any audio.
We didn’t take anything out of context
Here’s what Lublin says Elrich meant:
It was part of a much larger discussion of housing policy but the broader point was that it would be good to have jobs in many locales, including Frederick City, so the people up there don’t have to commute so far, which would also help alleviate traffic in Montgomery – an enormous concern – and help the environment.
He’d like to see more people have shorter commutes and more jobs near them around the region. … Moreover, the discussion was taking place in the context of the regional Council of Governments’ goal for housing and jobs around the region, which unsurprisingly includes plans for more of both in Frederick.
This is pretty much exactly what we said Elrich believes. The interviewers were talking about people who work in Bethesda (or DC) but live in Frederick and drive through Montgomery County. They asked Elrich what he’d do to help those people live closer to work, and he said, “I’d prefer to put jobs in Frederick.”
Lublin tries to justify this policy. We think it’s a bad policy.
Putting more jobs in Frederick would not alleviate traffic in Montgomery County
Let’s put aside new job growth and just look at the jobs that are in Montgomery County today. Each one has to be filled with a human being, who lives somewhere.
If they live near that job, great; no traffic. If they can't afford to live nearby, they'll travel farther. If driving is the only or easiest way to get there, they'll drive.
The traffic in Montgomery County comes from the existing jobs. If you don't want a lot of traffic, you need to do one of three things: help workers live nearer the jobs, boost transit accessibility so people don’t have to drive, or see the jobs or workers move away. None of which are addressed by adding jobs in Frederick.
In one way, Lublin’s characterization is completely incorrect. He wrote, “More broadly, Elrich doesn’t see economic activity as a zero-sum game where Frederick’s gain is necessarily Montgomery’s loss.” But Elrich actually did describe growth as a zero-sum game.
Every time the interviewers asked about ways Montgomery could plan for more jobs and more people beyond what’s already in the plans, Elrich scoffed at the idea, calling it “grabbing” growth. The regional Council of Governments projects a share of growth for each jurisdiction; it’s a forecast, not a cap, and it comes out of counties’ own planning and zoning, since counties with more restrictive zoning have less growth forecasted.
Montgomery could hope for more new jobs and residents than the forecast predicts, and could get there by changing its land use plans. In our discussion, Elrich specifically opposed altering the forecast. In other words, he absolutely saw growth as a zero-sum game; more than that, he saw it as a game Montgomery County shouldn’t compete in.
More housing in River Road, Westbard, etc.? Yes!
Lublin moves on to criticize our views about where to add housing. Some of the interviewers suggested there should be more new homes in Bethesda, the Westbard corridor just west of Bethesda, or along River Road. (We also talked about Kensington.)
What do all these areas have in common? They are all really close to the major urban job center known as Bethesda. The area the Census defines as “Bethesda” has 75,000 jobs (primarily in downtown Bethesda and Medical Center), more than the central business districts of Austin or San Diego, and growing.
If you think of Bethesda as an outer suburban commercial corridor filled with auto dealerships and parking lots (and it used to be!), then suggesting adding new homes in these other places makes less sense. If you see it as an urban downtown, as it has become, then helping people live nearby is the right policy, as Lublin said, “so the people up there don’t have to commute so far, which would also help alleviate traffic ... and help the environment.”
Lublin said that about Frederick, remember. So his and Elrich's view is, yes to jobs near houses in Frederick, but no to houses near jobs in Bethesda? Why?
Lublin says that’s because “people … don’t want to .. just end up next to a tall building.” Committee member Sean Robertson wrote in an email,
Nobody here is seriously talking about dropping tall condo towers in the middle of single-family neighborhoods as Lublin implies. But Elrich is the staunchest defender of a status quo in which it’s commonplace to sell an affordable, 2,000 square foot house to be torn down and replaced by a 6,000 square foot mansion, but replacing that same home with two 2,000 square foot houses or four 1,000 square foot units would be unthinkable.
Why not give homeowners the right to make choices that create more affordable housing? Why would the equity candidate defend a status quo that worsens neighborhood segregation?
And why would progressives defend Elrich on this?
Why you should understand Elrich-ism
Elrich draws from two bases of support. First are labor unions and Bernie Sanders fans and others for whom issues like the minimum wage are the top priorities. Elrich is the farthest left on these, though George Leventhal, our choice, is generally seen as the second strongest on these issues, and that is a factor for a number of people in our community.
The other main category is neighborhood activists for whom opposing new housing in their areas is their top priority, which some call “NIMBYism.” Elrich has a long history of being a staunch ally of these groups, voting most often to defend their views and fight against change.
The first group of policies can be categorized as “progressive.” The second is not, but nationwide, some candidates in liberal areas, such as San Francisco, are also building similar coalitions to Elrich's. Our community has diverse views on the first group of issues and includes many progressives, while our community is unified in disagreeing with Elrich on the second. We think it's important that progressives think about whether they want to also be NIMBYs or not.
We don't support Chevy Chase’s privilege
To put it simply, some residents of the Town of Chevy Chase are controlling a lot of land right near this major job center of Bethesda, opposing any trains that can help get less fortunate people to those jobs, and opposing rules that allow more homes, or bonuses for more affordable homes, at the edge of Bethesda near Chevy Chase.
Elrich is on their side, and they give him much of his political power.
I am very fortunate too in that I worked for Google and own a $1-million-plus townhouse a quarter mile from Metro where I can walk to work, and am near a great elementary school. I firmly believe my neighborhood of Dupont Circle should find ways to give more people of all incomes access to that geographic opportunity.
I believe fighting inequality is a cardinal challenge of our era. I think that we must not blithely accept that wealthy areas right near major job centers can veto both new residents and new transportation to get people to the jobs nearby. I don't think we should assume that we can only grow where it won't bother anyone with means, and damage the environment in doing so.
Marc Elrich will fight inequality in the budget, but not in land use policy. Progressives should know this. They should look for progressives who take a progressive view of land use as well.
George Leventhal has fought to break down neighborhood segregation by providing affordable housing in all parts of the county, working with houses of worship to build housing on their land, seeking to preserve a county-owned home in Hillmead, and supporting more housing in sector plans for Chevy Chase Lake, Bethesda, and Westbard. That’s how we chip away at the entrenched privilege of communities like Chevy Chase.
We didn't get Marc Elrich wrong. We got him just right.