Montgomery County voters have to choose between sitting at-large councilmembers Marc Elrich and Nancy Floreen for county executive on November 6. The Greater Greater Washington community is far from unified in its view on this race. To help readers think about the issues, we're bringing you a pair of opinion pieces by members of our community who are backing different candidates. Read the other one, by Dan Reed, making the case for Nancy Floreen.
Elections are not popularity contests; they are about the distribution of power and how it will be used. This maxim is especially relevant to this year's choice among three flawed candidates for Montgomery county executive. Of the three, Marc Elrich is the clear choice for urbanists.
The executive controls transportation, not housing
Montgomery's government structure divides authority over the places where we live. Planning and zoning are in the hands of the county council and a planning board that it chooses and supervises. Roads and transit are built by the county and state transportation departments that report to their executives and can ignore master plans when they so choose. Thus while the next executive can dominate transportation policy, they will have much less influence on housing.
Over the last quarter-century, the planning board has sought to diversify the county's living arrangements by inserting walkable downtowns into the landscape of strip malls, single-family houses, and garden apartments. But the county transportation department, under a pair of suburban-oriented county executives, has undermined these efforts by insisting that moving motor vehicles comes before all else. So we get deadly highways around Germantown Town Center and stalling that has delayed the transformation of White Flint.
For the county to continue its progress toward a more urban future, the policies and culture of the transportation department need fundamental change. While a few outstanding bicycle and pedestrian projects have advanced under current director Al Roshdieh, there has been little alteration in the day-to-day workings of the department. And two of the three candidates for executive promise a return to the worst excesses of the past.
Robin Ficker, the Republican candidate, is easy to dismiss. In transportation and housing policy, as elsewhere, he has a Trump-like penchant for bombast and promises that can't be kept. He says he would somehow make the ICC toll-free, get rid of speed cameras, make parking cheaper, build the costly M83 and Montrose Parkway East highways, and do it all while cutting taxes. He also supports Governor Hogan's plan to add Lexus Lanes to the Beltway and I-270. He opposes the recently passed plans that allow more housing in downtown Bethesda and at Westbard.
Floreen is the highway-builders' candidate
Nancy Floreen, the independent, is no provocateur, but she is a staunch advocate of putting highways first. She cast the sole negative vote on the county's transportation priorities letter — a key policy-setting document — because she wanted more highways and less transit. She fought against transit and bike funding in order to speed construction of Montrose Parkway East. Her campaign manager is asphalt lobbyist Rich Parsons, the nemesis of transit and smart growth for two decades.
Over the course of her political career, Floreen has switched sides in the county's long-standing development wars. She arrived on the Planning Board in 1986 as the nominee of Rose Crenca, the development foe who famously told those of us who prefer urban living to move out of the county. In that office, Floreen fought against plans for building in downtown Silver Spring and opposed the Purple Line.
She returned to county politics in 2002 as a pro-ICC candidate for County Council, and soon became a close ally of the real estate industry. She continued, however, to cultivate a voting base in Chevy Chase by opposing the Purple Line (she changed her position only after Martin O'Malley's election as governor made it a seeming sure thing). The one constant in Floreen's record is her devotion to suburbanism and the automobile — as she recently put it, “Montgomery County is still to its core a suburban place.”
Floreen has long wanted to widen I-270. In 2016 she said it is “borderline criminal” that it hadn't already happened. When the Hogan toll lane plan was announced a year later, she told Bethesda Beat she was “thrilled to death. I really believe this is the way the region needs to go.” (In recent days she seems to have backed off this position somewhat, suggesting that two reversible lanes on I-270 would be enough.) She vehemently supports M83 as well.
The weaknesses of Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee, have been discussed at length on this blog. I did not support him in the primary. But on the big-ticket transportation choices he is far preferable to his opponents. He opposes M83, voted to delay Montrose Parkway East, and says transit is a higher priority than widening the Beltway. His support for the Purple Line has been less than wholehearted, but he was on the right side of the County Council's crucial 2002 vote that Floreen opposed. His signature transportation proposal is a county-wide network of bus rapid transit lines.1
This election is about change versus status quo
As important as candidates' specific positions is where their political backing comes from. Floreen relies on the financial support of highway and development interests. She can only win by racking up big majorities among the wealthy homeowners of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Potomac. This is a recipe for establishment government, wedded to the stale notions that linger in the heads of conservative businessmen and the Washington Post editorial board. Urbanists would be condemned to defensive battles to stave off disastrous road-building schemes.
Elrich's voting base is the county's outsiders. While his anti-development stance caters to affluent homeowners, most upscale neighborhoods broke against him in the primary. His narrow win in June rested on support from unions, tenants, left-of-center activists, and the less affluent voters of the east side of the county — constituencies for change. A November victory will do much to democratize a county where government too often responds only to the wealthy and well-connected.2
All that urbanists can hope for from the next county executive is the chance to struggle for progress. But overcoming a long-settled status quo always requires struggle. With what looks to be an urbanist-friendly county council, there will inevitably be openings for advocacy. Electing Marc Elrich will keep the door open to a more livable Montgomery County.
Read the other view, by Dan Reed making the case for Nancy Floreen.
2 An example of this is the candidates' positions on school boundaries. Boundary changes, needed to reduce overcrowding and combat economic and racial segregation, are resisted by wealthy neighborhoods on the west side of the county. Elrich calls for change; Floreen dodges the question.