By Neal Earley @neal_earley
In just a few short days, there will be a significant political transformation, as four longtime members of the County Council will leave office.
For more than a decade, Marc Elrich (D-at large), George Leventhal (D-at large), Nancy Floreen (I-at large) and Roger Berliner (D-1), have become key figures in a rapidly-changing County.
On Tuesday, the Council held a farewell for their departing colleagues, with a video presentation, gifts and a little bit of roasting from Council staff.
The rapid political change is thanks to a new amendment to the County charter, which voters passed in 2016, limiting members of the County Council to three consecutive terms. Now because of the new charter amendment, the Council will have one of its greatest turnovers in years – ending a political era in the County.
The four departing Council members navigated an economic crisis that severely limited the County’s budget, and included opposition to an 8.7-percent increase in property taxes, overcrowded schools, a growing racial achievement gap in public schools, and a growing County becoming more racially diverse and economically stratified.
“Much of what you accomplished, collectively and individually, you did under some very difficult circumstances,” said outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett about the four soon-to-be former Council members.
They did not leave without a fight.
Each of the four departing members of the County Council competed with one another for County Executive, the one post that could keep their County political careers afloat.
Leventhal, a resident of Takoma Park, built his County Executive campaign, in part, on the message that he was a County government insider who knew the inner workings of each department, and he could figure out way to get it to run more effectively for the residents.
First elected in 2002, Leventhal spent his career on the Council as a stern voice, with a penchant for parliamentary rules, with his staff joking that he often would interject during meetings by asking “Do I have the floor?” when debating his colleagues on a contentious issue.
A former legislative assistant to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Leventhal became a stickler for policy details and used his passion for governance to push for the Purple Line, Montgomery Cares – a healthcare program for the uninsured – and passing paid sick leave.
Fellow Council member Nancy Navarro (D-4) said she was always impressed about how easy it was for Leventhal to take credit for his own success, saying jokingly she learned from Leventhal how to brag about your own accomplishments.
Leventhal served two terms as Council President and decided to run for County Executive to replace Ike Leggett, who said he planned to retire after his term ended in 2018.
The campaign did not go well for Leventhal, who finished fifth in the Democratic Primary for Montgomery County Executive. Leventhal spent the campaign touting himself as a County insider and downplayed some of the concerns over development and traffic congestion in the County, saying both are indicators that people want to live in Montgomery County.
During the debate on term limits, he was widely critical of those who supported it and afterward wrote that “right-wing populism” helped propel the term-limit referendum through.
Leventhal declined to say what he plans to do next, saying he is unsure whether the company that hired him is comfortable with his announcing the news at the moment. However, Leventhal said he would not run for public office again.
“We make a lot of sacrifices; there is a lot of time we don’t get to spend with our family, a lot of personal things we have to give up,” Leventhal said.
Joining Leventhal on the Council in 2002, was former Mayor of Garrett Park Nancy Floreen. Floreen began her involvement in County government when she joined the Planning Board in 1986.
Like Leventhal, Floreen worked for Mikulski before entering local politics. In 2000, Floreen became Mayor of Garrett Park, a small town of about 1000 people, before running to become an at-large member of the County Council, and representing more than one million residents.
Floreen took her knowledge of planning to the Council, where she chaired the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee. Floreen led the charge on the Council’s various master plans, expanding density and growth in much of the County, which she argued helped bring more economic prosperity and affordable housing, while others argued it exasperated the County’s traffic congestion and overcrowded public schools.
Unlike her colleagues on the Council, Floreen initially decided to stay out of the County Executive race, choosing instead to endorse former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow in the Democratic Primary.
After a tight primary in which Elrich narrowly edged out businessman David Blair for the Democratic nomination, Floreen announced that she would switch her party affiliation from Democrat to unaffiliated in order to run for County Executive in the General Election.
It was a move that bothered some local Democrats, but gave centrist voters who were worried about Elrich being too far to the left a political candidate to support.
Council member Sidney Katz (D-3), said that Floreen was a mentor of his on the Council and that her efforts to expand affordable housing will be her legacy.
Floreen spoke briefly, giving credit to the Council staff whose work often goes unseen.
“I can speak for all of us; we are so grateful that we have such good people…we get the credit, they do the work,” Floreen said.
Roger Berliner’s brand has always been compromise.
Berliner styled himself as a “pragmatic progressive,” who could push through progressive issues like increasing the minimum wage, but by helping to reach a consensus with other members on the Council.
Berliner would often use the phrase “with respect,” something his staff noted and joked about during the farewell festivities Tuesday.
During the debates about increasing the minimum wage, Berliner showed his affection for compromise. Berliner frequently would say there “two truths,” arguing that both sides of the debate had points that were equally valid. Berliner, along with Leggett and other members of the Council who were skeptical about another minimum wage increase, were able to add an amendment to the bill that delayed the implementation of the minimum wage increase for small- and medium-sized businesses.
“I tried real hard to find common ground, to find common-sense solutions to bring our Council together and our community together,” Berliner said.
In reference to his brand of “finding common ground,” Council staff presented Berliner with a jar of dirt that they said was “genuine common ground” from District-1.
Before he began his time on the Council in 2006, Berliner worked as a policy advisor, most notably for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and as an energy lawyer, experience which helped him with one of his biggest causes — Pepco.
For years, residents in Montgomery County felt that the utility company that supplied the County with electricity was subpar, with frequent outages during storms that exceeded national averages. Berliner’s pushing Pepco to improve became a key issue for him, eventually getting the company to invest more in infrastructure.
For 19 years, Marc Elrich served on the Takoma Park City Council.
Elrich got his start in politics during the 1960s, protesting racial inequality and the Vietnam War. As a native of Takoma Park, Elrich built his progressive bonafides supporting rent control, labor unions, and environmental regulations.
In 2006, Elrich was elected to the Council and soon became an outlier among his colleagues.
On the Council, Elrich received a lot of grassroots support and became lauded for his record on the environment and being pro-labor. On the Council, Elrich often was the lone “no” vote on several issues, often related to the County’s planning, where Elrich was unique in arguing for greater fees on developers.
On Dec. 3, Elrich will assume his new role as County Executive, succeeding Ike Leggett.
Council staff joked about Elrich’s casual mantra, often skirting Council rules about wearing ties, and often arriving late for meetings.
While often seen as the most left-wing and progressive member of the Council, leading the efforts in raising the minimum wage multiple times, Elrich has always resisted calls that he is a left-wing ideologue.
Elrich said the 2009 recession made him understand the importance of having a more fiscally-conservative approach to budgeting. While known as a staunch progressive, Elrich said the recession changed him, as the County’s revenues massively dipped, and programs and staff had to be cut across the board.
“That was really a learning experience. I mean, I learned a whole different appreciation for the vulnerabilities of budgets to extreme fluctuations in revenues,” Elrich said.