By Neal Earley @neal_earley
NORTH BETHESDA — For new Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, politics is like teaching.
The former elementary school teacher from Takoma Park, just elected as the new County Executive, said one quote from his teaching role model, the late Christa McAuliffe, will guide him over the next four years of his term.
“‘I teach, I touch the future,’” Elrich said, quoting McAuliffe. “That’s what my administration will be about, how we will touch the future. That’s our job. We’re not governing for today; we’re governing for tomorrow and the days that will come after that.
On Monday, Elrich was sworn in at the Music Center at Strathmore, beginning a new era in Montgomery County politics. Along with Elrich, the nine elected members of the County Council – four of them new arrivals – were sworn in as the County takes on a new political identity.
Elrich is replacing three-term incumbent Ike Leggett, who served as the County Executive since 2006.
Elrich comes to office narrowly winning a closely-contested Democratic Primary race by 161 votes over businessman David Blair and then a general election race against fellow at-large Council member Nancy Floreen and Republican Robin Ficker. Elrich, a three-term at-large member of the County Council, ran on a message of making real estate developers pay more for schools and roads, a concern for many County residents as the County grows and becomes ever denser.
Elrich told the audience that he was not a “social justice politician” attempting to pander to County residents, clarifying that his activism and support for populist left-wing causes has been a part of him since the 1960s.
Just after being sworn in, Elrich laid out his priorities: to expand early-childhood education to close the racial achievement gap in public schools; to expand rights for tenants and limit the County’s consumption of fossil fuels in order to combat climate change.
Maybe most surprising to his detractors who attempted to paint Elrich as-anti-business, citing his support for increasing the County’s minimum wage and previous statements about taxes, was Elrich’s statement that he would repeal needless regulations and not raise taxes in his first year.
Elrich said as a member of the County Council he heard small-business owners complain about Montgomery County’s regulations, telling him the County is the “worst” place for business in the region.
In his speech, Elrich explained it was his support for social justice and labor that led him to be more fiscally conservative about the budget and to repeal some of the County’s regulations, in the hopes of fostering a better climate for business that will fund government programs.
“I know full well, without a healthy business climate we will not have the revenues we need to address the social problems we face,” Elrich said.
That message of guiding the County into the future was not lost on County Council member Hans Riemer who, speaking in his capacity as the outgoing Council President, talked about how Montgomery County has transformed from a sleepy farm community adjacent to Washington, D.C., to a cosmopolitan, growing urban center that will continue to grow and change.
“Montgomery County is changing; we are not the same community that we were 30 or even 15 years ago,” Riemer said.
Now beginning his third term on the Council, Riemer began his speech with saying, “Welcome to the beginning of a new era in County government and politics,” and stated that the issues that the federal government fails to address, the County will.
Riemer now is part of a County Council with four new members; Gabe Albornoz (D-at large), Evan Glass (D-at large), Will Jawando (D-at large) and Andrew Friedson (D-1), who will join Riemer as well as Craig Rice (D-2), Sidney Katz (D-3), Nancy Navarro (D-4) and Tom Hucker (D-5).
Riemer explained the myriad problems facing Montgomery County, specifically the lack of private-sector jobs and affordable housing. Riemer, using the example of his two sons, said as things currently stand, it will be hard for them to find high-paying private-sector jobs and affordable places to rent apartments in Montgomery County.
“My wife Angela and I have two amazing little boys. I hope that they will stay close when they grow up, but I’m worried that even if they want to, they won’t be able to,” Riemer said.
Elrich’s ascendancy to the County Executive’s office will likely bring a change, and a possible clash with the County Council as to how exactly the County will grow. During his 12 years on the Council, Elrich often served as a lone “no” vote against the County’s various master plans, which called for greater density throughout the County.
While Elrich and the members of the Council are likely to agree on many, if not most, issues, Riemer made it clear in his speech at the inauguration Monday that the County’s plans for greater growth will not change.
Development and planning may be one of the few areas on which the Council and the new County Executive will clash, although Elrich would like to have a more agreeable relationship with the County Council, saying both the legislative and executive branches of the County government should be of one mind.
“So I believe we have a moral obligation to create a more just society now, to do everything we can do now, to make this a better place for everyone,” Elrich said.