My Takeaways from the County Executive Forums

Well, there you go. I attended my last (ever?) County Executive debate, which was the East County forum on Saturday.

Much of my time was spent alongside Marc’s staff, trying to signal for him to speak louder, and to no avail. I had attended the Beth El forum on religious community issues, the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce forum, the very first general election forum in Rockville, the Sentinel forum at the Council office, plus watched the Montgomery County Media forum at a bar with other Elrich supporters while playing a drinking game using the most predictable talking points from the respective candidates.

I’m done.

Considering all of the debates, here are my conclusions:

Nancy Floreen’s debate performance evolved from platitudes to reasonably clever criticisms to attacks and falsehoods. Her first two debates were lackluster at best, featuring platitudes such as “We must become a cheerleader for investment.” The Sentinel forum in particular featured an unremarkable performance for Floreen, as she failed to point out exactly where her opponent was hostile to business growth. Her strongest performance was possibly at Beth El, where she highlighted her dedication to a trade mission with Israel to those within the Jewish community considered this partnership a key interest. Her negative attacks on Elrich were just vague enough that they remained  arguably true when Elrich was limited in time for rebuttals to show context. Her negative attacks proved empty in later debates, however, as Elrich himself challenged Floreen to name specific policies on which they differ that render him hostile to business. She couldn’t follow through.

Robin Ficker may initially be regarded as comic relief. He routinely gets laughs from the audience from his quips like “Takoma Parked” or “Takoma Park Trapezoid,” “I’m not a couch potato,” “My signs are environmental green!” among others. He has two crowd-pleasing aces: the term limits vote and the property tax vote. While his inability to substantiate any policy position without circling back to one of these two points might suggest he is not a serious candidate, these two aces of his may be just enough to win over large swathes of the fed-up, tax-weary, viscerally anti-Council electorate.

In my opinion, Marc Elrich’s performance was consistently good. He remains positive and issue-focused and has a keen ability to boil down complex and counterintuitive positions into well-packaged answers that makes sense. He can get wonky at times, which I fear may cause some lesser-informed, undecided voters to default to the simplified (and incorrect) position. Case in point: when he explains why lifting regulations on developers does not result in more affordable housing. Elrich also executes the tall but necessary order of delivering the “tough love” answers that might not be what many (on the left, right, or center) want to hear. He is the opposite of Floreen when it comes to platitudes. Some on the left resent his concessions to business interests (he supports the Amazon deal) and a few of his approval votes along with Floreen on flawed master plans (which the left will consider giveaways to development companies). Those on the center-right may resent that Elrich favors bringing labor into the discussions of restructuring county government – another seemingly counterintuitive point that makes perfect sense when you listen to his full explanation (or read my previous blog on  labor). At the end of the day, Elrich is not looking to please everyone with what they want to hear. Instead, he explains to them what they need to know.

While Elrich has largely maintained a positive campaign and has avoided personal attacks on his opponents, Floreen’s successive falsehoods eventually pushed him to the brink. At the Chamber of Commerce debate, Floreen said that Elrich would cut 40% of County employee union jobs, prompting Elrich to audibly say, “That is a LIE.” Backed into a corner, Floreen maintained that she had “heard it in a rumor.”

Another noteworthy attack was Floreen’s insistence on blaiming Elrich for having to write a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stating that he is not, in fact, that hostile to business and that he will honor Gov. Hogan’s and Ike Leggett’s proposal. Elrich repeatedly defended that it was Floreen’s campaign and her supporters that dishonestly spread this rumor, which he proceeded to correct.

So, in effect, Floreen accuses Elrich for #FakeNews spread about him.

It should go without saying. Everyone wants economic development. Elrich, however, is the only candidate to distinguish between “real estate development” and “economic development,” whereas Floreen deliberately blurs the two. Ficker is all over the place.

Each candidate makes a fair case for the concepts of Quantity, Quality, and Change. Floreen emphasizes Quantity, focusing on more growth, more buildings, more Fortune 500 companies, and more competition for these top-down milestones with neighboring jurisdictions. Elrich emphasizes Quality, with sustainable development, controlled growth, and robust local and small business as his priorities to enrich the quality of life of existing and new residents. Ficker emphasizes Change, highlighting that his Term Limits initiative was “not a vote to promote.” Ficker has not held office for 40 years, despite multiple attempts, and he leverages his not holding a public office against his opponents’ respective 16 and 12 years in office. Change, however, does not necessarily imply competence.

I will have another blog or two out before the election. Stay tuned for my take on what’s truly radical about Marc Elrich becoming our next County Executive, and why people 40 years younger are drawn to him and his policies.

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