George Leventhal was in the middle of a passionate speech about increasing government efficiency when his cellphone rang. The at-large Montgomery County Council member had just launched his campaign to be the next Montgomery County executive, surrounded by his family in Wheaton Regional Park.
“Turn this off,” he said to one of his sons and handed him the phone without missing a beat.
Leventhal is one of three Democrats who have their sights set on replacing retiring Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett in 2018. His Democratic opponents so far in next June’s primary are fellow council members Roger Berliner (District 1) and Marc Elrich (at-large). The only Republican running so far is attorney Robin Ficker. None of the Democratic council members can run for re-election due to a term-limit law passed last November. All three also happen to be Jewish.
In an interview, Leventhal declared himself the most experienced of the three Democrats, citing his 44-year residency in the county (he’s 54) and four terms on the council. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, which he said is an advantage in a multiethnic county. His campaign website includes a biography that is in both English and Spanish.
“I think having represented the entire county for 15 years, and particularly serving as chairman of the health and human services committee, I have a demonstrated concern and a record of success on assisting those who are most in need and understanding the background and requirements of our diverse community,” he said. “And that understanding is not something I recently came to when I began running for county executive.”
Leventhal said two of his top priorities as county executive would be to increase jobs and access to affordable health care. He said his ability to be patient with people who hold opposing views is a skill he learned in government service.
His patience was tested, he said, in 2007 during a dispute over the future of a vacant 1930s-era house in Bethesda’s Hillmead Neighborhood Park.
“I thought that the home should be preserved and should be made available as family housing for homeless families,” he said. “The home had been standing there for decades, and I didn’t think we should demolish it. I thought that since [the county] owned it, we ought to use it as housing. I lost that on a 5-to-4 vote.”
Leventhal is “a brilliant strategist,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. More than two decades ago, when Leventhal was chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, he hired Halber as its political coordinator.
The race between Leventhal and his two primary opponents promises to be an exciting one if it is anything like the game last week between the Nationals and Marlins, won 2-1 by Miami, even though Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Berliner cheered on his Nationals from his living-room sofa.
“Do you like baseball?” Berliner said after opening the door to his apartment in the Pike and Rose development in North Bethesda. “Max Scherzer is pitching a … well, I won’t even say the words.” By the end of the interview, however, Scherzer’s no-hit bid had been broken up.
Berliner, 66, is the County Council president and is in his third council term. He said his main objective as Montgomery County executive would be to increase prosperity. He pointed to Pike and Rose, the snazzy mixed-use development on Rockville Pike as an example of the type of development he thinks will continue to flourish in Montgomery County.
“You’ve got movies, you’ve got restaurants, and you’ve got culture,” he said.
Life in Montgomery County is good because of its diversity and innovation, Berliner believes. He hopes to focus on workforce training for economically disadvantaged populations to keep life good. It’s an accomplishment he pointed to on his council record.
“I sponsored what’s called a micro loan program of giving small amounts of dollars to primarily our immigrant community, which doesn’t have access to capital and can’t go into a bank and say, ‘I want to buy a sewing machine so I can be a seamstress’ or ‘lend me enough money so that I can become a cook,’” he said. “So that’s been my focus, extending the ladder of economic opportunity.”
Berliner owned an energy consulting business before he was elected to the council in 2006. He said he has made “good business decisions and bad business decisions” but knows where to draw the line when it comes to containing urban sprawl in the county. Four years ago, he opposed the development of Ten Mile Creek in Clarksburg due to concerns over potentially negative environmental impacts, he said.
“I’m someone who’s proud of my record when it comes to development, who’s said no to development where it doesn’t belong and yes to where it does,” he said.
Halber said Berliner is a strong candidate who has maintained a good relationship with the Jewish community over the years.
“Roger is one of the more moderate members of the party who will be looking to get support from the business community,” Halber said. “He has strong relationships with many Jewish leaders.”
Unlike Leventhal and Elrich, Berliner has decided not to use the public financing system in Montgomery County, which allows county executive candidates to use up to $750,000 in public money if they can raise at least $40,000 from 500 different people. Berliner said he made the decision because he has “higher priorities” than spending county money on his political campaign, although he said that is not meant as a criticism of Elrich and Leventhal.
Berliner also said raising money privately is necessary for him because he is not as well-known throughout the county as his opponents who have run countywide races.
Just as easygoing as Berliner is the 67-year old Elrich, who easily blends in to the 10:30 breakfast crowd at the Parkway Deli in Chevy Chase, joining constituents at their tables for friendly chats.
After ordering his omelet and coffee, Elrich draws on his experience as a council member and a teacher for 17 years in Takoma Park in making the case for why he should lead the county.
“I represented one of the most diverse wards in the city, and I got to see all of the challenges that families face close up, because 80 percent of my ward was tenant,” he said. “And I began teaching in the public school, where I got to see the kids in school and in their homes in the community. You really become aware of the impacts of poverty and unaffordable housing and living conditions. Government is an avenue that can ameliorate the worst effects.”
Elrich is known for taking anti-development stances during his three terms on the County Council and his 19 years as a member of the Takoma Park City Council. He was also involved in the effort to save Ten Mile Creek and during the 1990s fought a proposed megamall in downtown Silver Spring.
Elrich insists he is not against growth but thinks it needs to be done in a way that holds developers accountable. This includes making sure that developers pay their fair share to reduce the amount that taxpayers have to pay and agree to provide infrastructure for projects. The most recent example was a master plan for Bethesda that the council recently approved with Elrich as the lone dissenting vote.
Elrich said one of the sticking points was the promise of city parks in the municipal plan but no money to pay for them.
“We [the county] should have come up with the mechanism to provide the parks if we’re telling people this is a critical part of having a livable, walkable community, having this relief from all the concrete,” he said. “So, yeah, I don’t like things like that. But I don’t think that makes me anti-development. It’s just saying do it the right way.”
Halber said Elrich has proven many naysayers wrong during his time on the council.
“When Elrich got into office, I think people thought he was going to be a bomb-throwing left-winger from Takoma Park,” Halber said. “But I think he has earned a tremendous amount of respect. He has the rare ability to listen. He is smart and politically astute and a formidable candidate.”
Another goal Elrich hopes to achieve if elected is to give residents a more direct say in the county planning process, which he said is limited to “a couple of charades” right now, where residents make a presentation before the planning board.
“But none of that input really makes it into the plan, and [the planning board] spent far more time sitting with developers and asking, “How much density do you want?” he said