At a debate Monday night between the three candidates running to become Montgomery County executive, Democrat Marc Elrich tried to shake off perceptions that he is far to the left of county voters, Republican Robin Ficker attacked Elrich on taxes and transit, and independent Nancy Floreen touted her connection to the Jewish community and economic development bona fides.
Bread and butter issues like schools, transportation and taxes brought out some disagreement from the three candidates in what’s become a contested race. But the forum, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and held at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, also focused on the role of nonprofits, religion and security.
Floreen, a four-term Democratic at-large county council member, generally avoided the sniping from Ficker, an attorney who represented the county in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 to 1983 and has unsuccessfully run for various offices since.
Instead, Floreen emphasized the nonprofit work she’s done with the Jewish community, as well as her affinity for Israel. She repeated her promise that her first international economic trade mission as county executive would be to Israel. And she talked about an earlier visit to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
“What I learned about Israel was what democracy could really look like, the entrepreneurship, the creativity and the wonderful feeling of that community,” Floreen said in her opening remarks. “And I want to bring back what you do for education in Israel, particularly the early childhood programs.”
She said her message on Israel fits with her pro-business stance, adding that she hopes to cultivate a business-friendly environment to bring more jobs to the county and increasing its tax base.
Elrich, a three-term at-large county council member, spoke in terms of social and racial justice. He touted his history of civil rights work and teaching, while calling for the county to use “racial equity lenses” to weigh the potential impact of new policies on its residents.
He tried to distance himself from the image of a tax-and-spend liberal that opponents have of him, pledging not to raise the county’s property taxes.
And he addressed the notion that he and the progressive advocacy group Jews United for Justice which backs him support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
“I don’t support BDS,” he said. “If any of you see anybody out there saying I support it, I don’t. JUFJ doesn’t support it either.”
But Elrich could be facing a stiff, if unforeseen, challenge from Floreen. Floreen, who didn’t run in the Democratic primary and only secured a position on the ballot in late August, said she ran because Elrich was too far left for the county, calling him and Ficker “flawed extremes,” according to The Washington Post, which endorsed her Sept. 29.
On Monday night, Ficker parroted many of the criticisms launched at Elrich, calling him an opponent of business who will continue to increase taxes on residents.
“Amazon isn’t going to come here if Marc is the county executive,” Ficker said, referring to reports that Amazon is eyeing the White Flint Mall area for its second headquarters. Ficker also fixated on Elrich’s support for bus rapid transit in the county, at one point making reference to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
“Rosa Parks knew about discrimination. I wanted to get her from the back of the bus. Marc Elrich wants to put her on the bus,” Ficker said, arguing that he wants to invest in the county’s roads instead of mass transit.
But it was unclear whether Ficker’s constant attacks helped or hurt Elrich. Every time Ficker invoked Elrich’s name, the Democrat was allowed a rebuttal. By the end of the night, he’d gotten substantially more speaking time than Ficker or Floreen.
Elrich said that he was in favor of Amazon moving into the White Flint Mall site and that he supported bus rapid transit to alleviate traffic and cut the county’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In the wake of 19 swastikas being spray-painted on the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia on Oct. 6, moderator Meredith Weisel asked the candidates what the county could do protect its houses of worship and combat religious intolerance.
Floreen praised Montgomery County Chief of Police J. Thomas Manger for making hate crimes a priority.
“What we need to do is infuse the entire department with attention to this issue and responsibility for addressing it whenever it occurs,” she said.
Elrich talked about his experience as a school teacher, and how public schools need to do a better job combating hateful ideologies.
“I think that we don’t do enough to teach tolerance in our schools,” he said. “People have gotten afraid of being accused of being a nanny state or politically correct, but we should teach kids that racism is evil. We should teach them that anti-Semitism is evil. We should teach them that sexism is evil and wrong. And we don’t always have those discussions.”
Ficker said that as county executive, he’d not only be accessible to the religious community — promising to hold office hours every Monday morning at 6 a.m. for anyone to express concerns — but that he’d replace Manger with someone better suited for the job. And he emphasized his experience as a lawyer, seeing hate in the courts.
“I know hate when I see it or hear it. I know discrimination when I see it or hear it. I’ve been in court just about every day for the last 40 years. The life of the county goes through the
“The hate crimes go through the courthouse. The discrimination goes through the courthouse,” Ficker said, before going on to attack Elrich and bus rapid transit.
The three candidates will debate again at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 15, at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, 8215 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda; bethelmc.org.