In the campaign for Montgomery County executive this year, the local has unexpectedly turned global, with Israel figuring prominently.
At-large council member Nancy Floreen, a Democrat running as an independent for executive, has repeatedly promised that if elected her first economic trade mission will be to Israel.
“I expect to be going to Israel in the spring,” she said on Sept. 24. “They have recommendations and ideas that we can benefit from as we move forward.”
Jews may make up as much as 10 percent of the county’s population. (The 2017 U.S. census estimate put the county’s population at 1 million. And a recent demographic survey of the Washington area Jewish community estimated that there are 105,000 Jews in the county. The study was done in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and funded by The Morningstar Foundation established by Susie and Michael Gelman. The Gelmans are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
But Floreen insists she’s not doing it for the votes. At a candidate debate Monday at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, she said an earlier trip to Israel made her an admirer.
“The reason I say that is not for political purposes, it’s because that’s the start-up nation,” Floreen said at the debate. “We already have some cool Israeli companies here and I’d like to have more. I want to benefit from their thoughts and their creativity.”
Floreen has said that the announcement garnered some disapproval from critics of Israel. But she said a trade mission fits the theme of her campaign to attract business to the county.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, accompanied Floreen on her first trip to Israel as part of a delegation sent by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Halber said Floreen spent most of her time there listening, learning and ultimately supporting Israel’s interests.
“I found her very supportive of Israel’s strategic situation,” Halber said. “Wanting for Israel to be at peace, understanding that Palestinians deserve a state of their own but very much in line with mainstream Democratic thinking that Israel is a place that deserves peace and security, and frankly, supportive of the Israeli narrative.”
According to the Maryland/Israel Development Center, more than 60 Israeli companies operate in the Washington region. Last year, another Israeli technology firm called Sesame Enable opened its American headquarters in Bethesda.
Floreen said she is eyeing technology companies in particular and hopes to leverage the county’s proximity to the federal government to attract foreign businesses.
“The future of Montgomery County is going to be all about partnership and how we work with the private sector to achieve mutual success,” Floreen said in an interview. “I know that Israel is a leader in [technology] to begin with, but I’m sure they have interests in advancing their relationships with our federal agencies, and we want to help them do that.”
But her main opponent in the race, Democratic council member Marc Elrich, said that while he supports strengthening the county’s business ties with Israel, he doesn’t see the need for the county executive to take international trips on the taxpayers’ dime.
“We have active business relationships and programs to reach out to companies in Israel,” Elrich said in an interview. “I’m looking forward to continuing the kind of work [Maryland/Israel
Development Center Executive Director] Barry Bogage does, finding out who’s interested in bringing companies to Montgomery County and sending trade groups. But I don’t know whether that’s where I would spend my time personally. I certainly would send people and resources to foster ties.”
Floreen said that while she’s heard lots of support for luring Israeli companies to the county, she’s also gotten criticism online from people who say the Jewish state’s occupation of the West Bank oppresses the Palestinians.
Halber said Floreen faces an uphill battle as an independent candidate in heavily Democratic Montgomery County. So her pledge could be a selling point to the county’s Jewish community.
“Announcing that she would go to Israel is a net plus on her campaign, but I think it’s for a small segment of the Jewish community. Most members of the Jewish community are not going to make their decisions on whether or not she takes an economic development trip to Israel,” Halber said.
But According to Maryland Matters reporter Bruce DePuyt, Floreen’s focus on policy in general could attract voters who want to see the county’s tax base grow through economic development.
“It’s to her credit that this is a race to begin with,” DePuyt said. “I’ve been covering Montgomery County politics since 1990 and off the top of my head, I can’t recall a time when the race for the county executive wasn’t essentially decided in the primary.
“Her brand is that she’s sort of a policy wonk,” he added. “She’s sober-minded, she’s serious and she’s aligned, to a certain extent, with the business community, and she understands that most people want private sector jobs.”
Floreen’s assessment of her candidacy is similar, saying she’s focused on the details. And when it comes to attracting Israeli businesses to the county, she said her sales pitch is straightforward: a highly-educated workforce, proximity to the nation’s capital and a personal touch in the form of a visit from the