PROFILE: Marc Elrich and BRT: a political outsider scores a surprising success

by Greg Kohn

Takoma Park politician Marc Elrich had an idea: Instead of more big-dollar roads or rail systems why not figure out a modern approach to old-fashioned buses?  Wouldn’t that be a simpler, cheaper solution to Montgomery County’s raging transit problem?

That was in 2006, at the point Elrich was first elected to an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council.  He called his idea by the not-so-catchy title, Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. It was his baby. He nursed it, improved it, and showed it off to people at the county and state levels.

Eventually, support for the BRT increased [See December 6 article: “Bus Rapid Transit Revving up for Montgomery County”], and the county assembled a task force to try to implement it.

The task force represents an improbable success for Elrich, 62, a perpetual outsider and underdog – even in his home base of Takoma Park – who ran for County Council unsuccessfully four times before succeeding on his fifth attempt.

County Councilmember Marc Elrich photo by Julie Wiatt

So why did he keep trying?

Elrich’s attitudes were formed, he said, by how he grew up. After starting his childhood in a diverse Washington D.C. neighborhood, he experienced a culture shock around age 10 when his family moved to the suburbs. Racism was not uncommon. Elrich remembers a school debate that questioned the need for civil rights; the fact that there was even an argument shocked him, he said.

“It was hard to believe. It was eye-opening to me at a very early age,” Elrich explained.

Over the years Elrich seized every opportunity to make a difference. At 14 he joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. In high school, he became a member of the student government. At the University of Maryland-College Park, Elrich immersed himself in the anti-war movement and started his own student political party, “Third Party.”

Later he took his idealism into the classroom, as a fifth-grade math teacher, and in 1987 the former hippie found a new forum with election to the Takoma Park City Council.

Yet politics, Elrich said, proved tedious. “It is different than teaching,” he said. “When you leave the school most days, you go home knowing you did something good. With the council, not every meeting is good and not every outcome is positive. Things take frustratingly long.”

The 19 years he spent in city politics, though, gave him the patience and a sense of reality to succeed on the County Council.  “My progressive principles are deep, but I didn’t run five times just to come here and lose a bunch of 8-1 votes,” he said in an interview last year.

Although Elirch continues to butt heads, he also is adept at teamwork. “We haven’t always agreed,” said fellow Councilmember George Leventhal, also of Takoma Park. “But when we are at odds, he makes it about the issues, not the personalities in the room, which I really appreciate.” Leventhal said he has been won over to the concept of Bus Rapid Transit, although he holds a concern over how the project would be funded.

The other measure of Elrich’s success came in the 2010 elections, in his sixth county campaign.  Among all candidates he received the highest number of votes, a sweeping victory that started a buzz about whether he might run next time for the top office, County Executive.  He had no comment about that idea.