Montgomery County Council At-Large – Marc Elrich


Marc Elrich.

1) Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Washington and moved to Montgomery County in 1960 when I was ten years old. I’m a graduate of Einstein High School, the University of MD (where I earned a BA in History) and Johns Hopkins (Masters in Teaching). I taught at Rolling Terrace Elementary School for 17 years and served for 19 years on the Takoma Park City Council, until being elected to the County Council in 2006. I raised four children, two of my own and two foster children and today my 48 year-old foster son is living with me again. All my children attended MCPS public schools.

I’ve been a long-time activist. At U of MD I was active in the anti-war movement and the efforts to integrate the campus and the businesses and apartments around it. I’ve been a local civic activist since the 80’s. I was involved in tenant and community organizing, I was involved in the Silver Spring community and the successful effort to stop the mega-mall from landing in our downtown. I was involved in the anti-ICC efforts, the efforts (along with Blair Ewing) to Save Our Community Schools and to get a new Blair High School.

I’ve tried to bring my civic activism and my work with communities to my work on the Council, while my experience in education certainly informs my perspective on education policy and priorities. I’m progressive and prefer to tackle the root causes of problems rather than to just apply bandaids. I’m a strong advocate for the preservation of the existing affordable housing stock because we simply can’t replace it. I favor transit-oriented development, but how much you develop has to be tempered by our ability to provide schools, services and transit infrastructure. And in that regard, I believe that when our major up-zonings result, as they do, in massive increases in property values, then the developers who have benefitted from new zoning should pay the lion’s share of the infrastructure costs needed to support it. If you wonder why our schools are over-crowded and our transportation system is approaching gridlock, it has a lot to do with our County’s past refusal to make development pay.

2) What do you hope to accomplish in office?

So, related to my last point, I hope to bring about more sensible traffic and school tests so that we stop creating the illusion that we’ve got this taken care of. We don’t, and we continue to both approve projects where the roads fail while refusing to require developers to pay for the necessary improvements. How we grow is important and if we continue to grow without matching it with infrastructure investments, we will simply face more congestion, more bad air and more over-crowding. This is not a prescription for success.

I’d like to see the BRT system move into a funding stage. I proposed this County-wide system over six years ago, it’s not in our plans and we need to make it real. That means we have to design it in a way that is sensitive to community impacts and we need to provide a funding source to build it. You can read a lot more about it on my web page.

We are going to have to take a larger role in the education of our children. There is too much evidence of the development of two different school systems. But this is not about blaming the schools – they face great challenges with our changing student population. I believe that much of what needs to be done has to happen outside of schools. Children are entering our schools far behind some of their peers and those gaps that are measurable at the age of 3 (if not earlier) are harder to close the older the children get.

Part of closing the gap means changing the environment in which children grow up. We know that poverty affects family stability and student performance. Mobility (often the result of struggling to make ends meet) has an impact on school performance as well as on people’s connection to their communities. If people move every year, no place stays “home” for very long and that impacts on the investment that people make in their communities and their schools.

Kids with inadequate health care and inadequate food also suffer. You can’t expect the schools to solve all these problems, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many children struggle in school, in no small part, due to the weight of poverty.

Everyone, including the State, has been talking about early childhood education, but there is no money to implement a more comprehensive program. Those years are critical to the social and emotional development of children and they need to have access to environments that will foster that development, expose them to a wide vocabulary and better prepare them for school. This is probably the biggest ticket item of all, but also the most important. In the long-term, children who start school better prepared require fewer costly services as they get older.

Affordable housing relates to all of the above. We are losing it, due to rent increases, faster than it can possibly be built. We do more than most jurisdictions, but nowhere near enough to effectively address the problem. Every time we revitalize an area, rising rents follow and the supply of what’s affordable is reduced. I’d like to see us moderate rent increases when those increases are not caused by rising costs of operations and maintenance. We have to find a balance that works for landlords and tenants, but we need to something. I’ll continue to vote against proposals, like the one’s that came from Park and Planning in the last year, to displace affordable housing and work with County Executive Leggett who has significantly increased County investments in acquiring and protecting the existing affordable housing stock.

3) What would you say your biggest accomplishment has been so far. What does that say about your priorities as council member?

There are a few things that I’m proud of, but none more the passing of the minimum wage law and my effort that led to a united set of actions with our neighbors in the District and Prince Georges County. This is what I mean by tackling the root cause of a problem. People who work ought to earn enough money to feed their kids, have access to healthcare and put a roof over their heads. For years, certain businesses in particular industries have off-loaded what should be THEIR labor costs onto American tax-payers. And because we’re basically decent and compassionate people, we’ve grown a welfare system that is winds up subsidizing working people because of the inadequacy of their wages. So while I’m all for increasing social programs to protect people, I would prefer to see people earn an honest days pay for an honest days work and to not be dependent on government subsidies. It is amazing to me how the conservatives who rant against welfare ignore the simple truth that if employers paid a decent wage, then employees wouldn’t be on welfare. The simplest way to shrink government subsidies is to make them unnecessary, but to cut subsidies in a work world where wages don’t meet basic needs would be just plain cruel.

I also think that the BRT network will be a big deal once it’s operationalized. It will give more people a transit option, it will reduce the load on the roads and, if it’s done right, the better the service, the more riders and the fewer cars on the road. It’s a win for transit, it can benefit those who still drive and it’s a win for the environment. And it makes people to move people from their homes to the job centers that we are planning, which will increase the likelihood of our producing the jobs we need.

The vote to rezone Ten-Mile Creek was a huge victory. While allowing some development, it blocked the outright destruction of the County’s last best stream. We did not have the power to prevent any development, but we were able to scare it back and locate it so that the impacts will be minimized and the stream will not severely degraded. This was huge.

I also had two tree bills pass that protected road-side trees and the tree canopy. Not perfect or as strong as I might have liked, or that the environmentalists wanted, but they were still both major steps forward.

I was able to make major changes to proposals in the zoning code rewrite that minimized the impacts on residential communities and preserved existing neighborhoods. The code as passed still requires too little from developers and has the potential to spread development to places that have no transit and that is anti-thetical to what we told people we were doing.

4) What distinguishes you from the other candidates?

I have a long record of community involvement, particularly around civic issues. I started doing tenant and community organizing when I moved to Takoma Park, got involved in the land-use and development issues, including the fight against the Mega-Mall in Silver Spring, the successful efforts to stop school closures and to build a new Blair. I served as a municipal official for 19 years and taught in our public schools for 17 years. My experience there, where I taught in a school whose students came from the neighborhood I lived in and represented on the Council, gave me a unique lens through which to view the connection between environment and learning, and certainly a closer opportunity to see how socio-economic impacts play themselves out in children. It’s one thing to grasp things intellectually, it’s another to observe and work in that environment.

So that informs a lot of my social thinking. I tend to want more profound changes. For example, as I’ve said, I vote for social safety net programs, but they don’t stop people from needing a safety net – so, to me, dealing with access to affordable housing and health insurance AND raising wages are more substantive and get beyond just treating the symptoms of poverty. When I first got on the Council and my committee was looking at our youth programming, it struck me that we didn’t know who we served, how many needed to be served, what percentage of kids in need were we serving, were our programs successful and what metrics did we have to demonstrate that. At the time, none of that could be answered and it’s taken awhile, but that is changing. In short, I’m interested in programs that change socio-economic conditions, not just treat the symptoms – I’d like to see us work our way out of needing to do triage by actually solving problems. That’s why I push so hard on minimum wage.

First, I don’t take developer money. In Prince Georges County, it’s against the law. In other places around the area, it’s practice, not a law, because it’s generally considered a conflict of interest. I think it’s a serious conflict of interest and this one industry contributes ½ or more of most candidates’ money. If you think about it, nationally Democrats talk all the time about taking special interests out of politics and about how corrupting their money is. But in Montgomery County, having a single industry dominate campaign contributions is treated like it’s no big deal. Seriously?

Another way I differ is on land-use decisions. We confuse real estate development with economic development and it’s not same. The County has 10 million square feet of vacant space and over 20 million square feet of approved commercial buildings that could be built tomorrow – taken together, that’s enough to hold 120,000-180,000 jobs. That’s more or less the 30 year projection for the number of jobs coming to the County. So our problem isn’t new buildings, it’s lies far deeper in the changes to the economy that the local governments really don’t affect. In addition, we’ve been told that existing businesses are shrinking their footprints, taking less space when they renew – that means the built environment could hold substantially more jobs. So I’m more cautious about where we allow development because we shouldn’t spread it out, and we shouldn’t encourage new development that will just get filled by people moving from another building in the County – there’s no gain in filling one building by emptying another, and that happens.

It also makes no sense to blather on about smart growth, and then pass a zoning code that incentivizes developers to put housing on every shopping center in the County – not just the ones along the Red Line, which make some sense, but on every center. This puts people and cars further away from jobs, off the main transit lines and just assures more car-centered living and longer commutes. Sort of the antithesis of smart growth.

And I don’t believe in making up numbers and using traffic tests which we know do not accurately reflect what the traffic conditions were creating will be. We, in fact, pass plans that are out of balance now. We’ve taken to absolutely ignoring what we’re blithely doing to roads and then tell communities that if they don’t like congestion, they should use transit. Which would be fine, if we had a transit alternative that served the County – but we don’t. And on top of all that, we don’t make developers provide the infrastructure – roads, schools, fire stations, police stations, libraries or rec centers – so that all of that winds up on the public dime. We collect more money than we used to, but not enough. And we approve projects that actually fail transportation tests, by letting them make small payments that don’t even go to projects that relieve the mess they are making.

So I don’t support things that are out of balance and for which we have no plans to bring in balance, I don’t tell the community that everything will be fine, or we “don’t really know what will happen here” – I find that disingenuous since our actions are motivated to make things happen. The whole point of the movement toward providing developers with “cheaper” ways to gain density was explicitly to make it easier for them to build their projects

5) What is the top issue (or one of the top issues) facing the county and how do you propose to deal with it?

Having just started to come out of the recession and made major progress managing our recovery, we need to avoid resuming prerecession spending habits. I believe we need to restore services to pre-recession levels and we have to address serious challenges, but we need to be more evaluative when deciding how to spend money and we have to insist that programs produce results – not just make us feel good because it looks like we’re doing something.

I think educational disparities are a huge issue that can’t keep being swept under the rug. We’ve talked about it for probably 30 years, I can show you language from the 90’s that’s identical to what we’re saying today – same problem, same talk about how we’re addressing it, same commitment to spending more money. We’ve talked a lot, but results aren’t as good as our talk.

First we have to acknowledge, that this is not strictly a school problem. Much as I think, as a former teacher, that putting the MCPS into a teach to the test curriculum was bad for education and led us down a rabbit hole, no curriculum can address all the issues that children bring to their first day of school. So we need to do something definitive about providing access to quality child-care for 1-3 year olds, if not 0-3. It’s not going to be cheap, but not addressing the problem isn’t going to be cheap either. No one puts a price tag on failure, and I understand that the numbers we’re seeing contribute to people’s cynicism about the effectiveness of our spending, but Early Childhood really is the right place for investment and it’s the only place you can invest that will let any kid enter school better prepared socially and emotionally, and with a greater vocabulary – I could write a paper about that latter.

Second, we need to deal with the surrounding environment in our communities. Low incomes and the things that effects – housing insecurity, lack of access to health care, food insecurity, lack of good childcare – are all things that affect learning. They create stress in children, there are studies that show that stress affects IQ and social and emotional development. It’s a vicious circle. Let’s face it, a kids development is a complicated thing. When I was growing up it was just “read doctor Spock and send your kid to school” but it turns out that there are a host of things affecting a child’s growth and ability to learn. So, if we expect different outcomes, and if we’re concerned with the implications of the course we’re on, then we need to start the heavy lifting required to alter this trajectory. We can’t devolve into two counties and two school systems.

Third, we need a broader range of career pathways. Right now, high school can prepare you for college, but if you’re not on that path, there’s not much else you’re prepared for. Many of the new jobs require more than high school, but not a four-year degree. They require specialized training and often have certificate programs, but you still have to leave high school able to read, write and understand basic math – you can’t leave school educationally dysfunctional and assume some job training program will fix that and get you a certificate. So we need to map out career pathways, validate them as being just as viable as going to college and coordinate with Montgomery College (a great institution) so that there’s seamless movement from high school to advance training. And that is also good for the economy and will make us more attractive to employers who are concerned about access to a qualified work-force.

Finally, I’ll just say that funding transportation is absolutely critical. It’s critical for our environment, it’s critical for our mobility and it’s critical to attracting jobs. We are getting killed by Virginia, where they have absolutely no qualms about taxing development to pay for transportation. We need to take a page or three from their playbook and use some of their funding mechanisms to get our County moving.

There’s more but I’ll stop there.

6) Will you pledge to end the double-taxation of Takoma Park so that the county fairly reimburses the city for duplicate services? If so, what do you see as the solution?

I don’t support double taxation, didn’t when I was a City Councilmember and don’t as a County Councilmember. I do not think that the municipalities get treated fairly and the best example was when we were making budget cuts in the recession, we cut municipal payments which underscores the attitude that the rebates are something the County “gives” the municipalities, rather than rebates being the lawful requirement of the County to reimburse the municipalities for their expenses.

There are multiple solutions and I will work with municipal leaders to find one. You could have the City pay for all services that it provides with no rebate, and then have City residents only pay the County for services the City doesn’t provide (sort of putting the shoe on the other foot). We could reach agreement on formulas that capture all of the City expenses in a given category. The Municipalities could seek changes to State law that created a fair system of reimbursements, or require the County to actually negotiate – we have what are legally called “meet and confer” meetings, but historically, there’s not much conferring and it’s very one-sided.

7) What are other important local issues in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Four Corners and Wheaton, and how will you address them?

Takoma Park – application of the zoning code rewrite, redevelopment around Metro, and double taxation. I’m working with the City residents and leaders and trying to be supportive of their efforts.

Silver Spring – Is it going to be bedroom community, or will it get some jobs. A lot of residents, and businesses now, are concerned that all the projects are residential and there’s very little commercial.  That means that everyone leaves by day and comes home at night, which is not conducive for a vibrant commercial economy. There’s a fear that the best places for locating businesses in the future are being used for residential and that we’re losing the most attractive places for business to locate. We need to be careful about what we approve and how we zone properties with an eye to the long-term, not just to what someone wants to build now. This same problem is occurring in White Flint and causing concern there as well. Silver Spring has enormous potential, the new library is going to be great, how we use the old library is going to be a very important decision.

Four Corners – crazy zoning code rewrite and it’s application to Four Corners. New Planning Board recommendations are closer to what the community wanted and Ive been advocating for, so if we adopt them, the rewrite should be more or less ok for them. The other big issue is the BRT. They’re concerned about losing yards and businesses. I won’t support a design that takes out yards or businesses. We need transit – I do think it’s important. But I don’t think that we need to provide it without being sensitive to community impacts.

Wheaton – Wheaton is in the same conundrum – will it be residential or will it get a decent commercial/office base. The County decision to relocate its offices, along with Park and Planning, is helpful and hopefully that decision will stimulate more office investment. On the bright side, if the BRT lines are built as in the plan, Wheaton could become the most transit accessible point in the County. In laying out the routes in my BRT proposal I was conscious of making Wheaton a transit hub where a person could live and access any job anywhere in the County and where a business could locate and have access to Bethesda, Life Sciences and FDA White Oak, on top of Red Line access to the District. If we do this right, we could make Wheaton a prime location with a wealth of transit options.

8) Please list endorsements:

The Washington Post, The Gazette, the Sierra Club, Green Democrats, Progressive Democrats of America, Progressive Neighbors, NOW, NARAL, Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Fighters, MCEA (the Teachers’ Union) , MCGEO, SEIU (local and state), UFCW Local 400, Washington AFL-CIO DC Metro Labor Council, CASA in Action, Hispanic Democratic Club, African-American Democratic Club, One Montgomery, Brickyard Coalition, Executive Ike Leggett, Sen. Brian Frosh, Councilmember Roger Berliner, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Sen. Roger Manno, Sen. Jamie Raskin, Del Sheila Hixson, Del. Charles Barkley, Del. David Fraser Hidalgo, Del. Al Carr, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, Del. Ariana Kelly, Del. Ben Kramer, Del. Aruna Miller, Del. Susan Lee, Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, Del. Craig Zucker, Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams, Gaithersburg Councilmembers Mike Sesma and Ryan Spiegel, Takoma Park Councilmembers Kate Stewart, Jarrett Smith, Fred Schultz, Terry Seamens

9) Please supply links, and contact info.


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