Josh Kurtz: Montgomery County’s 800-Pound Gorillas

By Josh Kurtz

Doug Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive, is meeting with one-time donors and supporters in a Gaithersburg hotel this morning to discuss whether he should try to get his old job back in 2014. His pollster, Harrison Hickman, will be on hand to discuss the results of a poll he conducted several months ago that supposedly showed Duncan handily defeating every other potential Democratic candidate.

It will be instructive to find out who shows up — and who doesn’t. As the gathering is closed to the press, I’m hoping someone who attends will let me know.

The Duncan meeting comes at a pivotal time in Montgomery County politics. But before anyone can begin to handicap the 2014 county executive race, two or three big questions need to be answered:

1. Will Duncan run?

2. Will the incumbent, Ike Leggett, who once seemed to be heading for the exits, seek a third term after all?

3. Will a rich outsider, inspired by John Delaney’s run for Congress, get into the race?

The first two questions are of extreme import to the half dozen or so other Democrats looking at running: County Councilmembers Phil Andrews, Marc Elrich, Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal, former Councilman Mike Knapp, state Del. Ben Kramer, and Steve Silverman, the former councilman who now serves as Leggett’s economic development director. (Del. Heather Mizeur is also a long shot to run if her gubernatorial ambitions fizzle).

If Duncan gets in the race, Kramer and Silverman definitely won’t, and Knapp probably won’t, either. If Leggett runs, Kramer, Silverman, Elrich and Ervin are all but certain to remain on the sidelines. Andrews is telling people he’s in the county executive race for sure, and Leventhal seems inclined to that position. So there are dozens of calculations being made.

The third question figures less into everyone’s short- and mid-term plans, but could ultimately have a huge bearing on the outcome of the election. For now, there is word that David Blair, a wealthy 42-year-old pharmaceutical company executive, is contemplating the Montgomery race.

Duncan’s claim on the job, which he held from 1994 to 2006, is obvious. All you have to do is look around the county to see what he achieved: the transformation of downtown Silver Spring, the redevelopment of downtown Rockville, the construction of the Intercounty Connector highway (completed after he left office, but with his unyielding advocacy), the state-of-the-art Strathmore Hall performing arts center, the robust health of the I-270 tech corridor, and more.

Duncan will no doubt tell supporters — and voters, if he runs — that he won’t need on-the-job training. But will that argument really hold up?

Much of Duncan’s tenure coincided with a strong national and state economy. He rarely dealt with austerity budgets. It was easy to build schools and roads and new downtowns when he was in office, easy to offer generous contracts to public employee unions.

What’s more, Montgomery County has changed a lot in the six years since Duncan left office. It’s changed even more dramatically since he last had to run a competitive countywide election, 18 years ago. The personnel on the County Council, and the dynamic — not to mention the issues county officials grapple with on a daily basis — are substantially different than they were when Duncan was executive.

Does Duncan, a shy and thin-skinned man who had a small inner circle even when he was at the top of his game, who made plenty of enemies despite his undeniable successes, really know how to communicate with — and govern — the polyglot Montgomery County of today? There is reason to doubt that he does — and the burden of proof rests with him.

As for Leggett, there are different schools of thought about his decision to at least reconsider his original plan to retire. The most compelling, for fans of political soap opera, is that he simply wants to prevent Duncan from winning. Some Leggett allies fear that none of the other potential candidates is strong enough to beat Duncan — or that the field would become too fractured if Leggett retired, allowing Duncan to skate in with, say, 30 percent of the vote (it‘s unclear whether Duncan‘s poll matched him up head-to-head with Leggett).

Leggett is all too aware that the economy is improving. After years of being Montgomery County’s fiscal steward, he’d like to tend to his legacy, aim to accomplish bold things.

And then there’s the argument that Leggett, at age 68, is just not ready to leave the stage quite yet.

Whatever the incumbent’s thinking, a Leggett-Duncan battle is at least within the realm of possibility, and it would be a clash of titans the likes of which Montgomery County hasn’t seen for a decade or more — and potentially be very divisive.

It is undeniable that regardless of what Duncan does, a Leggett exit would prompt any number of the potential candidates to get in the race. And for now, it’s hard to discuss their merits and political strengths until we get a better idea of whether one or both of the 800-pound gorillas decides to run.

Some Montgomery insiders sneer that this County Council, and the agenda the members have pursued, is small. They also complain about squabbling on the Council. But this Council isn‘t any more fractious than others were. That kind of talk does Council members — particularly those thinking of running for executive in 2014 — a disservice.

Montgomery County could do a lot worse than Elrich, Ervin, Andrews or Leventhal as county executive. All are hardworking, progressive problem solvers, and after 12 years of Duncan and eight years of Leggett, it frankly would be refreshing to hear some new ideas, to be exposed to different governing philosophies and styles, and to see the types of coalitions they‘d attempt to stitch together to win the top job. Despite making some enemies through the years, Ervin especially seems equipped to thrive electorally in the new Montgomery County. But any could be competitive with Duncan one-on-one.

As for David Blair, here’s what we know: He sold his Rockville-based company, Catalyst Health Solutions, earlier this year for a reported $4.4 billion. He’s still connected to the company, at least for a transition period, but told the Washington Business Journal in April that he’s looking for something to do, and is considering a career in politics.

Catalyst won a lucrative contract in 2007 to be the state government’s pharmaceutical provider. Four years later, after the contract expired, Catalyst was outbid by an out of state company. In recent years, David Blair has contributed $7,000 to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, $5,000 to Gov. Martin O’Malley, and $1,000 to state Senate President Mike Miller. He’s also given money to President Obama, the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Clinton.

Back in the 1990’s, he was a contributor to Steny Hoyer and moderate Republicans like Connie Morella and Bill Brock.

Blair has never run for office, but his father has. Thomas Blair, longtime Maryland political observers may recall, won the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes in 1988, but dropped out of the race several weeks later, citing business reasons. GOP leaders turned to an obscure official in the U.S. United Nations delegation to run in his stead named Alan Keyes, and a legend was born. Thomas Blair likes to joke that he’s responsible for Barack Obama, because Obama beat Keyes, who was once again a substitute nominee, in the 2004 Senate race in Illinois.

David Blair has been seeking advice from Maryland political strategists and insiders over the past few months. He already has a relationship with the politically savvy partners at Capitol Strategies, the Annapolis lobbying shop, which has worked for Catalyst in the past.

Blair’s plans for now remain shrouded in mystery — like Leggett’s, Duncan’s and every other would-be county executive’s. It will be fun to watch this drama unfold.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Garagiola: ‘People Lose Elections All the Time’

You Can’t Spell ‘Meme’ Without M-E

Opening Day

Duncan Moving Closer to Comeback Bid

A Perfect (Political) Storm Hits Prince George’s

Sail Away