Montgomery County election: Elrich argues with council over pandemic response

In the summer of 2020, when Maryland officials eased the toughest pandemic restrictions, sending residents crowding the beach, leaders in the state’s largest jurisdiction stood their ground. Later that year, when Gov. Larry Hogan (right) moved the state toward reopening, Montgomery County pulled out again. Three months after most statewide restrictions were lifted in 2021, Montgomery has still closed concert halls and public libraries to visitors.

Officials, residents and health experts in the Deep Blue suburb have largely agreed that these choices have helped curb covid-19 infections and deaths. But now, as the midterm elections loom, a new question is dividing county leaders: Who deserves the credit?

Pandemic-era decisions take center stage in communities across the country. In Florida and Virginia, candidates are arguing over what should have been done differently — in a less “dictatorial” way. But in Montgomery, an affluent suburb where 79% of voters chose President Biden in 2020 and where lawn signs showing support for Anthony S. Fauci are commonplace, the debate revolves around who contributed the most to the response. affirmed by the county.

“Getting through the pandemic, I’ve been able to provide a kind of calm, focused leadership,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at a recent candidates’ forum to the disapproval of his Democratic opponents, who were eager to present their own contributions.

The unequal balance of the omicron wave

Home to the federal National Institutes of Health, which helped lead the nation’s covid-19 strategy, Montgomery has weathered the pandemic relatively well by most measures. Nearly 90% of its 1.1 million residents are fully immunized, according to CDC data — one of the highest rates in the nation for counties its size. Racial and ethnic disparities in vaccinations have narrowed significantly in 2021, and during recent virus surges, the county has seen significantly lower infection rates and death rates than neighboring jurisdictions.

With the exception of a county briefing that was disrupted by hecklers, officials here have won support from residents in the fight against the pandemic. The driver crew that called themselves the “People’s Convoy” didn’t find many fans in Montgomery when they circled the ring road to protest pandemic restrictions. And when a conservative talk show host called Elrich a “little covid bully,” all he did was scoff.

In recent forums and during press briefings, Elrich stressed that he supports the advice of his health officer and has made difficult decisions at various stages of the pandemic, from reopening to distributing vaccines, which protect the county.

But local lawmakers, including two all-Democrat county council members who are trying to unseat him, say he is not to blame for Montgomery’s pandemic victories. Still others argue that elected officials had a limited role to play entirely and that community leaders, as well as the demographic makeup of the county – 1 in 5 workers in the county are employed by government entities and 60% of those over 25 years old has a bachelor’s degree – got her resilience in the face of the virus.

“Was the executive responsible for the success of our response to covid-19? I would say no,” said Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), a term board member who is running for lieutenant governor of Maryland. Lawmakers have pushed the executive branch to appropriate funds for key pandemic initiatives, she said, citing Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar, the county’s partnership with community groups to reach Latino residents.

“In terms of being specific and factual about his case,” Navarro said, “you have to recognize that the board played an outsized role.”

Elrich will face four main challengers in July, including board members Tom Hucker (District 5) and Hans Riemer (At-Large). Both alleged that Elrich was “slow” in responding to the pandemic, which has infected 168,000 people and killed 2,030 Montgomery residents. Riemer said this week lawmakers were the ones “shaking the tree for action” on coronavirus testing and business relief.

Elrich said the remarks were “surprisingly unrealistic.”

In the first year of the pandemic, Elrich said, he “took heat” for choosing to reopen Montgomery at a slower pace than the rest of Maryland, openly clashing with Hogan and receiving death threats. and lawsuits. His health department was tasked with devising testing and vaccination plans, he added, and he redirected staff from other departments to execute those initiatives. He set aside many of his priorities for his first term to focus on responding to the pandemic, he added.

“I pay tribute to the people of the county who did what they needed to to keep people safe,” Elrich said by phone Monday.

“But listen, the government is not running itself,” he continued. “The administrative branch is the executing branch… The board doesn’t know what it’s talking about.”

The scramble for credit over the county’s pandemic response intensified as the primary approached, though Political consultant and former council member Steve Silverman said that given the scale of the county’s pandemic response, it’s “virtually impossible” for voters to identify the contributions of individual politicians. However, due to the length and implication of the crisis, elected officials have little else to rely on to demonstrate their leadership this campaign season.

Explore Key Changes to the Maryland Congressional Map

Judy Jenkins, a Montgomery resident for 30 years, said she “feels comfortable” living in the county during the pandemic but isn’t sure who is responsible — state, federal or local. She took advice directly from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, she said, and assumed the county was “in tune” with the federal agency. She hasn’t always voted in midterm elections, but may do so this year.

“I really have no reason to think [the incumbents] haven’t done a good job,” Jenkins said, walking through downtown Bethesda on a recent afternoon.

Several of the county’s largest unions argued that Elrich was the center of responsibility for worker safety.

“His handling of covid was a mark of good leadership,” said Jennifer Martin, president of the powerful county teachers’ union, which endorsed Elrich’s re-election bid last week.

Other pro-Elrich labor groups say his administration has been successful in securing personal protective equipment for workers. Gino Renne, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents employees in the county, said Elrich showed his appreciation for the county’s essential workers with a bonus of risk.

A longtime union ally, Elrich used about $78 million of county federal relief funds to fund worker hazard pay in 2020 and 2021, far more than elected officials elsewhere in the DC area have given. .

Lawmakers, including Riemer and Hucker, criticized Elrich’s largesse, but Elrich said he stood by his decision to compensate workers for the risks they faced while working in person. In December, he called a letter council members wrote on the issue “a pile of garbage”; this week, he said lawmakers were being hypocritical for “giving their opinion” on the hazard pay program when they were still working remotely.

Navarro, however, said the Elrich administration was not proactive enough to try to reach the county’s most vulnerable communities. In the summer of 2020, she worked with Board Chairman Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) and community groups to draft the Salud y Bienestar plan before calling an emergency meeting with Elrich to request funding.

“It’s something that should have come directly from the executive,” she said.

Elrich acknowledged Navarro and Albornoz described the program to reach underserved Latino residents, but said even before he approached him, he had staff working on how to refine the outreach effort.

Grace Rivera-Oven, co-founder of a nonprofit that primarily serves Germantown’s immigrant residents, said if Navarro and Elrich were “key partners” in the equity effort, they’re wrong. ‘they think they were primarily responsible for closing the breed’s gaps in vaccination rates. Churches, community clinics and nonprofits have held dozens of vaccination events targeting Latino and black residents, she said.

“Communities of color took it upon themselves to make this happen,” she said. “It is on their shoulders that we have done well.”

Comments are closed.