Frick on a Stick: Winners and Losers

By Josh Kurtz

The headlines will say that state House Majority Leader Bill Frick (D) shocked the Maryland political world Wednesday, jumping from the 6th District congressional election to the race for Montgomery County executive.

Frick’s interest in the job has been rumored for a while – ever since wealthy businessman David Trone decided to run for the 6th District seat rather than for county exec. With Trone in that race, Frick didn’t have an obvious lane or path to victory.

But even though he has waded into county issues before – most notably, attempting to tackle the county’s antiquated liquor supply and distribution system – Frick has always seemed more comfortable in Annapolis, and in a legislative environment generally. So in that respect, his decision to run for executive is surprising.

Will Frick actually change the dynamic of the race? Certainly he changes the tone and some of the calculations. He’s the first candidate in the Democratic primary who isn’t a term-limited member of the County Council, and that’s significant – especially if he remains the only non-councilmember in the race. He campaigns with a certain joy and light-heartedness that’s often missing from Montgomery County races – and that’s also significant.

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House Majority Leader Bill Frick

We won’t know until the Feb. 27 filing deadline what the race truly looks like. But if you subscribe to the theory that Councilmember Marc Elrich (D) has a nearly unshakable base, then Frick doesn’t change the calculus all that much, at least right now. In fact, Frick may make Elrich’s life easier, initially.

With the caveat that the Democratic contest is still developing, here are the early winners and losers from Frick’s decision to run for county executive and not for Congress:

Winners

Bill Frick: Duh. He had little chance of being elected to Congress with the present Democratic lineup in the 6th District. His bid for county executive is a little more of a crapshoot, but if voters want an alternative to the three County Council members running, he will clearly benefit. He offers something fresh and different. But there are dangers ahead: Will other non-Council members get in, crowding that lane? If so, what gender, race and ethnicity are they and what geographical base do they have? Does Frick know enough about county government to speak fluently on the issues – especially when his three opponents are steeped in the debates and the nomenclature? Will he get into the public financing system? How strongly does MCGEO, the county employees’ union, go after him for his desire to revamp the government-run liquor system? The rollout of Frick’s county exec candidacy – on the eve of Rosh Hashana and featuring a big picture on his website of the State House, rather than a locale in Montgomery County – could have gone better.

Marc Elrich: If you assume, as many political experts do, that the three-term councilmember starts the race with a certain percentage of the vote almost locked in – 23 percent? 25? 33? 35? – then the fact that his opposition is fractured further only helps him.

Any potential candidate for county executive who is a woman or a minority: Four white guys running in the most polyglot jurisdiction in the state. Paying attention, Cheryl Kagan? Valerie Ervin? Gabe Albornoz? Craig Rice?

David Trone: Of all the remaining Democrats in the 6th District congressional race, Trone probably benefits the most from Frick’s departure. While Trone is a wildly successful businessman and Frick is a lawyer and legislator, they were competing for many of the same voters. But not every Frick voter is going to gravitate to Trone. Which means, in a certain way, that the other Democrats, especially state Del. Aruna Miller and state Sen. Roger Manno, could benefit from Frick’s switch as well.

Loser

Roger Berliner: While they have different priorities and talents, the Bethesda-based councilmember who is running for executive shares a base and, to a degree, a political profile, with Frick, and it’s hard to see how he isn’t hurt by Frick running. It would be overly simplistic to say that every vote Frick gets in the Democratic primary will come from Berliner’s hide, but it may not be that far from the truth depending on how the full field lines up. Frick and Berliner will have to figure out how to cope with each other.

Unclear

George Leventhal: The third councilmember in the race may not face the direct peril from a Frick candidacy that Berliner does, and could benefit if the two Bethesda Democrats truly cancel each other out. But a more crowded field may make it more difficult for him to get his message out.

Non-councilmembers thinking about running who are white: Wealthy businessman David Blair is polling the race. Former Councilmember Mike Knapp is still hanging out there, waiting for his opportunity. Frick has beaten them to the starting gate and it could get crowded in the non-councilmember lane. Blair at least has the advantage of being very wealthy, and the fact that he’s a total political neophyte could be appealing to some voters.

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