Thursday, July 02, 2009

Marc Elrich on Blair Ewing

By Marc Elrich.

It was hard news to take on Tuesday, and the fact that it wasn't unexpected didn't make it any less so. Blair was a good friend, and someone I could talk to about almost anything. He was one of the most informed and thoughtful people that I've known, and he was a man of great integrity. His positions were never mysterious or vague. He didn't take a position without thoroughly thinking it through. He was simply motivated by doing what was right for the people he represented, whether he was on the school board or the County Council.

I met Blair around 1980 during the school board election. He championed the cause of equity for all children and understood that a complex web of factors contribute to a child's success in school. Before it was fashionable to talk about "changing demographics", "red zones", "achievement gaps", and "wrap around services", Blair understood those things and advocated for taking a broad approach to overcoming disparities. It took awhile before the County caught up with Blair and the broader group he was a part of, who were insisting on not only on educational reform but on a holistic approach that took into account the whole child.

Blair was the antithesis of shallowness. He was constantly learning, eager to talk to people and always interested in understanding an issue thoroughly. He would engage in substantive discussions and was never so busy that he couldn't meet at the Parkway Deli to talk about teaching, curriculum, pedagogy and the nexus of theory and practice. I was early on impressed that he would sit and talk about such things on a Saturday morning, not because of pending board action, but because he was genuinely interested in the intersection of policy decisions and the classroom.

For a lot of us, Blair was a true champion. What he would say in a private conversation, he would carry into a public forum. He would fight for his beliefs and didn't shy away from disagreements. He would not go along to get along, he wouldn't avoid a contentious debate even when he knew the outcome was already determined and it wasn't going to be favorable. And because of that, he won a strong and loyal following in the community. If you invested your vote in Blair, he gave you your money's worth and more.

He always had other interests that went beyond the school board. He was a strong environmentalist. He was committed to bringing more resources into the area of mental health, an area that to this day is sadly neglected by all levels of government. He counted beans - how the government spent money mattered, the effectiveness of programming mattered. These interests eventually led him to his successful run for the County Council where he was able to continue his advocacy for children and expand his role in shaping policies that impact on children beyond the classroom.

Blair was a leader in the effort to reshape growth policies so that they were tied to availability of infrastructure. It was not a "no-growth" position then, any more than asserting that growth and infrastructure should be linked is a "no growth" posture today. But he was painted that way, as well as being branded as the sole factor that blocked the construction of the ICC. Blair only wished he could have been that powerful. Nonetheless, his insistence on providing infrastructure as a condition of development and his unwavering opposition to the ICC led to the ugly campaign that was waged against him in 2002 to prevent his reelection. The developers amassed a war-chest of over $2 million dollars to defeat him and elect the "End Gridlock Slate." They succeeded.

Blair continued to stay politically engaged and with O'Malley's election, he was appointed to the State Board of Education. It was a fitting way to end a career that began as a visionary leader in the fight for educational equality. No matter what his political role, Blair never wavered from his commitment to children.

A lot of great human beings have passed in the last year. Too many. This County has witnessed the loss of real giants and Blair belongs in that group. As a board member or council member, his constituency was always the residents of the County and their children. He didn't bend to special interests and he would not be silent when there was cause that he believed in that needed his support. He didn't weigh the odds before deciding whether he should stand up and be counted, he weighed the merits of the issue. You could defeat Blair, but you couldn't silence him. I learned a lot from him and I will always be grateful for his willingness to share his knowledge and his interests. Like many others in the County, I looked to him for leadership and was never disappointed. We will all miss him. I trust that Marty, his wife, will take comfort in knowing that her loss is shared by all of us and that he was loved and respected by so many people in our community.

Editor's Note: Marc Elrich has been an at-large Montgomery County Council Member since 2006.