Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Make Their Case in Montgomery County

The eight candidates differed little on the few questions there was time for them to answer


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Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidates gathered for a brief forum Thursday morning at the North Bethesda Marriott. From left: Rushern Baker, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Benjamin Jealous, Kevin Kamenetz, Richard Madaleno, Alec Ross, James Shea and Krishanti Vignarajah

Updated, 4:30 p.m.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway widening plans? Unrealistic.

Dedicated Metro funding? For it.

Equitable dollars for school construction? Needed.

Those were the answers from the eight Democratic gubernatorial candidates who met at a brief forum Thursday morning in North Bethesda at the annual Committee for Montgomery legislative breakfast.

Despite efforts by moderator Josh Kurtz to elicit some differences between the candidates, they ended up sounding similar throughout.

“I don’t think you’ll hear much disagreement from us on many questions,” former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said early on at the forum in the grand ballroom at the North Bethesda Marriott.

Jealous was joined by the seven other Democrats vying to take on Gov. Larry Hogan in the 2018 general election—Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, state Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Kensington), Baltimore attorney James Shea, former Michelle Obama official Krishanti Vignarajah, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.

Baker, Kamenetz and Madaleno all highlighted their experience as a primary difference from the other candidates. Baker and Kamenetz have led major counties in the state for seven years, Madaleno has represented Montgomery County in the General Assembly for more than a decade. The other candidates in the Democratic field have never held elected public office.

Kamenetz said problems Montgomery County faces—such as traffic congestion and overcrowded schools—are also problems statewide.

“We need to have a governor who has a track record of experience to solve these problems,” Kamenetz said.

Baker said Montgomery County is often misunderstood as being very wealthy and that other parts of the state see it as a source for tax dollars. However, he noted that the county’s demographics are shifting and there are challenges for the school system, building affordable housing and dealing with traffic congestion.

“Those are things we need to address,” Baker said.

Madaleno said he has a unique perspective in dealing with county issues given his local experience. He pointed out that no elected official from the county has been elected governor.

“We need a Montgomery County voice for the first time as your governor,” Madaleno said.

Jealous said the county’s diversity should be how the state defines itself in the future.

Ross described the county as a model he would use if given the opportunity to lead the state.

Shea said he’d work to keep the state’s college graduates from leaving and settling elsewhere.

Vignarajah said she has noticed how the county is in the “vanguard” of passing Democratic policies and described the county’s diversity as “America in miniature.”

Cummings said the county’s passage of liberal policies such as increasing the minimum wage is “something the state and other counties need to consider.”

When asked about Gov. Larry Hogan’s $9 billion public-private partnership plan to widen interstates 270 and I-495, the candidates described it as unlikely to get done.

“When I first read his plan, I thought, well, they’re not doing drug tests in the office of the governor,” Ross said.

Madaleno described it as a “foolish plan” and said he’d reverse it if elected.

Kamenetz called Hogan “the self-proclaimed king of highways” and described the highway widening plan as a “$9 billion fantasy” that fails to account for the parks, homes and hospitals that line the highways.

“Everything is optics about this guy,” Kamenetz said about Hogan.

Baker, however, described Hogan’s highway pitch as “a pretty politically great move” and said the governor has started a conversation about ways to reduce congestion on the highways. However, he said, what is not being talked about is needed investments in mass transit.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, responded Thursday afternoon that the governor is taking action to solve Maryland's traffic issues.

"Unlike the politicians who just talk about it, Governor Hogan is providing the long-overdue and balanced leadership to relieve traffic congestion including finally getting the Purple Line built and adding lanes to the Beltway through a $9 billion public-private partnership," Chasse wrote in an email.

All eight candidates said they would commit to securing dedicated funding for Metro if elected.

Hogan has proposed a plan to provide Metro with an extra $500 million over four years to address needed capital improvements to the system—as long as Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the federal government do the same.

On state school construction funding, the candidates said state allocations need to be reexamined to make sure jurisdictions—such as Montgomery County—are each getting their fair share.

Local leaders in Montgomery have long said that despite county residents contributing the most tax dollars to the state, it doesn’t receive an equitable return on school construction funds, especially given the county’s rapid public school enrollment growth.

Ross said Montgomery is being treated unfairly by the state in terms of school construction dollars. He said that as governor, he’d like to reset how the state allocated funds for schools.

Madaleno said he’s running to make sure large jurisdictions such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties receive the money they need to handle the influx of students coming into their school systems. He said the General Assembly can do little if the governor doesn’t agree to change how school construction funds are allocated in his budget.

“If you don’t have a governor who’s willing to push to get money into school construction, it’s not going to happen,” Madaleno said.

Kamenetz said he would increase the school construction budget and direct the additional funds to the jurisdictions experiencing growth in the student population.

Baker, meanwhile, noted that he has been lobbying the General Assembly to provide additional funds to reduce overcrowding at schools in Prince George’s County. He said the governor must understand that large jurisdictions in Maryland are experiencing surging school enrollment growth and need more money to build schools.

Shea also said large counties were being treated unfairly by the state’s school funding system.

“You can’t expect your strong players to prosper … unless they’re treated fairly and equally,” Shea said.

Vignarajah described the school funding issue as deeply personal to her because she attended Maryland public schools. She graduated from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County.

“I know what it was like to go to a school that had water you couldn’t drink,” Vignarajah said. She noted that the temporary trailers she learned in at her high school “are still there.”

Chasse wrote in an email that Hogan "has provided record funding for K-12 education, and school construction funding has increased every single year and will again this year."

In all, the candidates had enough time to answer five questions in a forum that lasted about 45 minutes—including a question about whether they were Baltimore Orioles or Washington Nationals fans.

  • Jealous – Orioles
  • Madaleno – Capitals (did not pick one of the baseball teams)
  • Kamenetz - Orioles
  • Ross – Orioles
  • Shea – Orioles
  • Vignarajah – Orioles
  • Baker – Bowie Baysox (didn’t pick one of the Major League teams)
  • Cummings – couldn’t hear answer, microphone not working properly.

Organizers said Hogan was invited to attend, but declined. The governor attended a funeral in Montgomery County on Thursday for state fire marshal Sander Cohen, who was killed when he was struck by a vehicle on I-270 Friday night.

Madaleno, when asked if he thought all of the candidates on stage at the forum deserve to be in the race, he responded, “In forums like this, it’s interesting to hear people say what they’re going to do when they haven’t done anything in Maryland.”

Vignarajah, 38, the youngest candidate in the race, said people should not "conflate experience in politics with experience writ large."

"I come to this with experience in law, business as well as in the highest levels of government," Vignarajah said. 

Madaleno said, however, he doesn’t believe the primary competition will hurt the Democratic party in its efforts to beat Hogan in November.

Both Baker and Kamenetz said recent wins by Democrats in the Virginia gubernatorial race and the Alabama U.S. Senate race show that Maryland can unseat Hogan, despite the governor’s sustained popularity.

“I think it shows that Democrats are motivated to vote and when they do vote, they’re going to vote straight Democrat top to bottom,” Kamenetz said. He noted that Democrats have a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans in the state.

“If Democrats come out in the state of Maryland, the Democratic nominee will win,” Baker said.

In an interview, Dick Jurgena, the former chair of the Montgomery County GOP, who attended the forum Thursday, said he doesn’t see any of the eight candidates beating Hogan.

“I think one of the problems is they spent a whole lot of time bashing Hogan, [more] than they did really telling us what they would do to correct problems here in Montgomery County, like the MS-13 gang problems,” Jurgena said.

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