Updated: Democrats Seeking County Executive Post Meet in Six-Way Debate
Contenders discuss economic development, transportation
Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive, from left, Roger Berliner, David Blair, Marc Elrich, Bill Frick, Rose Krasnow, and George Leventhal participated in a debate in Chevy Chase on Wednesday.
PHOTO BY ANDREW SCHOTZ
Updated at 9 p.m. Nov. 15: Six Democratic hopefuls for Montgomery County executive squared off Wednesday in a debate that put one County Council member in the hot-seat over a recent comment and included some sparring over who gets credit for negotiating the minimum wage bill.
The roughly 90-minute debate hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Beat took place in Chevy Chase at the National 4-H Conference Center. About 200 people attended.
The candidates on the stage—three sitting council members, a former Rockville mayor, a state delegate and a businessman—largely remained cordial and composed as they discussed strategies for strengthening the local economy and attracting and improving jobs.
One moment of tension came after Council member Marc Elrich was asked to explain a recent comment in which he compared gentrification to “ethnic cleansing.” Elrich made the remark while advocating for rent control near Purple Line stops to offset the impact of rising housing costs along the length of the light-rail project.
Elrich said the problem of community displacement during neighborhood redevelopment is playing out across the nation, not just in Montgomery County.
At a forum earlier this week, he faulted the planning board for its approach to growth planning in the Long Branch area. On Tuesday, when asked about the comment, he said he has a “serious problem” with land-use decisions that lead to the displacement of immigrant communities.
However, an opponent, Council President Roger Berliner, chastised Elrich for his word choice.
“Words matter. To equate potential gentrification with ethnic cleansing is offensive. Period,” Berliner said.
The council colleagues also clashed as they talked about reaching consensus on the $15 minimum wage bill that they passed earlier this month.
Berliner described his efforts to help broker the compromise that ended up winning unanimous support from the council, following more than a year of disagreement over the measure.
But that’s not quite how Elrich, the bill’s lead sponsor, viewed the deal-making; he said Berliner was not the lead negotiator.
Council member George Leventhal, another contender for the executive post, agreed with Elrich.
“I like Roger. We work well together. … He has greatly overstated his role in this minimum wage effort,” Leventhal said, as Berliner smiled and looked downward.
The candidates agreed on some topics: They didn’t intend to raise taxes if elected and they described the need to close economic disparities in Montgomery County. They also wanted to promote an attitude of customer service among the county workforce and work on wooing more employers to the area.
Rose Krasnow, a former Rockville mayor and top-ranking official in the Montgomery County Planning Department, said the county needs to back off taxes, rules and regulations that make it difficult for companies to do business.
“[F]or some reason, we don’t seem to be proud of having a business community,” said Krasnow, the only woman in the race.
State Del. Bill Frick agreed that the county has work to do in that arena.
“None of us could say with a straight face that right now, Montgomery County is a stable, business-friendly environment,” he said, provoking his rival, Leventhal, to come to the county’s defense.
“I don’t think our business climate improves by constant badmouthing of our business climate,” Leventhal said.
Potomac businessman David Blair, the most recent arrival to the county executive race, touted his experience in the private sector and said he’d use his corporate acumen to the county’s benefit.
“I know what attracts businesses,” he said. “I can tell you what it looks like when you get off the airplane and you’re welcomed by the economic development committee.”
Elrich spoke often about strengthening social services and education, but he told the business-friendly crowd he was prepared to be pragmatic if he wins the election.
“Despite how liberal I am, I cannot do anything without money,” he said.
Elrich said that, if elected, he’d move the county to two-year budget cycles, so officials would have time to take stock of their spending before crafting a new fiscal plan.
Frick, Krasnow, Blair and Berliner said they would support relinquishing the county’s control over wholesale distribution of alcohol and retail sales of liquor.
Leventhal and Elrich disagreed with privatizing the Department of Liquor Control, saying the county has borrowed against the roughly $30 million in annual revenues generated by the agency. Leventhal said he would be willing to sell the department in exchange for a sum that would allow the county to clear its debts, but no such interested buyer has stepped forward.
Elrich said he’d like to bring in DLC managers that would “run it like a business” and help the county increase its profits.
But Berliner said ending the county’s liquor monopoly doesn’t mean the county would have to stop selling alcohol. It would simply be forced to compete with other sellers, he said.
The six candidates were also asked to name their two top transportation priorities, if elected to the county executive post.
Blair noted that 200,000 commuters leave Montgomery County every morning, and another 200,000 enter to get to work.
“In my plan, everyone is going to switch houses,” he quipped.
In the long run, he said, officials should try to expand opportunities for people to both live and work in the county. He’d also support bus rapid transit and adding reversible lanes to Interstate 270.
Berliner, Krasnow and Frick said the county executive must have the Metro system at the top of his or her list.
“This is a fight we cannot lose,” Frick said.
The debate was moderated by Steve Hull, Bethesda Magazine’s publisher and editor, and Andrew Metcalf, Bethesda Beat’s county government and politics reporter.
Republican Robin Ficker, who also is running for the county executive post, watched the debate from the audience.
The seven candidates are competing to replace Ike Leggett, who is not running for re-election. Berliner, Elrich and Leventhal are prohibited from seeking another term on the council because of a new term-limits law.
Scenes from Wednesday's debate (photos by Andrew Schotz):