With Six Weeks to Go, District 8 Democratic Primary Race Taking a Nasty Turn

At forum, Trone and Raskin cross swords on issues ranging from gerrymandering to street signs


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District 8 Democratic congressional candidates at a forum in Bethesda on Feb. 28 (file photo)

Aaron Kraut

A League of Women Voters candidate forum in Frederick Sunday made apparent to the voting public what has been clear in party circles in recent days: With six weeks to go until Primary Day, the gloves are off in the nine-way race for the District 8 Democratic nomination to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Much of the sniping at the debate involved state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park and Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone of Potomac—whose campaigns privately are increasingly viewing each other as the major roadblock to victory April 26. The result was pointed exchanges on issues ranging from gerrymandering—escalating a topic discussed in debates earlier this month—to illegal street signs.

Trone turned up the criticism of Raskin even further Monday in an appearance before the District 18 Breakfast Club in Silver Spring, as he joked, “I know I’m in Raskin Land here.” The breakfast is regularly attended by about two dozen local party activists, a sizable portion of whom appear to be behind Raskin’s candidacy.

While saying that he and Raskin “agree on most progressive issues,” Trone asserted, “Jamie will be a polarizing figure from the left, and I honestly don’t think he can work with the middle.” Added Trone, “It’s not about holding a lot of press conferences and talking about I, I, I. It’s about we, working together as Americans—Republicans and Democrats—and not this cult of the I.”

Trone got in the first shot at Raskin at Sunday’s forum, when the issue of gerrymandering was raised at the outset—with the moderator, Washington Post reporter Robert McCartney, noting that the congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Maryland General Assembly in 2011 “has been dubbed the ugliest map of gerrymandering in the country.”

Trone said he would have opposed the Maryland map, calling gerrymandering an “abomination” that has “led to the malaise we have today throughout the country, with the polarization to the left and the polarization to the right.” Trone contended the issue needs to be addressed by a national commission, and belittled legislation by Raskin for an interstate pact between Maryland and Virginia to deal with redistricting. “Silly ideas ideas like a Potomac pact with Maryland and Virginia—what a waste of time and rhetoric,” Trone declared.

He was joined in his criticism by another leading contender for the nomination, former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase, who—in a swipe at Raskin as well as Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville —declared, “I want to salute Ana Sol Gutierrez because she is the only legislator on this stage who voted against it.”

Barve, Gutierrez and Raskin are the three incumbent state legislators in the contest for the Democratic congressional nomination, which, besides Trone and Matthews, includes former Obama administration officials Will Jawando of Silver Spring and Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase, former biotech industry official Dan Bolling of Bethesda, and David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program.

“Whether it’s a Democratic legislature or a Republican legislature, these gerrymandered maps are the result of an old-boys network protecting themselves,” Matthews said.

When asked by McCartney, “How do you defend placing partisan pragmatism over idealism” in supporting the latest redistricting plan, Raskin responded, “We need to get real about this. Every redistricting is a gerrymandering where the politicians are choosing voters before the voters are choosing politicians.” He defended his idea for a compact between Maryland, where the legislature is controlled by Democrats, and Virginia, where it is in Republican hands, as an “idealistic move,” adding, “that’s really where we need to go.”

Raskin then turned his fire toward both Trone and Matthews.

“I’ve been attacked several times in this campaign by David Trone and by Kathleen Matthews about this issue,” Raskin said of gerrymandering. “Both of them donated thousands of dollars to right-wing Republicans who participated in gerrymandering plans in their states.”

“I wonder if Kathleen would approach Sen. Roy Blunt—her friend from Missouri, an anti-choice, anti-birth control Republican—and ask whether he’s doing anything about gerrymandering in his state,” Raskin asked sarcastically. “And I wonder whether Mr. Trone would approach Gov. [Greg] Abbott in Texas, who he’s given $40,000 to, to see if he’s doing anything about gerrymandering.”

Matthews, saying she has “given thousands of dollars to try to elect Democrats across this country,” defended her $2,600 contribution to Blunt in late 2014 while an executive of Marriott. “In my entire career, I have given one donation to one Republican who worked as bipartisan colleague on a piece of legislation that created…hundreds of thousands of jobs in the travel industry during the economic downturn,” she said.

Given the chance to respond to Raskin, Trone said sharply, “The first thing I would start with is the word ‘respect.’ That’s where you start, Jamie.”

Trone, who public disclosure reports show gave more than $150,000 in donations to Republicans in Texas and other states over a 15-year period, again defended the move as necessary to advance Total Wine & More’s agenda in those states. “In Texas, we have 1,000 employees, and we’re working for pro-consumer bills, like Sunday sales, wine tastings, good things. That’s money well spent,” he said of the donations.

Raskin responded to Trone later in his closing statement, saying, “On the point of respect, Mr. Trone—he interjected the word ‘respect,’ I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to—but I know driving up here, we saw lots of illegal Trone signs placed all over the roads.”

Alluding to Trone’s self-funded campaign, which has spent at least $3 million—and likely significantly more—to date, Raskin told Trone: “You’re stuffing our mailboxes, and the TV air waves and the radio air waves with your ads. At least give us the public [roads]. That’s what the law says.”

Trone, while saying some of his volunteers “overstepped their bounds” and “we’re working on that,” downplayed the issue of his campaign signs placed in public rights-of-way. “The next generation isn’t about a couple of road signs that someone put up. We ought to try to think about big stuff in America,” he said.

It all appeared to be a bit too much for Rubin, who—after hammering Trone in recent debates for his contributions to Republicans and his high-spending campaign—did not mention such issues Sunday. “Friends, I’m not going to get into the mud, like we just saw,” Rubin said in his closing statement. “We have enough of that in Washington. We need to move away from that kind of politics. ”

Meanwhile, although it was not raised during the forum, Matthews afterward reacted with anger when asked about a story published late last week that suggested a possible intersection between donations to her campaign and the guests who have appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball—the nightly political talk show hosted by her husband, Chris Matthews.

The story, which appeared in The Intercept—an online publication underwritten by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar—said a comparison of Federal Election Commission disclosure reports and transcripts of Hardball had identified 48 “frequent” guests of the program who had either donated to Kathleen Matthews’ campaign themselves, or had spouses or political action committees that had done so. These donations totaled $79,050, or about 5 percent of the $1.5 million that Matthews had raised through the end of last year, according to the story.

While acknowledging that some of the involved guests made donations “long after” they appeared on Hardball, the story pointed to 11 instances in which a guest had appeared on the show after Matthews announced her candidacy last June.

“I’m insulted by the implication of this story—that, as a woman who has worked in Washington full-time for 40 years as a reporter and as a business leader, I would need to rely on my husband to raise the money that I have worked so hard to raise in this campaign to be able to get my message out,” Matthews said in a brief interview Sunday.

When asked whether Chris Matthews had been involved in seeking contributions to her campaign, Kathleen Matthews responded, “MSNBC, before I got into this race, worked with Chris and me to create ground rules and firewalls to keep him separate from this campaign when it came to fundraising. And my husband has so much integrity that I’m offended at the…innuendo that is implicit in what they’re reporting.”

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