Interviews with the six Democratic candidates for county executive
Home: Bethesda; married, two children
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Northwestern University, 1997; law degree, Harvard Law School, 2000
Professional Background: Attorney (Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, 2000-present)
Political Experience: Member, Maryland House of Delegates (2007-present); House majority leader (2017-present)
What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?
I think I hit the ideal sweet spot in terms of experience. With the overwhelming vote in favor of term limits, the voters sent a clear message they’re ready for a new set of leaders in county government…which really, I think, rules out the existing [county] councilmembers. Getting around the county, you hear time and time again frustration, and an interest in moving forward beyond these councilmembers. Yet I also know this county well. I know we like to give promotions to people who have proven themselves. With 10 years under my belt in Annapolis, having moved up from a freshman appointee to House majority leader…I think I really am ideally suited to be a change agent, but also someone with a proven track record.
You’re one of two people in this race who have not previously held a county office, and your background is in a legislative rather than executive capacity. There are some who suggest this would put you at a disadvantage in stepping into the role of county executive.
Many of the most important issues facing the county in the next term will actually be state issues. Education is the No. 1 priority for many of our citizens, and the most important thing in education over the next four years is going to be the Kirwan Commission, and the funding decisions that come out of Annapolis. [Editor’s note: The commission, chaired by former University of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan, was created in 2016 and is working on proposed revisions in the allocation of state aid for education.] And I think I showed in state government that I could flatten learning curves pretty quickly. I got there without any particular expertise in taxes, and I was the chair of the tax subcommittee within three years.
When it comes to executive leadership, I think temperament is a pretty important piece of this. We’re going to need an executive who can chart a clear vision for the county and be a strong leader, but also be a diplomat and represent the entire county. You can say bombastic things when you’re one of nine councilmembers. You can accuse people of ethnic cleansing and, in the case of the council, there are eight other voices…to disagree with you. When you’re chief executive and you have both administrative authority and sort of symbolic importance, it’s not appropriate. [Editor’s note: Frick was alluding to a comment made late last year by Councilmember Marc Elrich, a rival candidate for county executive, who accused the Montgomery County Planning Board of “ethnic cleansing” in its 2013 sector plan for the Long Branch community adjacent to the route of the future Purple Line.]
Over the next decade, what do you feel are the major challenges facing Montgomery County?
The most important [issue] is growing our tax base. We are 20th out of 24 local jurisdictions [in Maryland] in job growth. Coming out of the recession, our per capita income [growth] was negative 1.7 percent. D.C.’s was plus 6 percent. [In Virginia], Tysons 10 years ago was a mall. Tysons today is the economic center of a city. Meanwhile, you can’t point to much in Montgomery County that has that same kind of excitement and transformation.
There’s certainly no question that the number of people in need in our community has grown. People still think of Montgomery County as this affluent community, and in some ways we are. You can drive around Potomac and you see that. People might not believe that 41 percent of the kids in our elementary schools are on free and reduced meals. We as a community want to welcome those kids and guarantee they’ve got a bright future. But we’re going to have to have a robust tax base to afford that.
Had you been on the county council in 2016, would you have been part of the unanimous majority that was required under the county charter to raise property taxes by an average of almost 9 percent?
No, I would have done what County Executive [Ike] Leggett recommended. If you remember the history, the [state] legislature was able to get some relief on payments related to the Wynne tax decision [which mandated refunds to county residents who paid local income taxes elsewhere]. [Leggett] urged [the council] not to increase [taxes] as much as they did. Ike has made it very clear that the additional revenue never went to the school system. And that’s what I hear when I’m talking to folks around the county: ‘We don’t mind paying taxes if it’s for schools and roads and cops. We get frustrated because it feels like the taxes have gone up, and then gone into pet projects for the councilmembers.’ [Editor’s note: At issue is about $18 million the council approved for fiscal year 2017 above what Leggett had proposed—money that went to programs outside the schools. This included a $4.5 million contribution to the county’s new public campaign finance system and $2.7 million to restore staff reductions at a couple of local fire stations; the largest portion, $7.7 million, was to cover increased costs in programs funded by the county Department of Health and Human Services. The council also reduced Leggett’s request for non-school programs by $5 million, for a net increase of $13 million over the executive’s proposed budget.]
If, during your tenure as county executive, the county council again wanted to raise taxes by more than the rate of inflation, would you support it?
Absent unusual circumstances, no. It’s time for us to live within our means and to fund the priorities of our voters, not just the priorities of the politicians. Our priorities need to be…schools, roads, public safety. If it’s not in those three categories, we need to step back and ask whether that should be the priority.
Are you supportive of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen I-270 and I-495 and include toll lanes? What are your transportation priorities?
[The governor] deserves credit for at least proposing something on the scale that we need, [but] I think a lot of us are particularly skeptical about the Beltway widening, if only for physical constraint reasons. I’m not sure financially how an entirely public-private partnership will work for I-270, but, by God, we’ve got to do something. I-270 has been a mess long enough.
I think we should be fundamentally revisiting how we do busing. One of the things I’m pushing in this campaign is embracing technology to deliver services. Why are we still running buses in the 1925 model of a set schedule with set routes in 2018? In the era of Uber and Lyft, you don’t need to stand outside next to a metal sign for almost 45 minutes hoping the bus will pick you up. You can press a button on your phone and there will be a minivan there in five minutes. I don’t want to have, on a Saturday night, a fleet of buses driving around empty. It makes no sense financially or environmentally—and it’s not good service.
After vetoing an earlier version, County Executive Leggett last year signed a bill to make the county the only one in Maryland with a $15-per- hour minimum wage. Would you have signed that legislation?
I would have worked all along for that to be an issue taken up by our state legislators rather than our county council. I share the basic notion that if you’re working full time, you shouldn’t be living in poverty, and I have supported minimum-wage increases. [But] employment regulation doesn’t make a lot of sense at the county level. We don’t even have an appropriate department to enforce those rules.
Are there other areas of regulation that you feel are an overreach at the county level?
I don’t think we need our council to be a tiny Congress or a tiny United Nations—and sometimes it feels like the breadth of their ambitions jeopardizes our ability to succeed on the core functions. I thought it was a little sad in the days leading up to Discovery’s departure [from Silver Spring], the big priority for our council was whether to include kangaroos in a circus animal ban. There was an old joke that went around that the council could deal with transgender and trans fats, but couldn’t deal with transportation. And sadly, there’s some truth to it. That’s not to say we disagree with how they feel about transgender or trans fats. But it’s a sense that we need the focus to be on the quality-of-life issues that local government is there to work on.
Read the extended versions of the interviews in the Voters Guide.