Interviews with the six Democratic candidates for county executive
Home: Potomac; married, six children
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Clemson University, 1991
Professional Background: Health care industry (executive chairman, Accountable Health Inc., 2013-2017; CEO, Catalyst Health Solutions Inc., 1999-2012); minority partner, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, parent company of Washington Capitals and Wizards (2013-present); co-owner, Badlands Playspace (2017-present)
Political Experience: none
You’re the one candidate in the Democratic primary field who has not previously held elected office. What else do you feel distinguishes you from the other contenders?
I have spent my entire professional life as an executive running a billion-dollar corporation. I have developed unique skills around creating jobs, [exercising] fiduciary responsibility when we have someone else’s money, accurately forecasting revenues, adhering to a budget, stamping out redundancies [and] looking at…how we get more done with less. I ran a company that touched millions of lives, and so you focus on things like first-class customer service.
As a business leader, you’re always coming up with big ideas, you’re challenging the status quo, you’re pulling together groups in a collaborative manner. And then you’re executing—getting things done. I think that’s what this county needs.
After a career in business, what prompted you to decide to seek elected office? And how steep a learning curve do you feel you would face moving from the private to the public sector?
I live here. And I don’t need a job—I need good schools, I need roads that aren’t gridlocked. And so I don’t want to leave, and neither am I going to sit home and complain. I believe I’m qualified, I have some big ideas of where this county ought to be, and I think I can lead us there. I am a lifelong Montgomery County resident; I certainly have a keen understanding of the county. I think it’s easier for an executive to transition into government than a legislator into an executive role. Part of being an executive is setting big goals, and then leading a group of individuals to achieve those. …You are surrounded by the best and the brightest in their respective fields, and we have many of them right here in Montgomery County. So, while I haven’t held an elected office position, I have been an executive, and I know what it takes to recruit the best and the brightest to lead.
Over the next decade, what do you feel are the major challenges facing Montgomery County?
I think the biggest priority is creating jobs, because we need to expand the revenue base. Over the past year and a half, as I’ve met with government officials and community leaders, there’s one thing that’s consistent—and that is everyone needs more resources. And I believe that in Montgomery County we should have the best schools and the best social services. But to do that requires money, and continually raising the property tax and other taxes is not sustainable. If we want to be the best county, we need to pay for that…and [we] can get that through a growing economy.
I have a vision that we can be the startup capital of the East Coast. We have the best schools, we have a talented workforce. We have access to some of the best research and development in the country—in the world for that matter—as well as the federal government. I want to set a culture of innovation that starts at the top. So I think about things like reprioritizing our marketing expense. Right now, we spend less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our annual budget on economic development. That’s got to change. Today, it’s about $5 million, and I think it needs to be at least $15 million.
Several candidates in this race have cited complaints that the county is not business-friendly. As someone who has done business here, what’s your perspective?
That’s one of the reasons I’m running. Having run a business here for close to 20 years…not once did someone knock on my door—from the city of Rockville or from the county or from the state. At first, I thought that’s just how business was, because I was [already] here. But then, as we opened offices in 30 other states, I realized that was not the norm. The other states and jurisdictions took a much different approach to economic development.
While it’s getting better, it is still not a business-friendly environment. When we opened up Badlands Playspace in Rockville, we were told by one inspector: ‘The lighting looks great. We’ll sign off on it next week. You’re ready to go.’ And then the next week, an inspector came in and said: ‘That wiring will never work, you’ll need to redo that.’ We were fortunate that we could afford to get the lighting redone. But it’s just a crime to think there are many folks out there who are maxing out their credit cards and borrowing money from family and friends, [and when] they’re about to open up their small business, they’re told: ‘The inspector missed it.’ To me, what business-friendly means is that if the inspector misses it, we’re going to pay for it—we being the county.
Had you been on the county council in 2016, would you have been part of the unanimous majority that voted to raise property taxes by an average of almost 9 percent?
No. In the position the [council] found themselves in, I think what would have been appropriate would have been to follow [County Executive Ike] Leggett’s recommendation, which I think was roughly a 6.2 percent increase. The council put themselves in a very difficult position, because for 15 years we haven’t created jobs: We created 3,900 private sector jobs while the population has grown by 150,000. It’s roughly one job for every 38 residents. What that has done is to put a tremendous strain on everything—our roadways, the schools, the tax base.
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?
My strong preference would have been to see this measure at a more regional level. You can drive 20 minutes in any direction and be outside our county, and the concern about losing jobs is a real one. And [raising the minimum wage is] at best a partial solution several years down the road. By any study that you see…the cost of living here is significantly higher than $15. In fact, someone would have to work 100 hours a week at $15 an hour to make ends meet. Right now, there are something like 40,000 jobs available in Montgomery County. I would like to invest in programs that train those individuals to fill those jobs. The plan that I am proposing is not how do we get folks to $15 an hour, but how do we get them to $30, $40, $50 an hour—so they can live and work in Montgomery County.
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?
I divide [transportation] up into short-term solutions and long-term solutions. What can we do right now for our residents? First, fix Metro. Second, we’ve done a nice job with the east-to-west traffic—the Intercounty Connector and the Purple Line—and we’ve got to start thinking about the north-south. With regard to the governor’s specific plan, it’s easy to be critical, but at least he’s put forth a plan for us to consider. I think we have to have reversible lanes on I-270.
I would make the Ride On buses free. Right now, we’re subsidizing [fares] at about 80 percent. If you look at the utilization of our Ride Ons, you see six people, 10 people in a bus that costs over $500,000. So, we need to fill up the buses, which would get cars off the road and make this county more livable. But if we make it free and people still aren’t going to use the buses, we need to rethink our transportation plan, because there are 12-to-15-passenger vehicles that cost $70,000 that we could be utilizing. I like the idea of bus rapid transit, but it requires a dedicated lane. I would like to see us make some traction on getting folks out of their cars and onto the buses before we started building new roadways. Transportation is changing rapidly with driverless vehicles, and I would caution us from spending billions of dollars on new roadways while these new technologies are being adopted.
In addition to improving its attitude toward business, do you feel the county has become overly regulatory in terms of rank-and-file citizens?
Yes. In many instances we’ve overstepped, and the law of unintended consequences has played out. I think the bag tax is a good example. We haven’t seen the actual usage of bags decline; the revenue from the tax has been pretty consistent for the last three years. The other unintended consequence is the administrative burden on small businesses. If you’re a grocery store, you get into the routine of issuing these bags. But if you’re running a beauty parlor, and maybe you’re only issuing three or four bags a day, you’ve got to track that and pay it. So you might be spending more money on the stamp than on the actual tax.
It hasn’t had the desired impact we were hoping it would. I would propose that we ban plastic bags. I have been to our up-county incinerator in Dickerson: 18 percent of what we were burning up there was plastics that could be recycled. As a county, there’s a level of pride that we’re the best and the most environmentally conscious. But yet, there are some things we are not leading the country on, and we need to step it up.
Read the extended versions of the interviews in the Voters Guide.