Voters attending the first candidate forum of the general election for the District 6 congressional seat Monday evening were treated to a kinder, gentler side of a contest that has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks.
Republican challenger Amie Hoeber of Potomac, who earlier this month published an op-ed accusing Democratic Rep. John Delaney of making a personal fortune “by handing out predatory loans,” avoided direct attacks on the incumbent during the session at Shaare Torah Synagogue in Gaithersburg. The closest she came was when she noted her endorsement by popular Gov. Larry Hogan, saying Hogan “wants a partner rather than someone who works against him”—an allusion to Delaney’s recent criticism of Hogan on several fronts.
The candidates did not appear together, but rather in two separate one-hour sessions in a forum designed by the sponsor, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, to be more of a town hall session than a debate. Delaney, following Hoeber to the podium, took aim at the left wing of his own party while all but ignoring his opponent.
“It has been a very distressing year in politics for most Americans,” Delaney, also a Potomac resident, observed. “I think it’s really eroded the confidence in our government, and I think that’s a really unfortunate outcome. I think both parties are guilty. I’ll start by talking about my party…I think we’ve given a message to our voters over the past five years that basically said everyone in government is a sellout.”
Declared Delaney: “It isn’t true. I’m not a sellout. [Fellow Montgomery County Rep.] Chris Van Hollen is not a sellout. [Retiring Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski is not a sellout…But that has been our message in the Democratic Party that everyone has sold out—they’ve sold out to Wall Street, they’ve sold out to big corporations. They’ve even accused President Obama. You can have whatever criticism you want of President Obama, but you can’t say he’s ever sold out to corporate America.”
Both candidates emphasized the need for bipartisanship—with Delaney boasting of a number of occasions when he had broken with his fellow House Democrats on legislation—while touting their centrist credentials. They are vying in a 200-mile-long district that, while heavily Democratic in its eastern end in Montgomery County, becomes increasingly Republican as it stretches across Maryland’s western panhandle. Delaney first won the district in 2012 when it was redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats, but barely held on to the seat in 2014—and now faces a well-funded challenger in Hoeber, in what many consider to be Maryland’s only competitive congressional race this fall.
“I’m a Democrat; I tend to be progressive in a lot of my orientation,” Delaney noted. “But I believe strongly there are good ideas on both sides of the aisle. This is too great a country to let it deteriorate with partisan bickering.”
Asked whether she considered bipartisanship to be dead, Hoeber—a long-time national security consultant who was deputy undersecretary of the Army during the Reagan administration—replied: “I don’t think it’s dead. I think it has had a bad year or two.”
Said Hoeber: “When I was in my Pentagon job, I had to work with people on both sides of the aisle. I did that very successfully year after year.” While saying that “some of the antics of this particular last Congress have been despicable” and decrying House Democrats’ sit-in last summer over a gun control measure as “absurd,” she added: “I would talk to people and try to find common ground. I have done that before, and I can do it again.”
Gun control was just one example Monday night in which Hoeber, who won an eight-way Republican primary in April while campaigning largely as a staunch conservative, appeared to be leaving herself some political running room as she faces a broader electorate in the fall.
“I am a Second Amendment supporter,” Hoeber said when asked about an assault weapons ban. “I believe the Constitution gives us the right to own weapons. But I think there are some reasons for restricting some types of weapons, and I would certainly consider the details of any proposal.”
Hoeber, who did differ from other contenders in this year’s GOP primary field by supporting abortion rights, Monday also put distance between herself and recent efforts by congressional Republicans to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood over its abortion practices. “Primarily, they do a great deal of helpful health services for women, and that should be continued,” she said. She also expressed an openness to proposals for paid family and sick leave being pushed primarily by Democrats, saying, “I would look at the proposals that have been made for that. I am very much in support of helping mothers with children. I have been a single mother with a son of my own. I know how hard it is to raise children and work at the same time.”
Some Republicans in Maryland see an opening this year among women voters, due to the prospect that the state’s congressional delegation could be without a female member for the first time in four decades. With Mikulski’s retirement and Rep. Donna Edwards giving up her seat to oppose Van Hollen in this year’s Senate primary, the Democrats are fielding a statewide slate of congressional candidates made up entirely of men.
In a pitch to women voters, Hoeber spent nearly a quarter of a 20-minute opening statement talking about her efforts to enhance career advancement and gain political power for women.
“I have worked in national security all my life, and I have clearly dealt with discrimination based on gender quite literally from the first day I started in that field,” Hoeber said. “Therefore, I really feel a moral obligation, a social justice obligation to mentor the young women today, in the defense world in particular.”
Noting that “the first professional meeting I ever went to was 3,000 men and me,” Hoeber elicited audience laughter when she added, “To be perfectly honest, I had a great time.” But, she said: “I had to fight for what I got. When I went into my Army job, the first reaction I really got was ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a job like this?’ So I take women’s advocacy seriously, and I will continue to do that the rest of my life.” She also cited her role in creating two chapters of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and in pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s and 1980s.
If the campaign so far has been characterized by sharp differences between Delaney and Hoeber on a host of current domestic and foreign policy issues, the areas in which they agree were more apparent at Monday’s forum.
Hoeber continued to emphasize her strong opposition to last year’s deal with Iran on nuclear weapons development, but she refrained from criticism of Delaney for supporting it—notwithstanding she has blasted him repeatedly for doing so over the past year. Delaney and Hoeber were on the same page in criticizing Obama administration policy in Syria. “’I’ve been very unhappy about what happened with the Syrian use of chemical weapons, and I deeply resent the fact that this country did not respond in some fashion or another,” Hoeber declared. Said Delaney: “I have been a strong advocate for a more aggressive posture in the world. I have pushed for a more aggressive posture as it relates to Syria.”
Closer to home, both touted an issue of everyday importance to many 6th District voters: transportation. Hoeber, if elected, vowed to seek a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noting that—with Edwards’ departure—Maryland will be without a representation on that panel in the next Congress, “The district’s transportation infrastructure is …a disaster,” she said, citing traffic congestion on I-270 and the American Legion Bridge.
Delaney, touting his role in a newly formed coalition to seek improvements on I-270, bemoaned the length of commutes faced by area workers, saying, “Transportation is a huge issue for this district. It is almost the singular issue facing” the 6th District.”
Delaney and Hoeber also agreed the biennial task of redrawing congressional districts should be taken out of politics and handed over to an independent commission—although they differed on the degree to which the 6th District is the victim of so-called gerrymandering.
“Maryland has the two most gerrymandered districts in the entire country—both District 6 and District 3 are terribly gerrymandered, and those need to be redone clearly,” Hoeber said. District 3, represented by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, has been referred to as the “ink blot district”; it meanders among population clusters from eastern Montgomery County to north of Baltimore.
Delaney, however, said the boundaries of the 6th District follow historical precedents that grouped Montgomery Counties with Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties to the west. But he was quick to distance himself from the 2011 redrawing of the 6th, which was done with the intent of electing then-state Sen. Rob Garagiola—whom Delaney defeated in the 2012 Democratic primary. “I was actually somewhat of a party crasher—because this district was drawn for my opponent, and I entered 15 minutes before the filing deadline,” he noted.
Delaney contrasted the 6th District with what he characterized as the “80 to 85 percent of districts [nationwide] that are one-sided” in terms of partisan voter registration. Noting that his audience at the forum contained Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, Delaney declared: “Guess what? I have to appeal to all of you. That’s not true about a lot of districts in this country. I think you’re a much better legislator if you have to be responsible for all of your constituents.”
Hoeber, who has tepidly endorsed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, sought to keep her political distance. Asked at one point to assess Trump’s strengths as a candidate, Hoeber responded: “I’m actually paying attention to my own campaign. I’m not paying attention to his campaign at this stage.”
Delaney, who has repeatedly referred to a “Trump-Hoeber” ticket during the campaign, refrained from that tactic at the forum. But he continued to sharply attack Trump, while defending his move earlier this year to rent a billboard truck that circled the Annapolis statehouse pushing Hogan take a position on the GOP nominee. “I think Mr. Trump is not only encouraging a destructive debate in this country, but I think his policies from an economic and national security perspective are so horribly ill-conceived and ill-advised that I think elected officials should say if they support them or not,” Delaney said. “I didn’t think the leading Republican in the state of Maryland should get a hall pass on telling the citizens what he believes.”
Delaney, who was a leading fundraiser for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential bid, expressed strong support for her candidacy this year—but not without a bit of criticism. “I think this election has been unfortunate in that, from time to time, it has pushed her into a more partisan manner than I think she [has],” Delaney said. Noting her reputation for working across the aisle as a senator, Delaney said he is “hopeful” that, as president, Clinton would demonstrate “her prior temperament, which I know is to be constructive and bipartisan, and will lead the country in a measured, predictable way.”