The four Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive began to show policy differences during a debate Monday night in Rockville.
The entrance of Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda) into what was a three-way race between term-limited County Council members George Leventhal, Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner created an immediate contrast. On Monday, Frick went on the offensive early.
“There’s 40 years of combined experience in county government between these three leaders,” Frick said. “It’s really hard to imagine these are the people that are going to solve the situation when they’ve been there for more than a decade. … Nothing’s changing. Talk is cheap.”
He described a term limits vote in November, supported by about 70 percent of voters, as “pretty extraordinary.”
Berliner responded, “I think talk is cheap from somebody who hasn’t done this work.”
Elrich said, “I would venture to say if term limits were put at the state level, that you guys would be gone in 12 years, too.”
The debate, hosted by the Montgomery County Sentinel, was the first candidate event with Frick since he switched from a congressional run in District 6 to the county executive race. The Bethesda delegate has risen in Annapolis to House majority leader after first joining the General Assembly in 2007.
Leventhal is in his fourth term as a council member. Elrich and Berliner are in their third terms. New term limits prevent them from running for re-election.
During the two-hour debate, the candidates agreed on improving transportation, protecting immigrant populations and cracking down on gangs. But they diverged on issues including raising the local minimum wage to $15, public election financing and the future of the county’s Department of Liquor Control.
Leventhal and Elrich said they would support the county raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020 for large businesses and by 2022 for small businesses. Elrich is trying to usher a bill he sponsored with that timeline through the council and has been supported by Leventhal in the effort.
Berliner supports a compromise by County Executive Ike Leggett to raise the wage to $15 by 2022 for large businesses and by 2024 for small businesses.
Elrich said there’s no evidence that increasing the local wage sooner would lead to job loss and argued that low-income workers need the increase. Berliner said the extended timeline would enable the increase to get passed, despite the council being divided on the issue and Leggett, earlier this year, vetoing a previous version of the bill similar to the latest one Elrich introduced.
Frick believes the state should handle raising the minimum wage. He noted that the state’s labor department enforces the minimum wage.
“I think it’s a policy we ought to be pursuing at the state level,” Frick said. “It would make a lot of sense to be a state bill rather than a local bill.”
Leventhal and Elrich, who are using the county’s new public election financing system, praised the initiative when asked about it. The system lets candidates receive multiples of matching county funds for every donation of $150 or less they receive. Candidates who participate can’t accept donations larger than $150 or money from unions, PACs or corporations. The donations must be from county residents.
The county has budgeted $11 million to provide funds to county executive and County Council candidates in the 2016 election who opt to use the system.
Leventhal said the system has “significantly changed” how he campaigns because he now spends far less time seeking contributions from wealthy donors.
Frick, however, said he wasn’t using the public financing system because he doesn’t want to spend taxpayer funds on his campaign.
“When I’ve talked to folks about this issue, the idea that their recordation tax went up, their property tax went up and that money has been put into funds that are going to be used to send political mailers and attack ads really frustrates folks,” Frick said.
Leventhal said it was disingenuous for Frick, who was among the state legislators who voted to give the county the local authority to start the program, to be critical of the program now. He also pointed out that Berliner, who is not using the public financing system, held a fundraiser two weeks ago seeking contributions of up to $6,000 each.
Berliner, the District 1 council member, said he supports the public financing program, but chose to use traditional financing that enables individual contributions up to $6,000 because he needs campaign funds to raise his profile countywide.
“I’ve only been on the ballot for 20 percent of the county,” Berliner said. “I have to reach 80 percent of the people who have never had an opportunity to vote for me. So [public financing] didn’t work for me.”
Elrich, who has long shirked donations from developers, was the only candidate to say he wouldn’t accept contributions from developers.
“I think all of us talk, particularly as Democrats, about the corroding effect of money at the national level, but when it comes to our backyard, we start dithering about how corroding it is,” Elrich said. “I don’t think we should dither.”
He also disputed Frick’s assertion that the recordation and property tax raises funded the public campaign finance fund by saying the tax increase “dwarfed anything that’s going into public financing.” He said the additional funds mostly went to schools.
Although the candidates were not specifically asked about the Department of Liquor Control, which controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol in the county and the retail sale of liquor, the subject came up during the debate.
Frick, who attempted to place a referendum on the ballot through state legislation to end the department’s alcohol monopoly in 2016, called for the county to leave the alcohol business.
Asked how he would improve the economy for local small businesses, Frick brought it up again.
“Our restaurants are classic small businesses,” Frick said. “And they’ve complained year in and year out that the Department of Liquor Control was broken and not working and our council for the most part said we’re not willing to fix it. They said we were not willing to have a referendum to get out of this business because the revenue was more important to them.”
Berliner was the only one of the nine-member council who has supported efforts to end the county’s liquor monopoly. When Frick tried to push for the referendum, the other eight council members argued that the approximately $30 million in annual revenue generated by the department was too important to the county’s budget lose.
Leventhal addressed the liquor control issue later in the debate, noting that the annual revenue generated by the department is used to pay off $100 million in long-term bonds that funded transportation improvements in the county.
“Any effort we make to change the control of liquor would need to take into account that $100 million in bonded indebtedness would need to be paid for somehow,” Leventhal said. “If we tried simply to refinance that bonded indebtedness with general obligation bonds, that would take $100 million out of our school construction and other capital budgets. The issue of liquor revenue is not quite as simple as issuing political slogans.”
The debate at the County Council Office Building was attended by about 30 people. It was the second time candidates weighed in on issues together. At a forum in September, the three council members and Republican candidate Robin Ficker weighed in on the decision to raise property taxes in 2016 and other issues.
Ficker sat in the first row at Monday night’s debate, but was not invited to participate. After the debate, he said the decision not to let him participate prevented a “robust discussion of the issues.” He added that he was concerned the Democratic nominee would not be willing to debate him after the June 26 primary.
Ficker is the only Republican candidate running for county executive.
The candidates are next scheduled to meet at a forum hosted by Progressive Neighbors at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Nov. 13, followed by a debate Nov. 15 hosted by Bethesda Beat and The Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase.