Fourteen Democratic candidates for at-large County Council seats appeared at Leisure World in Wheaton on Thursday night. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Even with less than half of the candidates for at-large County Council seats on stage at Thursday night’s Leisure World forum, the men and women running for office only had a few minutes to make their cases to voters during the 90-minute event.
It was just the latest example of the challenge candidates face in convincing voters to support them in a field that ballooned to 38 candidates running for four at-large seats after last month’s filing deadline. The field includes 33 Democrats, four Republicans and one Green Party candidate.
At the Leisure World forum, 14 Democrats took the stage to earn the support of voters before the June 26 primary.
Audience members asked the questions during the forum and the moderator directed three candidates to answer each question, so not every candidate was able to answer the same questions that other candidates faced.
Candidates Evan Glass, a former CNN producer, current Council President Hans Riemer and former Takoma Park City Council member Seth Grimes were asked whether they would favor getting the county out of the liquor business.
The Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol and the retail sale of liquor in the county—a business monopoly that generates about $30 million in profit for the county each year. Many elected officials have resisted giving up the revenue stream without a way to replace it, despite continuing criticism from the local restaurant industry about issues with the department.
Grimes said he believes privately owned beer and wine stores and restaurants should be able to buy alcohol from the open market rather than just from the county.
“I believe we should have a freer, more liberal system for sales in the county,” he said.
Glass pointed to a Washington Post op-ed he co-wrote in 2014 that called for partially getting the county out of the liquor business by allowing local businesses to buy alcohol directly from distributors and enabling the county to continue operating its retail stores and distribution network for customers that prefer to use them.
Riemer, who promoted an unsuccessful 2016 effort in the General Assembly to allow restaurants to buy ‘special order’ products from private distributors, said he has “thrown myself on this fire.” However, he said he believes the department’s management has improved operations and instead suggested the focus should be on trying to get the General Assembly to allow grocery stores to sell beer and wine.
“I think that is really the issue we need to break through on and that’s a tough fight against the retailer lobby and distributors’ lobby in Annapolis, but I’m working on it,” Riemer said.
After the forum, audience members noted the lack of Leisure World residents at the event. There were about 75 people in the half-filled room, which campaign workers said was a smaller crowd than expected at the senior community, where residents often fill the room for political forums.
A second forum for 15 other Democratic at-large candidates is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Leisure World hall.
Among the candidates at the forum, all but two indicated they were enrolled in the county’s new public campaign financing program. The exceptions were the county’s procurement director, Cherri Branson, and former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain.
Candidates using public financing commit to only accepting contributions of $150 or less. Those that meet qualifying thresholds can receive matching funds.
Jain said he’s using traditional financing, which enables candidates to accept individual contributions up to $6,000 each, because he’s been “fortunate to have a lot of friends and family” who believe in him and support his campaign. He said he supports public financing, however, and is not taking money from developers or corporations.
Paul Geller, a former president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, acknowledged that he’s no longer eligible to receive matching campaign funds after his treasurer submitted a campaign finance report to the Board of Elections that failed to meet the $20,000 minimum donation threshold needed to receive public funds. However, he said he would continue to follow public financing rules by not accepting more than $150 from any contributors, even though he can’t receive matching funds.
Grimes noted that “If a candidate has not received matching funds, that candidate will have a lot of trouble competing.”
School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who recently announced her plans to pursue an at-large council seat, made a minor slip-up when she declared she “decided to run for the Board of Education” due to her experience meeting with families about schools and hearing their challenges.
She said during her three-year tenure on the board, she has been told she asked too many questions and requested too much data.
“But I believe that’s how you make good decisions,” Ortman-Fouse said.
Rosemary Arkoian, a former National Security Research Analyst, took strong positions during the forum, declaring she would work to build the proposed M-83 road to parallel I-270 between Clarksburg and the Rockville area. She also said she’d “hold the governor’s feet to the fire” to make sure gambling proceeds are spent on education.
In response to a question, she compared herself to former council member Marilyn Praisner, a Democrat who served as the District 4 council member from 1990 to 2008.
“I like to call myself a community volunteer, civic activist and general noodge,” Arkoian said. “I’m a first-born, Capricorn, Armenian woman, so just watch out. And P.S., I’m Type A.”
Richard Gottfried, an accountant from Rockville, called for taking the endorsement process out of politics because he believes it makes candidates beholden to the unions, organizations or elected officials who back them. He also called for a “moderately-priced business unit” program similar to the county’s moderately-priced dwelling unit program to provide small businesses with cheaper space to promote economic development.
Due to the sheer size of the field, some candidates only received two or three questions during the forum. Gabriel Albornoz, the county’s former recreation department director who stepped down from the role to run his campaign, and Branson both received two questions about climate change.
They said they support county efforts to try to reduce greenhouse gases. Albornoz called for a climate summit in the county to come up with ideas to comprehensively address the issue.
The climate change questions were the only ones Albornoz received, although in his closing statement he used the opportunity to mention he has been endorsed by County Executive Ike Leggett.
“Ike Leggett has been a mentor and friend and that’s exactly the kind of elected official I want to be,” Albornoz said.
Danielle Meitiv, the science consultant who is also known as the “free range mom”, generated interest from the audience when she mentioned her struggle with local government after her kids were picked up by county police while walking back by themselves to her Silver Spring home from an area playground.
“We really needed people who would listen to us in our local government and we didn’t find that, so we spoke up and changed those policies,” Meitiv said. “Now I’m running as someone who will listen and who will care when families need help.”
Meitiv also drew laughs when she pointed out her 80-year-old father taking a picture of her and mentioned to the Leisure World crowd, “and he’s single by the way.”