Credit: Louis Peck

It was Act II of this year’s political equivalent of speed dating as 14 of the 33 Democratic contenders for County Council at large appeared before the Leisure World Democratic Club Thursday evening, following a similar forum with 14 other candidates a week ago.

Each candidate had just 90 seconds to introduce himself or herself, and a minute apiece to respond to questions. There also was a series of minute-long closing statements, although, by the end of the forum, several restive contenders chose to ignore the latter time limit—and were not cut off by the moderator.

With no major issue differences apparent in the large field competing for four at-large nominations in the June 26 primary, the candidates sought to emphasize their backgrounds and experience—and occasionally resorted to humor.

“My full name’s a little long,” observed Graciela Rivera-Oven of Germantown, a public relations consultant. “But remember—Oven, like a hot oven.”

Rivera-Oven, born in Bolivia, was among five candidates on stage Thursday night who were immigrants. The others were community activist Shruti Bhatnagar of Silver Spring, federal contractor Hoan Dang of Wheaton, construction manager Darwin Romero of Silver Spring, and management consultant Mohammad Siddique of Montgomery Village.

Their presence highlighted not only the county’s recent status as a majority-minority jurisdiction, but, as Dang noted, the fact that one-third of current Montgomery County residents are foreign-born.

“Of course, only in Montgomery County can a political refugee become a political candidate,” wisecracked Dang, a native of Vietnam, while adding in a more serious vein, “We had to start over—we had lost everything in the Vietnam War. With welcoming neighbors and progressive policies, we were able to get back on our feet and thrive. And so I understand the challenge of working families and immigrants who are still struggling to make ends meet.”

With three of the four current council at-large members being forced out by term limits adopted in 2016, Dang emphasized his governmental expertise as a budget manager, while another candidate, Marilyn Balcombe of Germantown, at times sounded almost like an incumbent seeking another term.

“l’ve been working with the County Council for over 25 years in transportation, land use, zoning, school construction,” Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg/Germantown Chamber of Commerce, declared. “The 2018 election is a landmark election, and, with the significant change in leadership, we must elect leaders who have a full understanding of the complexity of issues facing Montgomery County.”

Other at-large candidates at the at-large forum Thursday night. Credit: Louis Peck

Ironically, the sharpest criticism of the current council came from Neil Greenberger of Damascus, who, for much of the past decade, was the council’s spokesman and who remains a county government employee.

“It got to the point of watching my bosses and, unfortunately, too many of them thought that they were elected to tell you what you need. I think we need people who listen,” said Greenberger. He has repeatedly vowed during the campaign that, if elected, he would not join in the unanimous council majority needed to raise property taxes under the county’s charter.

Taking aim at the 8.7 percent property tax increase the council approved in 2016, Greenberger said, “Last year everybody’s property taxes here increased by hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars. There was no need for that.” Incumbent council members have defended the increase as necessary to provide $90 million in additional funding for the county school system to deal with what is widely referred to as the “achievement gap.”

Greenberger also went after the current council’s land use policies, asserting, “I’m going to make sure we have development plans that include schools and roads and transit—because my bosses just keep approving things, saying ‘Build it and we’ll figure out the rest later’, which means when they’re off the council.”

Greenberger did stumble a bit at the end of the forum, when, recounting some informal conversations he had before the start of Thursday’s forum, he related: “Everybody I got to talk to, I said, ‘What are some of the good things about Montgomery County and Maryland?’ So many of you told me when I asked that simple question, ‘Well, I think the governor’s doing a great job’.”

Those kind words for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan set off loud boos from the audience; the Democratic Club of Leisure World claims to have the largest membership of any such club in the state.

Economic development and job creation were frequently discussed at the forum, prompting Balcombe to wryly observe at the end, “I’m glad everybody talked about economics and jobs, so I know I have at least 13 votes”—a reference to the other 13 candidates at the dais. She added: “I’ve worked with the [Montgomery County] Economic Development Corp (MCEDC), I worked in getting it established. I know how to bring jobs to the county.”

Another candidate, accountant Michele Riley of Silver Spring, advocated increasing the capital available to the MCEDC, which she noted was among the recommendations of a countywide economic survey published in 2016. Among the other recommendations was a review of “burdensome and unneeded regulations at the county level,” Riley added.

Pointing to a projected budget shortfall of $500 million over the next six years, Riley said: “I want to achieve the economic growth the county needs to replace the tax revenue we’re losing as a result of Baby Boomers retiring in great numbers…Our debt level is getting higher and higher, and is currently at the limit under the spending affordability guidelines.”

Other contenders had a more modest policy agenda. “I’m going to fix the small things that people tell me they want fixed,” said sports talk radio host Steve Solomon of Silver Spring. “I’m going to give more money to libraries. We give 138 grants a year to non-profits [but] we’ve never given to a dog rescue. If you vote for me, we will give to a dog rescue.”

Later in the debate Solomon advocated for a large project, a second Montgomery County Potomac River crossing. “Who drives the Beltway every day?” he asked the audience. “I don’t, thank God. We need a bridge—no one’s planned this. We need proactivity on the council.”

Given the size of the candidate field, questions from the audience were generally posed to just three contenders. The three who responded to a query about whether the county should be in the business of selling and distributing liquor—activist Brandy Brooks of Wheaton, real estate agent Craig Carozza-Caviness of Montgomery Village, and attorney Bill Conway of Potomac—all opposed changing the status quo, at least for the foreseeable future.

Brooks offered a rationale for the county Department of Liquor Control (DLC), contending: “Montgomery County isn’t in the liquor business, it’s in the public health business. There’s a reason [the Department of Liquor Control] exists, and it’s not actually about generating revenue.  It’s actually about making sure we have better health outcomes when it comes to the consumption of alcohol in Montgomery County.” She attributed a lower rate of drunk driving accidents in the county to “the fact that we have a different system of control on liquor distribution.”

Said Conway, “I agree with Brandy that safety is very important,” while noting, “That’s not actually why we got in the business.” He added: “If we were starting over, we’d never go into the liquor business. But that’s not where we are, and we have to take the world as we find it.”

Pointing to $30 million in net revenue generated annually by liquor sales and distribution and his reluctance to lose “350 very good union jobs” at the DLC Conway said: “Previously, we did not run DLC as a business, it was run as a bureaucracy. It was very inefficient. About two years ago, the county realized that…For the first time, the county now has an inventory system where they actually know where products are.”

Carozza-Caviness said he opposed doing away with the DLC “right now,” citing the $30 million in net revenue. “It would be very difficult to replace that immediately,” he said. But he said such a change “does need to be looked at” in the longer term, adding, “I think part of economic growth is not robbing entrepreneurs of the opportunity to opens businesses.”

Brooks and Conway were also asked to respond when one audience member, local party activist Paul Bessel, asked: “Yesterday, thousands of students in Montgomery County marched on the White House for gun safety legislation. The superintendent of schools told them not to go, it wasn’t safe. The student member of the Board of Education went and spoke. Which one of them was right?”

Replied Conway: “I definitely side with the student member of the board…This was obviously a matter of deep conscience, and in response to the horrors we have seen, I don’t see how you could do anything different.”

Said Brooks: “Our students decided they were no longer going to wait for us to take their lives and their well-being seriously. I am incredibly proud of the students here in Montgomery County, who chose to show they are not just test-takers…but that they are taking responsibility for being leaders today and preparing to be leaders for the rest of their lives.”

Conway did offer something of an olive branch to Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith, saying, “I think I understand where the superintendent was coming from—I’m sure, in his mind, this was a matter of ‘My gosh, legal liability and all the bad things that could happen’.”

At times, it seemed that even the candidates themselves needed a scorecard to keep track of the players in the at-large race.

“I’m proud to have been endorsed by five major organizations, more than any of the 34 candidates running” declared attorney Will Jawando of Silver Spring, inadvertently inflating the field of 33 Democrats by a bit.

Jawando, a former Obama administration, proceeded to recite the list. “Sierra Club…our teachers, MCEA [Montgomery County Education Association]….LIUNA, our laborers who pick up our trash in the county, also Progressive Maryland.” He paused. “And I’m missing one because there’s a lot of them.”

“SEIU!” one of his fellow candidates helpfully called out.

“SEIU,” Jawando smiled appreciatively, referring to SEIU Local 500. “Our bus drivers and our people who serve our kids in school.”