The six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive, right, addressed a large crowd at the Silver Spring Civic Center at a forum on March 22. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Updated – March 26 – The six Democratic candidates running for Montgomery County executive explained where they stand on issues ranging from trying to hire more women for top county posts to the need for more affordable housing in the county at a Thursday night forum in Silver Spring.

All of the Democratic candidates seeking the county leadership post were on hand to try to win voters’ support at the forum sponsored by the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County at the Silver Spring Civic Center. While the forum focused on women’s and children’s issues, there were few differences among the candidates on those issues.

The candidates—County Council members Roger Berliner, George Leventhal and Marc Elrich as well as state Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda), Potomac businessman David Blair and former county Planning Department Deputy Director Rose Krasnow—all said they would make sure women were hired to top administrative positions in the county if they were elected. And they all said they strongly support women’s reproductive rights.

The six candidates will face off in a June 26 primary. Republican Robin Ficker, a Boyds attorney, is also running for county executive.

When the Democrats were asked to name one economic development program or policy they believe would improve the lives of women, the candidates demonstrated minor differences of opinion. Berliner and Elrich said they would focus on early childhood development and Blair said he would analyze the county procurement process to help women do business with the county while Leventhal said he wants to make sure that women receive equal pay and Frick said he’d work to lower the cost of daycare.

The forum did present an opportunity for the candidates to detail their positions on two often-discussed issues in the campaign—the need for affordable housing and the county’s public campaign financing system. 

Leventhal proposed doubling the amount of money in the county’s Housing Initiative Fund, which is used to preserve existing affordable housing and build new units. The fund currently receives about $35 million annually from the county. He also said he would work with religious institutions to build affordable housing on their land, noting the primary barrier to affordable housing in the county is the high cost of land.

“There’s a wide range of opportunities working with the religious community,” Leventhal said.

Berliner and Blair both said the county needs to use more of its own land as sites for affordable housing projects. Berliner said there will likely be a debate among council members soon about County Executive Ike Leggett’s proposal to build a low-rise childcare facility instead of affordable housing on the site of former Silver Spring library on Colesville Road.

“It’s going to be one of the big debates as to whether we use that library for affordable housing,” Berliner said.

Elrich said the county should buy affordable housing properties in areas where they’re being lost due to rising real estate prices so the county can keep the properties affordable. He also proposed a policy that would require developers to replace affordable housing that is lost to new development.

“We should consider adopting a policy with no net loss of existing affordable housing,” Elrich said.

Krasnow, whose planning experience spans more than a decade of working at the Planning Department, said that the county’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program is providing mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments that are considered affordable, but not housing for families.

“It’s very important that we sit down with the development community to figure out the best way, what would incentivize them to build more affordable housing,” Krasnow said.

Frick said there needs to be more of a focus on building housing that middle-class families can afford.

“It’s very hard for middle-class families to find housing that works for them in this community,” Frick said. “We really don’t have choices for middle-class or even slightly upper middle-class families that want to have a home, they want to have a detached house. Good luck with that right now in Montgomery County.”

One clear difference among candidates is the decision by three—Krasnow, Leventhal and Elrich—to use the county’s new public campaign financing system. Berliner, Blair and Frick opted for traditional campaign financing.

The public system allows certified candidates to only take contributions up to $150 and to receive multiples in county funds for the contributions they receive from county residents after meeting specific thresholds. Candidates using public financing can’t accept money from labor groups or corporations. The system was designed and approved by the council to reduce the influence of big money political contributors in county politics. Under the traditional financing system, candidates can accept individual contributions up to $6,000 each as well as donations from employee unions and businesses.

Leventhal went on the offensive against the candidates who are not using public financing.

“I don’t know if this experiment will be successful,” Leventhal said about the new system. “We have one enormously wealthy self-funder running for the Democratic nomination, we have two other candidates who are accepting contributions up to $6,000 per contributor, including from corporations. It’s entirely possible one of the three will win and if they do, I don’t think people will use the public finance experiment in the future.” 

Leventhal was referring to Blair, who contributed $300,000 to his campaign as of January, as the “enormously wealthy self-funder.”

Blair later responded that while he supports public financing, he didn’t think using the system was appropriate for him.

“I do take offense to the thought I could buy somebody’s vote,” Blair said. “You should know at any given week I’m at Metro stops shaking thousands of peoples’ hands in the morning and afternoons, I’m knocking on doors and I’m at every community event I can go to.”

Berliner said he decided to use traditional fundraising because as a District 1 council member representing the Bethesda area, only about 20 percent of the voters in the county have had the opportunity to vote for him previously. He noted that Elrich and Leventhal as at-large members have been elected countywide multiple times during their council tenures.

“It was a total strategic call on my part—it might have been the wrong call—but it was a total strategic call that I needed to raise more money in order to offset an 80 percent competitive disadvantage,” Berliner said. “It was that simple.”

He noted that although he has accepted large contributions from developers in the county, he has also opposed developers’ efforts to build in areas such as around Ten Mile Creek in Clarksburg.

“Have I supported development in Bethesda? You bet. Have I supported it in White Flint? You bet. I support smart growth development where it should be and I opposed it where it shouldn’t be. I’m proud of my record,” Berliner said.

Frick said he chose to use traditional financing because he believes the $11 million the county budgeted for publicly financed candidates could be better used to bolster the education system or other county budget priorities.

“I’m really uncomfortable with general fund taxes being what we use to pay for these campaigns,” Frick said. “We had a very unpopular increase in the property tax a couple years ago and immediately $4 million of that property tax increase went into the campaign funds of a handful of council members. Yes, maybe we don’t use all the $11 million that’s being set aside, but we’re going to use $3 million just at this table.”

Frick was referring to the public funds likely to be spent on the campaigns of Krasnow, Elrich and Leventhal.

Krasnow and Elrich both said they believe that publicly financed campaigns help provide residents rather than special interests with a greater voice in the political process.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Elrich said. “Once this goes on for a few cycles, people are going to be really happy that we did this. I don’t know any other way to democratize this process.”

Krasnow said she isn’t comfortable asking people for high-dollar contributions.

“I think it’s a real step forward and does mean that we’re not beholden to anyone—not developers, not unions—really no special interest groups,” Krasnow said. “And for all those people who always say, ‘Oh, you can’t buy my vote for $6,000,’ then I would ask you, ‘Why aren’t we able to pass gun control regulations in this country?’ ”

Correction – This article was updated on March 26 to clarify the policy Elrich supports to require developers to replace affordable housing. The earlier version of the story said he supported building the same amount of affordable units at the redevelopment or elsewhere, and while Elrich said he supports new affordable housing elsewhere in the immediate area as where the affordable units were knocked down, he would prefer the new affordable housing be built at the location where they were knocked down. At the forum, Elrich said, “Additional units have to allow for the preservation of what’s already on the ground or replacement of what’s on the ground, in addition to building the new units.”