All eight Democratic candidates for the District 1 County Council seat sparred Thursday night over the influence of money in politics and stumbled when asked who they’re supporting in the Montgomery County executive race.
The candidates fielded questions on development, taxation and the county business climate during the debate, hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Beat and moderated by a Beat reporter.
Among the contenders to become Bethesda’s representative on the council, there was general agreement on many points: The county has broken its promise to sunset its energy tax and should work toward eliminating it, the region needs economic growth in addition to housing development and officials should increase the county’s outreach to the business community and residents.
But a few sparks flew toward the end of the roughly 90-minute debate when the candidates were asked to identify areas of disagreement with one another. It started with tax attorney Reggie Oldak, who took issue with a statement made by rival Jim McGee, a health benefits professional.
Earlier in the discussion, McGee had said his decision to accept public campaign financing would set him apart from council member Roger Berliner, the current occupant of the District 1 seat who is prohibited from running again because of term limits. He noted the option hadn’t been available to Berliner, now running for county executive, during his past races, but he said financial contributions still exert an influence over politicians.
Oldak had a different point of view.
“I think it was Jim who said that the council members and … politicians in general pay attention to the people who give them the most money. I don’t think we have a problem with integrity in our county in general,” she said to the audience of about 70 in Bethesda.
She, too, has chosen the public financing option. However, she still doesn’t think “it’s fair or correct to say we have a problem with integrity among our politicians.”
Candidate Dalbin Osorio, a social worker, also said he disagrees with the idea that officials are beholden to their largest donors.
“I know some of my opponents have taken money from developers. That doesn’t make me trust them any less,” he said. “I don’t agree with that notion that you have to answer to a developer or big donations.”
Former Montgomery County Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, who’s also in the District 1 race, responded that donations do have an impact, and for that reason, she’s decided not to take campaign contributions from development interests. Bill Cook, a community activist, voiced a similar sentiment in stronger terms.
“There’s a lot of issues that divide us, but if there’s one thing that a majority of people agree on, it’s that money in politics is a problem,” he said. “So saying that elected officials aren’t corrupt or aren’t influenced by the money they received is … you’re in the minority on that.”
Former Kensington mayor Pete Fosselman said his problem is with the county’s decision to set aside $11 million for the public financing system. That money could be used to renovate libraries, hire teachers, buy ambulances and provide shelter for the homeless, he said. Fosselman said he doesn’t want to do away with the public funding option, but doesn’t think the county is in a financial position to devote so much money to the program.
The comment provoked a rebuttal from Cook.
“What’s more important? Functioning Democracy? Or some … fixes to our libraries?” Cook said, eliciting a clamor from the audience.
Ana Sol Gutierrez said she’s witnessed the power of well-funded special interests during her time as a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.
“They buy the votes,” she said. “That’s not a mystery. …. When I saw that Montgomery County was going to be the first locality in Maryland … to offer public financing, I jumped for joy.”
Andrew Friedson, former adviser to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, did not weigh in on the debate over the influence of campaign contributions. He, Fosselman and Wellington have chosen a traditional campaign fundraising approach that enables them to accept up to $6,000 per individual contribution. The public financing system enables candidates to only accept contributions up to $150 and campaign donations from county residents are matched with multiples of county funds.
The eight Democrats struggled with a question about which county executive candidate they would support if the June 26 primary were held today. Some tried to dodge answering, and others would only say which candidate they would not consider.
Their responses are as follows:
- Cook – would vote for Marc Elrich;
- Fosselman – undecided; wouldn’t vote for Elrich;
- Friedson – undecided; disinclined to vote for Elrich;
- Gutierrez – torn between Elrich and George Leventhal;
- McGee – would probably vote for Elrich;
- Oldak – refused to say; would not vote for Elrich;
- Osorio – would vote for Elrich; and
- Wellington – undecided.