Democratic gubernatorial candidates from left, Rushern Baker, Ben Jealous, Kevin Kamenetz, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross, Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah at a Silver Spring forum Tuesday night. Credit: David Asche/ Used with permission
The seven Democratic candidates for governor varied in their responses when asked whether they support the tax incentive package the state has offered Amazon to locate its second headquarters in Montgomery County, with some saying Gov. Larry Hogan created a bad offer on behalf of the state.
The candidates also discussed whether they’d support legalizing recreational marijuana use at a forum Tuesday night at the Silver Spring Civic Center. More than 200 people attended the event hosted by the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County. The Democrats are hoping to win the nomination in the June 26 primary to challenge the incumbent Republican Hogan in the November general election.
Only state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Kensington), who voted for the estimated $3 billion to $5 billion Amazon tax incentive package approved during this year’s General Assembly session, said he supported the offer.
“Sitting here about two blocks away from where Discovery is about to leave, we need to make sure we bring in new companies,” Madaleno said, referring to Discovery Inc.’s pending exit from its downtown Silver Spring headquarters. “Amazon is a game-changing investment for the entire region.”
He said the company, if it chose to build in Montgomery County, would only receive the incentive package if it spends about $140 billion in the area over the next 35 years.
“This is a transformative investment,” Madaleno said.
Amazon is deciding between 20 places—including Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.—to locate its new headquarters. The company plans to employ about 50,000 workers at the new location. County officials have previously said the White Flint area was pitched to the company for the project.
The state incentive package had overwhelming support from Montgomery County’s all-Democrat state legislative delegation and from local leaders, including County Executive Ike Leggett who has been working with Hogan to try to convince the company to locate in the county. Amazon is expected to choose a location sometime this year.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz noted his county didn’t submit a bid during the initial stages of Amazon’s search because he thought the company could invigorate Baltimore city’s economy if it located there and the county didn’t want to compete with the city. Baltimore did not make Amazon’s shortlist of potential locations.
Kamenetz said as governor he would prefer to focus on job skill training to prepare local students for the open positions at companies operating in the state, rather than “write blank checks to corporations.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who has been leading in recent polls over the other Democratic candidates, noted that Prince George’s did submit a bid for Amazon and at the time requested the state chip in about $4 billion to $5 billion to help attract the company.
“The idea is not just to create Amazon jobs, but have something to build around and create jobs for the state and have additional revenue coming in,” Baker said.
The answers from the current elected officials in the race differed from those of the other candidates—former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Baltimore attorney Jim Shea, former Michelle Obama adviser Krish Vignarajah and tech entrepreneur and author Alec Ross—who all criticized the deal.
“This Amazon headquarters thing, it is a really bad idea,” Shea said. “If we could get 55,000 jobs and have the infrastructure to be able to handle it, it all sounds really wonderful. But these financial incentives … to the richest man in the world, we’re getting held up by that.”
Vignarajah asserted that Hogan’s efforts to attract the company are an attempt to “hoodwink this election and buy our votes.” She criticized the governor for announcing the package during the winter while “children were literally freezing in a Baltimore classroom,” a reference to heating issues in Baltimore city schools.
Jealous said that Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia stand to benefit the most if Amazon chooses Maryland. He added that the package should include project labor agreements.
“This is fundamentally bad negotiation,” Jealous said. He believes the state would benefit more from investing and supporting local startups to help them grow in Maryland.
Ross said his priority would not be to attract the large companies with big incentive packages, but to try to identify “promising companies” being developed at places such as the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University and invest in them.
Krish Vignarajah, left, and Rich Madaleno, right, make points during the Silver Spring forum. Credit: David Asche
On legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, only Baker said he’s not supportive of the idea. He said he believes the issue needs to be studied more before recreational marijuana is legalized to understand the possible impact on health insurance and employment.
The state has already legalized medical marijuana and shops began selling cannabis products late last year. Other states such as Washington, Colorado, California and Nevada have legalized marijuana and created policies to allow private businesses to sell it.
Kamenetz said he’s considering his position on the issue. He noted there was recently a double shooting in Baltimore County linked to a marijuana deal and he’s concerned about violence associated with the drug’s illicit sale in the state. He added that he has two teenaged sons and he has to balance questions he has about the policy with his concern about their well-being. He said the potential revenue from taxing recreational marijuana sales could be used to pay for education, roads and other state budget items.
Meanwhile, Madaleno, Jealous, Ross, Vignarajah and Shea all said the state should legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana sales. All five candidates said they believed doing so would help curtail violence associated with selling cannabis and end the marijuana-related criminal penalties that disproportionately affect people of color.
Madaleno, in a spin on the widely-dispersed, but often questioned theory that marijuana is a gateway drug to harder drug use, described marijuana as “a gateway drug to the criminal justice system.” He said he supports a plan to legalize it and tax sales at 9 percent, like alcohol purchases are taxed, and use the proceeds to invest in communities that have been “hardest hit by the failed war on drugs.”
Shea said being charged with the criminal penalties associated with marijuana use put young people convicted of them “on a rollercoaster in and out of prison.”
Ross said he favors legalization and would also like to expunge the records of individuals previously convicted of marijuana-related criminal offenses.
Rushern Baker, left, and Kevin Kamenetz, right. Credit: David Asche
Other topics discussed at the forum include:
- Ross said he wants to make biometric thumbprint locks mandatory on every gun in Maryland;
- Jealous’s call for state-based, single payer healthcare drew applause from the audience, which mostly respected the moderator’s request not to applaud responses from candidates;
- Baker said he’d prioritize using gas tax revenue to fund mass transit improvements in the D.C. and Baltimore areas;
- Kamenetz said he picked his running mate, former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin, to try to his raise his profile in the county. “I’m going to get known here,” he said.;
- Several candidates tried to make the case that Hogan would emulate former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s scandal-plagued second term if Hogan is re-elected. Hogan would be term-limited if he wins and the candidates said he would be free from political implications his policies may have since he wouldn’t be running for re-election.;
- The candidates were amicable to each other during the forum and did not directly criticize each other;
- Each candidate committed to equitably hiring women in high-profile positions if elected.