Editor’s Note: Bethesda Magazine writer Louis Peck sat down with the six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive to discuss local issues and their visions for the county for the magazine’s May/June issue. This week, Bethesda Beat is running an extended version of each candidate’s Q&A interview, in alphabetical order of the candidates’ names. For more information on the candidates, check out our 2018 Primary Voters’ Guide.
Tuesday: Roger Berliner
Wednesday: David Blair
Thursday: Marc Elrich
Friday: Bill Frick
Monday: Rose Krasnow
Tuesday: George Leventhal
Age: 67 (born Feb. 12, 1951, Cincinnati, Ohio)
Home: North Bethesda; married, two children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Dartmouth College, 1973; law degree, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, 1983
Professional background: congressional aide (U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California); policy adviser (California State Assembly); attorney; legal counsel (County of Los Angeles); small business owner (energy consulting firm)
Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2006-present (president, 2012, 2017)
What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?
[I] started as a small businessman … grew a small business and actually was in business more than I’ve been in public life. That experience, [along with] having worked on Capitol Hill, having worked for the California State Legislature, and having represented the largest county in the country, Los Angeles County—all before my service [in Montgomery County]—is, I think, a unique and strong background for this work.
I believe [my] record stands apart, particularly when it comes to knowing the county. It’s a big county; it took me two years on the council before I was able to have a good understanding of the breadth of county government. So I do think it matters that the leader we pick is someone who is conversant with and has been involved with the county.
Even some of those who support you feel that you can be slow to make a decision, perhaps owing to an abundance of caution. Are they on target?
I actually take some pride in that I approach my work thoughtfully. I try to make sure I understand the arguments from both sides, if it is a controversial issue, before I make a decision. And I actually think that is the best way to go about our work. But it does not prevent me from moving forward, and of advancing legislation that, quite frankly, has been groundbreaking. I work really hard to reconcile competing truths. That’s how I go about my business. That’s what some people might accuse of being “cautious.” For me, it is trying to strike the right balance. I am progressive and pragmatic. That is my brand, and I stand by it.
I do think that temperament matters … . If you bring a positive spirit to bear, if you’re thoughtful and reasonable, if you bring people together and find common ground, that matters. I feel that is my reputation.
Over the next decade, what do you think are major challenges facing Montgomery County?
I think the greatest challenge is creating greater shared prosperity. It does mean our county needs to be more competitive economically, it needs to be able to attract as well as retain businesses. And it also needs to make progress addressing what I think is the overarching national issue, which is income inequality and growing poverty in our county. We need to [address] both. If we are competitive economically and grow our tax base, it will give us the revenue we need to make progress on the other. To me, the future is pretty clear. It is an innovation economy. And our county needs to be positioned as a county that itself is innovative, and encourages entrepreneurs and an innovative economy.
Take a look at who are the leaders in the economy today. It isn’t your grandfather’s economy. It is Google, it is Facebook, it is the Amazons of the world, it is STEM [Science Technology Engineering Math]-related. That would be my priority—to create a more dynamic county, a more innovative county, a county that is no longer dependent on the federal government.
Our county is getting poorer. It is shocking. I got involved in creating a hunger plan because our county had never formally said, “We need to reduce hunger.” And I said, “We’re just giving dollars to nonprofits, and we don’t have a plan?” And now we need [a plan] on poverty, too. That means also that our education system needs to adjust. … Institutions as large as county government, as large as the school system, are, by definition, slow to adjust. So my hope is to be a spur to overcome sort of the natural stasis that sets in and see if we can’t spur a little more innovation across the board. IBM has partnered with communities around the country and created programs that allow particularly lower-income teenagers to find jobs in which they are absolutely prospering. That’s the kind of future that I want to bring about.
Notwithstanding several steps taken in recent years, such as the creation of a small-business navigator, which you sponsored, there continue to be complaints that the county is not business friendly. What additional moves are needed?
We do need to change the perception of our county, and I think there are enough things we don’t do particularly well to justify a perception. I just had a meeting where someone was sharing with me his experience of building a 10-foot-by-10- foot shed in his backyard. It took 14 pages [of paperwork] and a plat—and two inspectors. And he’s a land-use expert. He said to me, “I don’t know how somebody who isn’t a land-use expert could possibly have done this; they would have needed to hire a lawyer.”
[If elected], I’m going to have to really dig down in departments like the Department of Permitting Services. Why does it take this long, why do our residents have to go through this kind of process? Aren’t there ways we can make it easier for … them to interact with county government?
There have been frequent complaints that, as the county has grown, public infrastructure has not kept up with private development. What needs to be done going forward to address this?
With respect to schools, we have development moratoriums. It used to be that if a cluster [of schools] was over 120 percent [of capacity], you could not develop there—unless there was a plan approved by the County Council that showed we were going to address the overcrowding in the school system. In the last go-round, it was clear that the cluster approach doesn’t work—because there were individual schools that were 140 percent [of capacity]. But if you had a school that was 90 percent, then the cluster didn’t reach the 120 percent [threshold]. So I made the motion to change the test to the individual school. For example, in downtown Bethesda, if Bethesda Elementary School is over 120 percent, we either have to have a solution—or development stops.
We do want development to take place in Bethesda, and we do want our schools not to be overcrowded. In some ways, [this] forces the school system to catch up, and recognize the county has made a decision that it is in the public interest to grow here—so, by God, provide the resources and prioritize to make sure we can do that and not have overcrowding in those schools. It is something that I take very, very seriously, and would be committed to making sure that we do what we need to do.
County Executive Ike Leggett recently suggested altering school boundaries as a way of dealing with capacity issues in crowded districts. Do you agree with this approach?
There are certain responsibilities that are not county government’s. [Boundaries are] a Board of Education decision. Do I think the Board of Education needs to seriously examine that? Absolutely. There’s no question that is one of the things that must be on the table. I do believe the county executive needs to be a partner with our school system. We are being asked to write checks of over $2.5 billion [annually]. If I am proposing a budget of $2.5 billion, I want to make sure there’s alignment broadly of how those dollars will be spent and what we hope to achieve—and to have a real understanding with respect to that.
You were part of a unanimous County Council vote in 2016 for a property tax increase that averaged about 9 percent. Leggett urged a lower increase, and there is a widespread view that the hike was a major factor in term limits being approved by voters that year. Any second thoughts?
No. It was all about the school system. The county executive proposed exceeding the charter limit [which restricts the growth of property taxes to the rate of inflation without a unanimous council vote]. The difference in the county executive’s proposal and what the County Council ultimately passed was really so on the margin at that moment in time. Everybody understood in county government that given the challenges that our school system faced, that it required $90 million above the maintenance of effort [level required by the state]. We could not do that without raising taxes. The school system in my judgment is one of the pillars of our community. We can ill afford for that reputation to be tarnished.
And now we need to grow our economy instead of raising taxes. It is not my intention [if elected] to be proposing any further tax increases. Do I fully appreciate that our residents have tax fatigue? Absolutely. I feel like we’ve hit the wall on tax increases, which is why I think the focus must be in this race on: “Who do you have confidence in who can grow our economy, who can grow our tax base? Who has the vision that will allow us to prosper without raising taxes?”
In 2017, you opposed a bill, vetoed by the county executive, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. You later supported the revised $15 minimum wage increase legislation that he signed. Are you concerned this law could affect the county’s competitiveness?
[Council member] Sidney Katz and I worked very closely together to make sure we negotiated a deal that we felt stretched it out in a way that was least damaging to our small-business community. Am I concerned about it? I am, but in terms of the overall equities, it is also true that people work too hard for too little in our county.
Gov. Hogan has proposed to widen I-270 and I-495 and put in toll lanes, similar to those used in Virginia. Is that a concept you support, and what are your transportation priorities?
I am a [mass] transit guy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t attend to I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. It is intolerable for people who drive I-270 every day. Now, there are important differences [with Hogan’s proposal to widen I-270 and I-495]. Our council has been on record for years supporting the adding of two reversible lanes to I-270. Anybody who looks at I-270 sees it is a totally peak-driven system. So I don’t get where we need four lanes … and, hopefully, it would be less expensive and therefore the tolls would be less. And what you can do on the Beltway is somewhat of a mystery, because any of us who have driven it see how tight the Beltway is.
If we fix Metro, have the [light-rail] Purple Line, and have bus rapid transit, you have the bones of a state-of-the-art system. And then you can focus on one of the more perplexing problems, which is the first mile/last mile problem: How do you get people out of their homes to the transit? Other communities are now partnering with Lyft and Uber to do that, and I sent a letter to our Department of Transportation saying, “Excuse me, why aren’t we doing this?” Those are the kinds of things I would seek to do as county executive.
One perennial idea to relieve traffic has been to build a second Potomac River crossing in addition to the American Legion Bridge. Is this worth considering?
I led the fight against it. It is the antithesis of what we’re trying to create in Montgomery County, which is smart growth, not sprawl. It diverts attention from the American Legion Bridge and fixing I-270. Focus on our existing infrastructure, and make it more efficient. I started a petition drive on the American Legion Bridge. Fix the bridge! It is a national embarrassment, and Maryland owns the bridge.
[As for] the people who would use the second crossing—most of the people who today go across the American Legion Bridge, they’re not going out to Loudoun County. [Their destination] is Tyson’s, it is inside the Beltway. So it wasn’t ever really serving the greatest needs, and it would just create incredibly more sprawl.
You’re one of several candidates who has spoken about how the county government needs to improve its attitude toward business. Has it also become overly regulatory in terms of the rank-and-file citizen?
The short answer is yes: We went further than we had to [to] address serious issues. Look at the bag tax, for example. We are the only jurisdiction in the country that applies the bag tax to department stores. So early on, I said this overshoots the mark and breeds resentment that undermines the legitimate objective of making sure we are taking care of the grocery stores of the world. Those [are the source] of 90 percent of the bags that end up in our streams. So, I sought to pare it back to just the offenders, and there was resistance.
[Regarding the ban on cosmetic lawn pesticides], we were advised by the attorney general’s office that it was likely to be preempted. I also felt that this was a realm in which … we were going from zero to 100 miles per hour in a nanosecond. I felt like we needed to lead our community to understand more fully the dangers. So I proposed an alternative that would have been the strongest pesticide law in the country, short of a ban … and do that for several years and see if it didn’t reduce our use of pesticides by 50 percent.
That, to me, is good government: You lead people to the result you want to take them to without breeding resentment and pushback. Now, there are some situations where you can’t afford to do that, and there are those who argued this was one of them—that lives are at stake. I understand that, too. So I again tried to reconcile what I thought were competing truths.
You’re the one member of the current County Council who had advocated major change to the county’s current public system of distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. How would you propose to make up the $30 million in net annual revenue the county now gets from the operations of the Department of Liquor Control (DLC)?
I’ve never proposed privatizing DLC; I’ve proposed ending their monopoly. One of the reasons that is important is that the retail establishments could continue, and other counties that have done similar efforts have found that the county stores still do very well. So this isn’t about $25 million to $30 million; this is about a much smaller dollar amount. The analysis that people have done suggests this is closer to $5 million to $10 million.
I’d phase it in, so it doesn’t have a significant impact … . And then you would have to work a deal with the state. The state is the one that would derive the net economic benefits from it, because the [sales] taxes don’t come to us. So you have to have a share-the-benefits arrangement with the state, which I believe could be negotiated. You work with the state to say, “Isn’t this in your benefit, too?” This creates greater state revenues. Why wouldn’t the state say [to the county]: “OK, in order to get there, we’ll hold you harmless for X number of years?”
My reason for doing this is several-fold. One is for consumers, but [another] is for our restaurant industry. I dare you to have a conversation with any restaurant owner, and ask, “‘Would you prefer to have DLC or not?” It is not a plus for our county.
In 2016, your campaign committee contributed to the campaign against term limits and you’ve indicated you personally voted against it. If elected county executive, would you seek to advocate for its repeal?
No. I think the voters have spoken. I respect our voters’ decisions. My experience was in California, where they had term limits—and how quickly that changed the dynamic there. I don’t think it’s been helpful. I do think if you’re going to have term limits, three terms is the best of what I think is fundamentally a bad situation. Twelve years is a significant amount of time.
What we’ve seen in California is that it makes people more ambitious for the next run. It also creates greater room for lobbyists, because [elected officials] are not as familiar [with policy issues]. So the power shifted to staff and to lobbyists, and created more ambitiousness: “OK, what am I going to do next? Where do I go?” And I think [during] your last term of being term limited … you have no accountability. None of that do I find to be particularly appealing. I defeated an incumbent [when first elected in 2006.] It’s not like incumbency always rules.
You’ve run at the district level. You’ve cited the fact that this is your first countywide campaign—and the need for greater financial resources—in opting not to use the new public campaign finance system. In a time of budgetary challenges, should the county be spending $11 million on this system?
There are other ways this could have been done—a checkoff system, which is what’s done in many jurisdictions, so that people voluntarily say, “We consider this to be a priority.” There are other places where this was subject to a referendum. And it was suggested: “How was it that the council acted on something that was clearly going to be something that the council could benefit from, was that in itself a mistake?”
Yes, there are other ways we could have done it that perhaps would have resulted in less public dollars being spent on it—and more individual contributions. Has it produced at least a certain level of the results that many of us sought? I was a supporter of public financing; I like the fact that you have all these new people running, who feel like they have a shot, who feel like there’s a path forward for them to secure the financing necessary to run a decent campaign.