Editor’s Note: Bethesda Magazine writer Louis Peck sat down with the six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive to discuss the 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: 43 (born Dec. 30, 1974, Silver Spring)
Home: Bethesda; married, two children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Northwestern University, 1997; law degree, Harvard Law School, 2000
Professional background: attorney (Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, 2000-present)
Political experience: member, Maryland House of Delegates (2007-present); House majority leader (2017-present)
What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?
I think I hit the ideal sweet spot in terms of experience. With the overwhelming vote in favor of term limits, the voters sent a clear message they’re ready for a new set of leaders in county government … which really, I think, rules out the existing [County] Council members. Getting around the county, you hear time and time again frustration, and an interest in moving forward beyond these council members.
Yet I also know this county well. I know we like to give promotions to people who have proven themselves. With 10 years under my belt in Annapolis, having moved up from a freshman appointee to House majority leader … I think I really am ideally suited to be a change agent, but also someone with a proven track record.
When Gov. Larry Hogan recently floated the idea of term limits for state legislators, you told The Washington Post: “I’m a much better legislator now than I was in year one. With too much turnover and people constantly learning, you’re not going to have as effective a legislature.” In general, do you think term limits is a good idea?
I think in this instance, we did need a change. There’s a reason Montgomery County voters didn’t enact term limits the times it appeared on the ballot previously. But this time … voters tell me again and again that they don’t feel these council members listen to them. There is a sense that my opponents have been there so long and were insulated from the actual voters that sent them there. So it’s not normally something that I would embrace, but I do think there’s a reason 70 percent of voters felt it was time … . I voted for it. I felt like a lot of my neighbors that we needed some new blood, and this was the way to get it.
If you have very short term limits … sure, there are problems with gaining institutional knowledge. There are benefits to having spent some time in government: it’s like any job, something you can get better with over time. [But] this is a three-term limit. Twelve years is not a short amount of time. I’m leaving the Legislature after 10 years, and I think it’s healthy. I think it’s great our district gets to elect someone new with a new set of ideas and energy.
You’re one of two people in this race who have not previously held a county office, and your background is in a legislative rather than executive capacity. There are some who suggest this would put you at a disadvantage in stepping into the role of county executive.
Many of the most important issues facing the county in the next term will actually be state issues. Education is the No. 1 priority for many of our citizens, and the most important thing in education over the next four years is going to be the Kirwan Commission, and the funding decisions that come out of Annapolis. (Editor’s note: The commission, chaired by former University of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan, was created in 2016 and is working on proposed revisions in the allocation of state aid for education.) And I think I showed in state government that I could flatten learning curves pretty quickly. I got there without any particular expertise in taxes, and I was the chair of the tax subcommittee within three years.
When it comes to executive leadership, I think temperament is a pretty important piece of this. We’re going to need an executive who can chart a clear vision for the county and be a strong leader, but also be a diplomat and represent the entire county. You can say bombastic things when you’re one of nine council members. You can accuse people of ethnic cleansing and, in the case of the council, there are eight other voices … to disagree with you. When you’re chief executive and you have both administrative authority and sort of symbolic importance, it’s not appropriate. (Editor’s note: Frick was alluding to a comment made late last year by council member Marc Elrich, a rival candidate for county executive, who accused the Montgomery County Planning Board of “ethnic cleansing” in its 2013 sector plan for the Long Branch community adjacent to the route of the future Purple Line.)
Over the next decade, what do you feel are major challenges facing Montgomery County?
The most important is growing our tax base. We are 20th out of 24 local jurisdictions [in Maryland] in job growth. Coming out of the recession, our per capita income [growth] was negative 1.7 percent. D.C.’s was plus 6 percent. [In Virginia], Tysons 10 years ago was a mall. Tysons today is the economic center of a city. Meanwhile, you can’t point to much in Montgomery County that has that same kind of excitement and transformation.
There’s certainly no question that the number of people in need in our community has grown. People still think of Montgomery County as this affluent community, and in some ways we are. You can drive around Potomac and you see that. People might not believe that 41 percent of the kids in our elementary schools are on free and reduced meals. We as a community want to welcome those kids and guarantee they’ve got a bright future. But we’re going to have to have a robust tax base to afford that.
Given that increasing the tax base is your major priority, what specifically must be done to accomplish that?
The first thing starts with “A”——and that’s attitude. We have got to show we are welcoming to businesses large and small. Too often, our businesses feel like local government is their biggest opponent, not their biggest ally. I walk into small businesses around this county, and when you tell them you’re an elected official and you want to help, they stare at you in disbelief because their experience has been one of obstacles, delays, permitting challenges and so on. So we’ve got to show them we’re on their side, and that’s more than just throwing big packages at corporate opportunities every few years.
Too frequently I hear comments from council members that make it seem like the private sector is the enemy, [that it’s] responsible for holding down workers. As [former Lockheed Martin CEO] Norman Augustine says, you can’t be for jobs and against employers. So that attitude has to shift. We’ve got to be more consistent. I don’t think you need to be a low tax jurisdiction. You don’t even necessarily have to be an ultra-low regulatory jurisdiction. But if you want folks to make investments in your community, they need to know the rules aren’t going to change on them in mid-stream. I think we have done ourselves a disservice by constantly going back to rewrite our tax formulas.
Right now, millennials don’t want to live in Montgomery County. We are not presenting a particularly attractive option for them. They are much more interested in the urban walkable communities in D.C., and some of the communities they have built in Virginia. They want to be able to walk to vibrant nightlife, and a lot of them never want to own cars. So you’re going to have to have walkable communities, and you’re going to have to have an effective transit system.
Besides expanding the tax base, are there other steps that should be taken to help find revenues to meet some of the needs you’ve previously cited?
We haven’t seen terribly significant institutional reform in the county. It feels like this is still the county government of 1968. And our challenges are a lot more complicated and a lot more complex … . I don’t think we’ve been questioning why or how we do certain things. I think it has been easier to raise taxes to pay for new programs than it has been to question whether every program needs to be funded. I’m familiar with that from Annapolis: When I’ve tried to get rid of tax credits, even tax credits we know don’t pass a cost-benefit analysis, the beneficiaries come out in droves and it makes it very hard to [achieve] reform. But it’s got to be done.
I look around at county government and I see things that don’t make sense in 2018. Why are we still running our own public access cable networks in an era of YouTube and Facebook Live? I can get more viewers by flipping a button on my cellphone than we get from millions of dollars a year running our own private media empire. Frankly, we still do it in part because it benefits the council members. It’s a broadcast outlet for their careers … . We spend millions of dollars a year with dozens of 311 operators in an era in which the last thing you want to do with your cellphone is actually make a phone call. You can report some of the same information using an app, and that information can go directly to the actual agency that provides the service. Ask yourself——are you more likely to report a pothole through 311, or through Waze [the traffic navigation app]?
So there are ways we can be using technology to deliver services faster, more efficiently and more cheaply. We can’t just keep doing things the same way we always have because that’s what we’re used to or because there’s personnel associated with it.
You’ve been advocating an end to county control of the sale and distribution of liquor. A major sticking point has been that it now produces up to $30 million annually in net revenue to the county. How would you go about replacing that money?
I don’t think that really has been the sticking point. There’s an underlying political dynamic——I think the pressure from [UFCW Local 1994] MCGEO [which represents about 350 employees at the county Department of Liquor Control] is the real issue behind it, and the revenue is the ostensible reason.
I have proposed a way to [deal with] this, which is to share increases in the sales tax. That’s the cleanest and most obvious way, because we know that sales are leaving Montgomery County and going to Northern Virginia and to D.C. If we get out of the [current] system, we’re going to see a lot of those sales come back. It’s just that the sales tax revenue flows to the state. So, if we’re able to get the state to share some of those revenues, over time that could be a much bigger source of county revenue than even the DLC [Department of Liquor Control] is.
Given the financial demands facing the state government, do you believe the Maryland General Assembly would be willing to alter the sales tax revenue formula to benefit Montgomery County?
The bill that I pitched would have shared it with all the counties——knowing full well that, if there’s a benefit out there, it’s not going to be able to flow just to us. It would require getting some buy-in from the governor and some other fiscal leaders, and I think we can get that.
In the grand scheme of things, this is eminently solvable. This [change] is supported by what——70 percent of the public? They’re tired of excuses. This isn’t just some parochial issue that only affects a handful of oenophiles. This is an economic development problem. What we’ve seen in D.C. is that food culture, and beer and wine and cocktails culture are a great economic driver. We don’t see much of that in our county right now, and the DLC is a big part of that. [I’m told] the reason that [chef] Bryan Voltaggio opened his second restaurant across the line in Friendship Heights in D.C. is because that put him 100 feet outside the reach of the DLC.
Had you been on the County Council in 2016, would you have been part of the unanimous majority that was required under the county charter to raise property taxes by an average of almost 9 percent?
No, I would have done what County Executive [Ike] Leggett recommended. If you remember the history, the [state] Legislature was able to get some relief on payments related to the Wynne tax decision [which mandated refunds to county residents who paid local income taxes elsewhere]. [Leggett] urged [the council] not to increase [taxes] as much as they did. Ike has made it very clear that the additional revenue never went to the school system. And that’s what I hear when I’m talking to folks around the county: “We don’t mind paying taxes if it’s for schools and roads and cops. We get frustrated because it feels like the taxes have gone up, and then gone into pet projects for the council members.”
[Editor’s note: At issue is about $18 million the council approved for fiscal 2017 above what Leggett had proposed——money that went to programs outside the schools. This included a $4.5 million contribution to the county’s new public campaign finance system and $2.7 million to restore staff reductions at a couple of local fire stations; the largest portion, $7.7 million, was to cover increased costs in programs funded by the county Department of Health and Human Services. The council also reduced Leggett’s request for nonschool programs by $5 million, for a net increase of $13 million over the executive’s proposed budget.]
If, during your tenure as county executive, the council again wanted to raise taxes by more than the rate of inflation, would you support it?
Absent unusual circumstances, no. It’s time for us to live within our means and to fund the priorities of our voters, not just the priorities of the politicians. Our priorities need to be … schools, roads, public safety. If it’s not in those three categories, we need to step back and ask whether that should be the priority.
You have pledged to move to repeal the recordation tax increase enacted in 2016, and suggested that, had you been in office, you would have instead sought more school construction aid from the state. How viable is this, given that the county in recent years has received less in school construction funds than it has requested?
The recordation tax experience was a really frustrating one, particularly for the Realtor community, because they didn’t feel like they had a voice in the process. They felt like it was sort of railroaded on them. And then many of them felt they were accused of being against the schools——which is preposterous, since Realtors making a living off having healthy, successful neighborhoods, and that depends on schools.
We have effectively doubled the state school construction money to Montgomery, because that was the county’s priority and we made it our priority as a delegation. We have made good progress. We need to be doing more like that. We need to work Annapolis as a united front, and the county executive plays a big role in that. In my career, I’ve seen Prince George’s [County] be much more effective at being opportunistic for funding opportunities. And sometimes, Montgomery County’s delegation is so ideological we have a hard time putting opportunism and parochialism first. I do think one of our challenges as a delegation has been trying to make folks from other jurisdictions understand that their perception of us as a highly affluent county misses a lot of what’s been happening——that we have growing poverty and real needs.
One complaint heard in recent years is that, as the county has developed, public infrastructure has not kept up. Is there a case to be made that private interests should be asked to contribute more toward this as they profit from development?
I don’t think we have been going easy when it comes to taxes on developers—or homeowners. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting the council to say yes to projects. It’s easy to say no to projects, and there are vocal organizations—whether it’s communities or interest groups—that oppose various projects for various reasons. We’re going to have to say yes to some things.
We’ve got to say yes to something to solve the problem of I-270. Who would have believed 12 years ago, when these folks took office, it would not have gotten any better? And I think that’s part of where you get the frustration you saw on term limits. Taxes go up, the quality of life has not.
Are you supportive of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen I-270 and I-495 and include toll lanes? What are your transportation priorities?
[The governor] deserves credit for at least proposing something on the scale that we need, [but] I think a lot of us are particularly skeptical about the Beltway widening, if only for physical constraint reasons. I’m not sure financially how an entirely public/private partnership will work for I-270, but, by God, we’ve got to do something. I-270 has been a mess long enough.
I think we should be fundamentally revisiting how we do busing. One of the things I’m pushing in this campaign is embracing technology to deliver services. Why are we still running buses in the 1925 model of a set schedule with set routes in 2018? In the era of Uber and Lyft, you don’t need to stand outside next to a metal sign for almost 45 minutes hoping the bus will pick you up. You can press a button on your phone and there will be a minivan there in five minutes. I don’t want to have, on a Saturday night, a fleet of buses driving around empty. It makes no sense financially or environmentally—and it’s not good service.
One perennial idea to relieve traffic has been a second Potomac River crossing in addition to the American Legion Bridge. Is this worth considering?
I think it was awfully foolish for the council to vote not to even study another crossing without some alternative identified. I understand the skepticism, but, by God, we’ve got to do something. [The American Legion Bridge] is a bottleneck seven days a week, and you’re not going to solve the regional transportation challenges without some improvement to that bottleneck. I don’t know that I would endorse a second crossing, but I sure take issue with the idea that we shouldn’t even look at it.
After vetoing an earlier version, Leggett last year signed a bill to make the county the only one in Maryland with a $15 per hour minimum wage. Would you have signed that legislation?
I would have worked all along for that to be an issue taken up by our state legislators rather than our County Council. I share the basic notion that if you’re working full time, you shouldn’t be living in poverty, and I have supported minimum wage increases. [But] employment regulation doesn’t make a lot of sense at the county level. We don’t even have an appropriate department to enforce those rules.
Are there other areas of regulation that you feel are an overreach at the county level?
I don’t think we need our council to be a tiny Congress or a tiny United Nations—and sometimes it feels like the breadth of their ambitions jeopardizes our ability to succeed on the core functions. I thought it was a little sad in the days leading up to Discovery’s departure [from Silver Spring], the big priority for our council was whether to include kangaroos in a circus animal ban. There was an old joke that went around that the council could deal with transgender and trans fats, but couldn’t deal with transportation. And sadly, there’s some truth to it. That’s not to say we disagree with how they feel about transgender or trans fats. But it’s a sense that we need the focus to be on the quality-of-life issues that local government is there to work on.
You chose not to participate in the county’s new system of public campaign funding. Why?
Like a lot of folks, I have no objection to public financing in the abstract. But when you look at the fact that this is funded with $11 million out of the general fund in a time when other priorities are having to take hits, it didn’t feel appropriate. If there were another source of funds for public financing, if it was more of a voluntary system, great. The state and the federal [public campaign finance] systems are more voluntary.
The $11 million can put over 100 teachers in the classroom. It can put 75 cops on the street. I don’t know that I would rather have hundreds of thousands of dollars of [council member and rival candidate] George Leventhal signs than teachers in the classroom. I think our priority ought to be raising taxes for serving the public, not for serving the politicians.