County Council member George Leventhal Credit: LIZ LYNCH

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

 

George Leventhal

Age: 55 (born Nov. 19, 1962, Boston, Massachusetts)

Home: Takoma Park; married, two children

Education: bachelor’s degree, University of California, Berkeley, 1984; master’s degree (Public Administration), Johns Hopkins University, 1987; doctorate (Public Policy), University of Maryland, College Park, 2017

Professional background: congressional aide (Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland), lobbyist (Association of American Universities)

Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2002-present (president, 2006, 2015); chair, Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (1996-2001)

 

What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?

Immigration has immeasurably benefited Montgomery County, and it has immeasurably benefited my family. My wife came here as an adult, and we’ve raised our two sons in a multicultural, multilingual household. We all speak English, Spanish and Portuguese. My wife’s immigrant experience has highlighted for me the experiences that many of my constituents live with, and … it’s very, very important that the next county executive have a deep understanding of the day-to-day immigrant experience. I sincerely feel I have the greatest depth in terms of understanding the changing demographics of this county and the broadest set of relationships with community leaders.

I have the most extensive experience in county government. I’m not running as an outsider. … The job of county executive is a complicated [one], and I think it is important that [its occupant] has years of service to the county and understands the relationships between the executive, the County Council, the state legislature, [the county] planning [board], the school system. I think I was a really good council member about three years in. I fully understand the job of county executive; I’m ready to get started on day one. I think anyone who comes in as a pure outsider with no background and no history who’s very bright will learn how to do the job after a couple of years. And I don’t think the county can wait a couple of years for someone to learn the job.

During your four terms on the council, you have acquired a reputation for flashes of temper, causing some to wonder how well you would work collaboratively in a highly visible, high-pressure role. Are these concerns merited?

My colleagues elected me council president twice, and 2015 [second term as president] was a particularly cooperative year in which council members got along very, very well. I view my role as county executive as the coach of the team. Every member of the team has got to be given credit for his or her accomplishments. I understand how to do that, and I did that as council president. I recognized and praised my colleagues, and worked very well with them.

Now, I am passionate about having government provide housing for the homeless, I am passionate about reducing educational and economic inequity. It’s because I’m passionate about things that [the] Purple Line Now [organization] maintained its advocacy for the Purple Line in good times and in bad. You have to have passion to accomplish big things, and that’s been my record. I’m not running as an outsider: I like interacting with other elected officials. I understand where they’re coming from, I understand what their needs are. So I’m entirely comfortable I will play well in the schoolyard with others.

Over the next decade, what do you feel are major challenges facing Montgomery County?

The single largest challenge is inequality of educational opportunity. The largest demographic group in the public schools today is Latino, and we are not serving our Latino students as well as we are serving other demographic groups. And we are not serving African-American students as well. But those are the workers of the future, and the future of our school system and what it means for our economy is much too important for the next county executive to play a hands-off role.

I’m not proposing structural changes. I am proposing an assembling of data [and] outside review and audit. … I would make sure that the school system is accountable for results, and I would detail staff to assess whether we are achieving measurable reductions in the achievement and opportunity gap. And I would speak to issues of [allocating] resources, making the most rigorous curriculum available to every student regardless of ZIP code, and providing more choices and more options for students.

Affordable housing is [also an] enormous challenge. We have a disconnect between the needs of employers and the capability of workers to get to the job and to afford to live here. I would like to see a doubling of money in the Housing Initiative Fund. [Editor’s note: The Housing Initiative Fund received about $47 million in county funds in fiscal year 2017.] And we need to leverage the county’s investment smartly, and work with … housing providers to be innovative. So, [it is] using the Housing Initiative Fund, using zoning, and being aggressive about opportunities to acquire land—making better use of public land. We’ve already done a lot, we’re in the forefront of many jurisdictions in the United States. But that’s a very high priority.

What are some of the key steps you feel are needed to grow the county’s tax base and generate revenue needed to address the challenges you’ve discussed?

In a transition away from a Department of Economic Development to an Economic Development Corp., one of the key functions that has been lost is the community development function. The best example is when County Executive [Doug] Duncan assembled property owners and used some eminent domain to make sure Silver Spring became the thriving urban center that it is now.

I don’t envision another large-scale urban redevelopment project like that, but there are many communities around this county that need to be attended to, and need active involvement from county government, including Burtonsville, Glenmont, White Oak, Wheaton—where the community development function has fallen away. County government can play a role to assemble property owners and seek investment. And that will lead to thriving communities and more satisfied constituents who will be able to shop locally and work locally and not have to travel such long distances.

We need to continue to invest in marketing this county. We’ve got a great story to tell; we’ve got to market ourselves better. Clearly, the fact that we have advanced to the second round on Amazon’s [search for a location for a second headquarters] speaks well of the county. We have an extremely skilled workforce, who speak every language. … We are uniquely positioned, given the very large number of our residents who come from other countries to engage in business on a global scale.  The things that made us attractive to Amazon should make us attractive for investment around the globe.

There continue to be complaints that the county is not business friendly. What needs to be done to address this?

The county executive has to spend his or her time getting to know employers and understanding their needs. An important employer in this county, [Mayorga Organics President] Martin Mayorga, is a good friend, and last year I went to visit [him] and said, “So Martin, what can county government do for you?” He said, “You know, you are the only elected official who has sat at my conference table and asked me that question.” So that kind of relationship building is something that the next county executive has to prioritize—both in the county and traveling to identify opportunities with people who might want to move to the county.

We need to let employers know that we care about them, that we’re responsive to them, and that we have a culture of customer service. I think we need to learn from the retail sector and institute a culture of customer service in county government. Businesses are accustomed to treating their own clients and customers with courtesy and dignity. It’s frustrating—and I’m sorry—when I hear that businesses don’t feel they are treated with that same courtesy and dignity when they interact with county government. Sometimes, county personnel get a little comfortable, they sort of forget the imperative of customer service. In partnership with the work force, I want to re-instill that culture of customer service.

There have been complaints that, as the county has grown, public infrastructure has not kept up with private development. On one aspect of this, County Executive Ike Leggett recently suggested altering school boundaries as a possible solution to capacity issues. Do you agree?

I was so glad to read that quote from Mr. Leggett. It would have been great if he had been advocating for that all along. We do have schools that are under capacity, and we have schools that are over capacity. And it is not practical for us to be falling so far short while rigidly maintaining precisely the same assignment of students forever and ever and ever. We have to have a countywide look at where capacity exists and how we can more efficiently allocate resources. That should not take away from the more fortunate school districts. I think that the answer is greater choice and greater opportunity for students to pursue curriculum choices in locations that specialize.

So there should be more academies, more IB [International Baccalaureate] programs, more language immersion and more math and science programs, more of the most rigorous curriculum in different parts of the county. That will [result in] less rigid assignment of students in the cluster in which they happen to live, and more flexibility [for] where students will pursue the curriculum that they desire that fits with their career choices. As I said earlier, I would like to play an active role in assessing that, assigning staff to understanding it, and encouraging the school system in a positive way to develop a more equitable allocation of resources. But it just isn’t practical to say that the boundaries that exist today will always be in place forever and ever.

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?

We made the decision to make a major investment to keep pace with rising student population. Public education is the most important function of local government, we were falling behind, and it was necessary. Some of it [also] went to road resurfacing, some of it went to police protection, some of it to libraries. These are core functions of county government that constituents expect. Everyone wants great services, and nobody wants a tax increase—and that’s the reality of being an elected official.

I would not anticipate a property tax increase during my term as county executive. I think we have to prioritize and we have to seek efficiency. I think our economic prospects are bright, and we have every reason to look ahead to a prosperous future.

In 2017, you supported two versions of the bill to raise the local minimum wage to $15 per hour—the first one vetoed by the county executive, the second one signed into law. Are you concerned this move could affect the county’s competitiveness?

The jobs that we’re seeking to attract, including Amazon but not only Amazon, are not minimum-wage jobs. Employers benefit when workers can afford to live here, and when workers feel they’re being treated decently and that they want to stick around in a job. I’ve read a lot of the economic literature on this; I think the multiplier effects of having more cash in the pockets [of those] at the low end of the income scale will be of significant benefit to the very merchants and retail establishments who are complaining about the minimum wage. I think we made the right decision. We built in an escape clause if we have two quarters of negative growth. So if there’s a recession, there would be a delay in the implementation of the minimum wage.  

Gov. Larry 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 was pleased that Gov. Hogan identified I-270 and the American Legion Bridge as a priority. I would like to see a [mass] transit component in the plan. I’d love to see rail all the way to Frederick, but I think that’s a long-term goal. Short of that, if we had a dedicated busway, people will take public transportation if it’s rapid and it’s reliable. And I think they would take it on I-270, not just in Montgomery County, but from Frederick all the way down.

East of the I-270 spur, widening becomes very problematic. There is residential and commercial construction right up to the edge of the Beltway. … Tolls are not popular, but everything has to be paid for. I think Virginia has moved more successfully and more rapidly than we have on I-495. Virginia is having difficulty on I-66; the tolls are out of reach of ordinary commuters. Somewhere in there, there’s got to be a sweet spot where the tolls are reasonable enough that people use the lanes and the revenue is enough to pay for the improvements.

I would hope that if I serve two terms as county executive we would have bus rapid transit up and running on Route 29, on Viers Mill Road, and on Route 355. That would be a lot to bite off. If Amazon comes here, bus rapid transit on Route 355 will need to be substantially accelerated. Connecting Rockville to Wheaton with rapid transit is brilliant. That would connect job centers in a very desirable way. I would use it myself. I live in Takoma Park, we only own one car, and when my son takes the car, I take Metro to Wheaton and then I take the Q2 to Rockville. If that bus were more rapid and more reliable, I would use it more often.

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 that would lead to expansion of jobs in Northern Virginia. I don’t see how Maryland benefits from that. I know there are real estate interests who own a lot of property in northern Virginia who would like to facilitate Montgomery County being a bedroom community and Northern Virginia being an employment hub. But I don’t see how that’s in Montgomery County’s best interests. We’ve made decades of land-use decisions to protect our Agriculture Reserve, which would be endangered by a new super highway barreling through Darnestown and Potomac and other areas that weren’t intended [for] a super highway.

Amid complaints about the county being business unfriendly, there are complaints about over-regulation by some rank-and-file citizens as well, be it a tax on shopping bags or regulation of how one treats crab grass. As a leading advocate of barring use of lawn chemicals on private property, what’s your view?

I think it’s appropriate that the government act in the interest of public health … and to protect the environment. The data show that we are the healthiest county in Maryland. That is in large part due to our affluence and our high education level, but I think public policy has also made a difference.

We’re not the only jurisdiction to have a bag tax; the District of Columbia has one.  When [council member] Roger Berliner proposed to roll the bag tax back for retail establishments other than food, there was huge pushback from lots of constituents saying: “No, this is a good thing. We want this in the interest of a healthy environment.” The ban on lawn chemicals is being revisited because [Montgomery Circuit Court] Judge [Terrence] McGann overturned it and now it’s on appeal. There was vastly more support than there was opposition. There is almost nothing government will do that is going to have 100 percent approval, but the reasons these things were enacted was that the public wanted them, and we heard from thousands of constituents in favor of them.

What, if anything, should be done to change the county’s current public liquor control structure?

Let’s be clear that the sale of alcoholic beverages is heavily regulated everywhere. There is nowhere where it is a pure free market. Does the county have a monopoly on the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages? Yes. But if you turned that over to a single large distributor, then that distributor would have a monopoly. There are private monopolies on the sale of alcohol throughout Maryland.

I am open to negotiation if a seriously interested party is willing to put real money on the table. I do not believe it is in the public interest just to give [the county liquor franchise] away for free. I do think it would be a useful exercise to calculate the present value of a permanent revenue stream of $30 million to $40 million a year guaranteed forever; that would likely come to hundreds of millions of dollars. We have outstanding bonded debt that was used to build the Montrose Parkway and make other transportation improvements, amounting to more than $100 million. If we were just to refinance those bonds out of our own general obligation bonds, it would take a lot of resources away from other transportation projects and school construction.

When I was council president [in 2015], we put together a task force, and we proposed the partial privatization of special-order beer and wine sales. I’m still very open to that. I think that would be a de minimis reduction in our revenue, and it would address the complaints I’ve heard from the restaurant sector. And I think we could have made progress on that except a handful of legislators decided to grandstand on the issue and say: “It’s not good enough. We want to go all the way and just give it away for free.” I’m hearing fewer complaints from restaurants since Mr. [Robert] Dorfman took over the [Department of Liquor Control]. And so I’m hoping some of that tension will diminish, but I’m also open to a serious negotiation about selling the franchise.

During the 2016 campaign, you called the effort to impose a three-term limit on county elected officials a “dumb, unnecessary protest gesture,” and contributed funds to an unsuccessful effort to defeat it. If elected county executive, could you see yourself seeking to reopen this issue at some point?

No. The voters have spoken. … It was never my intention to run for a fifth term on the County Council. Had term limits not passed, had [Ike] Leggett decided to run for a fourth term, I would not have run for council under any circumstances. I’m very proud of what I accomplished, but for me, four terms on the council is enough for one lifetime.

Having said that, I worked closely with County Executive [Doug] Duncan and County Executive Leggett. I think they were both superb leaders for our county, but I don’t think either of them shone the brightest in their third terms. So if I’m fortunate enough to be our next county executive, I would hope to serve two terms only, regardless of what limits the voters have imposed.

You’re one of three candidates in the Democratic primary who has chosen to use the new public campaign finance system. Why did you opt for that route?  And what’s your response to one of your rivals for the nomination who has questioned spending $11 million for public funding of campaigns at a time when a revenue shortfall recently prompted more than $50 million in cuts to the county budget?

Well, the gentleman [Del. Bill Frick] who raised that complaint voted to authorize the system as a member of the state legislature. If he was so disturbed at the idea that public funds would be devoted to campaigns, he shouldn’t have voted to allow [the county] to do it. There’s a bit of a disconnect between his voting record and his current rhetoric now that he’s a candidate for executive. We are seeing an enormous amount of participation in this election. Candidates from many different backgrounds are making themselves available for public office. I do think the public finance system is one of the reasons why we have such a broad and diverse talent pool.

Having voted to undergo this experiment in democracy, I felt that principle and consistency dictated that I adhere to the rules that I voted to impose. It’s been great: More than 900 people have contributed to my campaign. It’s vastly more than contributed to my countywide campaigns in the past. I respect very successful people, but I must tell you—the amount of time I spent soliciting large checks from very rich people, I’m not sorry not to be spending that time. I much prefer the interaction with ordinary Montgomery County residents who might give me 50 bucks or 20 bucks—because I think that the views they share with me in the course of that interaction are more broadly representative of all the folks whom I work for.