District 19 Democratic delegate candidates from top left: Bonnie Cullison, Carl Ward, Charlotte Crutchfield, Brian Crider, Jade Wiles, Marice Morales, Marlin Jenkins and Vaughn Stewart Credit: Provided photos

Opening Tuesday evening’s forum for eight Democratic contenders seeking three House of Delegates nominations from District 19, current Del. Ben Kramer of Derwood—who hopes to move to the state Senate next year—described his experiences in 12 years of representing the district.

“[We’re] … a very diverse legislative district. We’re not a compact district,” said Kramer, noting that the jurisdiction starts in Silver Spring’s Four Corners area and extends through the middle of the county to Gaithersburg. “A lot of times, what’s very important to folks down here in Kemp Mill means nothing to folks up in the Olney-Derwood area—and vice versa.”

Tuesday’s forum took place in an Orthodox synagogue on the edge of a Kemp Mill shopping center, and it didn’t take long for Kramer’s observations to be borne out.

Reflecting the area’s significant Jewish population, the candidates for delegate were faced with questions not frequently raised at state legislative forums elsewhere in Montgomery County—including Maryland’s stance toward an economic boycott of Israel and possible ways for the state and county to assist Jewish day schools.

While Kramer himself is unopposed in the June 26 Democratic primary in his bid to succeed state Sen. Roger Manno, a controversial 2017 bill he sponsored—so-called anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) legislation to prohibit Maryland from doing business with companies engaged in a boycott of Israel—sparked extended discussion.

Responding to a question from forum moderator Paul Bessel, Kramer’s two District 19 colleagues seeking re-election —Dels. Bonnie Cullison and Marice Morales—defended anti-BDS legislation, even as a half-dozen non-incumbent candidates eyeing Kramer’s open seat sought to keep their distance from the rhetorical fire.

Under the format of the debate, candidates were allowed to pick and choose which questions they would answer at Tuesday’s event. However, according to Kramer, all of the Democratic delegate candidates had expressed support for his anti-BDS legislation at a prior forum in Aspen Hill earlier this month. 

The BDS movement was started more than a decade ago by Palestinian groups in response to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank territory, in an effort to discourage purchase of goods made in Israeli settlements in that area. While Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order in 2017 prohibiting Maryland from doing business with companies participating in the BDS effort, Morales, of Silver Spring, said that legislation such as Kramer’s “does need to pass so it’s not subject to a subsequent administration making changes to it.”

Kramer said afterward that he has “no definitive plan” to reintroduce the anti-BDS bill in 2019 if elected to the Senate, while adding: “It’s an ongoing conversation.”  

Said Cullison, an Aspen Hill resident, during the forum: “I support the right to boycott absolutely; there are entities that I currently boycott. But I don’t support the right for people [to whom] my tax dollars are being [paid] to use those tax dollars to boycott others—particularly those who are allies.”

Several members of the audience, some wearing pro-Palestinian T-shirts, objected to Kramer’s sponsorship of the bill as well as its support by Cullison and Morales. “I was born and raised in Palestine just outside Jerusalem. My village was destroyed and became a settlement,” declared one questioner. Added another: “I don’t believe the Palestinian cause is getting a fair hearing anywhere, and I have to say I’m stunned to find that our state politics are being driven by an international issue that is so totally divisive and so based on the persecution of one people by another.”

On a question involving an issue closer to home, all eight delegate candidates indicated they do not favor tuition vouchers for use in private education. But attorneys Marlin Jenkins of Silver Spring and Vaughn Stewart of Derwood—both running with the backing of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents public school teachers—suggested ways public funds could be used indirectly to benefit private school students.

The Berman Hebrew Academy, located in Aspen Hill, draws a significant number of students from the Kemp Mill neighborhood. “One thing I’ve heard from a lot of residents in Kemp Mill is the issue of tuition affordability,” said Stewart. “I do think there are some areas where we can use public taxpayer dollars [put] into private schools to help folks out.”

He and another candidate, computer scientist Brian Crider of Rockville, suggested helping to provide transportation services for private school students as well as assisting with security at the institutions they attend. “If we’re providing security for public schools because we’re worried about intruders, we should also be worried about the private Jewish day schools considering that anti-Semitism in on the rise,” said Stewart.

Jenkins said that assisting special needs students might be another area for public/private cooperation. “I think there are opportunities where schools such as Berman and also our [Montgomery County Public Schools] can meet together to help fill that gap,” he said.

On a criminal justice issues, five of the candidates responded to an audience question by saying they would vote if elected to legalize marijuana. The three candidates who did not respond publicly to that question—Jenkins, Stewart and Charlotte Crutchfield of Silver Spring—all said afterward that they also would favor legalization of marijuana.

“Because it’s a nonviolent offense, my real concern is to make sure that we continue to have laws that punish and affect those people who are violent offenders,” said Crutchfield, while adding, “You also have great opportunities in revenue to the state.”

“Too many times, I’ve seen people I went to grade school with and high school with eventually get caught in the judicial system by just making one bad decision,” Jade Wiles of Silver Spring, a health care management coordinator, told the forum.

A question about last Sunday’s flooding in Ellicott City in nearby Howard County produced barbs aimed at Hogan, a Republican seeking a second term as governor. Hogan “got a lot of political hay out of calling storm water management fees rain taxes. And now we’re seeing what happens when you try to play political games with the environment,” charged Stewart.

Added attorney Carl Ward of Derwood: “What Democrats can do is beat them at their game—and call it the ‘Make Sure Ellicott City Doesn’t Flood Tax’.”

Absent major issue disagreements, the non-incumbent candidates sought to emphasize their resumes.

Jenkins, a labor attorney with the American Federation of Government Employees, pointed to 19 years of service as an officer in the National Guard and his service in Iraq in 2008-2009, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. Stewart, a self-described “policy nerd” who was policy director for now U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s 2016 congressional race, joked: “I’m originally from the state of Alabama. I sort of fled the first chance I got.” A two-time cancer survivor, he observed: “When you go through those experiences and you face death, it’s a reminder that nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow … . It’s a kick in a rear end to say ‘there’s no better time like the present to get started’.”

Crutchfield, a former Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee member who is making her second run for District 19 delegate, sought to emphasize her long-time ties to the district—noting her 15 years as a resident, with her family having lived in Montgomery County for 140 years. Ward, pointing to positions teaching mathematics at a maximum security prison in Maryland and as a public defender for juvenile suspects, declared, “I’m running for office because my father always taught me that actions speak louder than words, and I believe my actions up to this point speak for themselves.”

Crider described himself as a “different type of candidate. I’m the only candidate up here who’s not accepting any corporate money, PAC money or out-of-state money. I believe money in our politics is one of our most fundamental issues.”

Financial reports released last week also show Crider has a limited amount in his campaign treasury—about $2,200—with less than a month to go until Primary Day. That was second lowest among the District 19 contenders save for Wiles, who reported slightly less than $1,250.

The candidate with the largest amount of cash on hand—nearly $77,000—was Stewart, who also reported personally lending his campaign $45,000. He was followed by Cullison and Jenkins, each with about $45,400, with Jenkins’ treasury boosted by a $30,000 personal loan. Crutchfield had $35,000, including $27,500 in loans, followed by Morales, with nearly $26,000 on hand and Ward with $11,400—including a $6,000 loan.

The incumbents—Kramer, Cullison and Morales—are running as a slate in the primary, with jointly financed campaign literature. But they have opted not to add any of the non-incumbents seeking Kramer’s open delegate seat to the slate.