2014 | Politics

Few Differences Emerge During First Full Fledged Candidate Forum In Dist. 16

Behind the scenes, Frick's re-entry creates tensions, complicates jockeying

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Del. Bill Frick (D-District 16)

Courtesy Bill Frick

The first full-fledged forum in the District 16 House of Delegates contest, in which several of the challengers have been running for a year or more, was held Thursday – and, in contrast to some other recent faceoffs of local candidates, it was a highly civil affair.

In the course of the 90-minute session, it was difficult to detect significant issue differences among eight Democratic candidates for three slots in next month’s primary – Dels. Bill Frick and Ariana Kelly, as well as six non-incumbents drawn by the open seat created when Del. Susan Lee decided to run to succeed long-time Sen. Brian Frosh. There was solid support for the Purple Line and deep concern or opposition to so-called fracking of natural gas voiced Thursday evening, along with calls to streamline permitting processes and cut regulatory red tape to attract jobs to the state and county.

The closest thing to a clash emerged in response to the recent approval by the General Assembly of a plan to divert some pension fund payments to help meet annual budget needs: Frick and Kelly defended the move, while their two leading challengers – Hrant Jamgochian and Marc Korman – voiced skepticism.

“I don’t think there’s any meaningful chance that the bond rating agencies will downgrade us over this move,” Frick asserted. Korman, however, cited the warnings of state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, herself a one-time District 16 delegate. “This was a mistake – it was mistake for our budget, it was a mistake for the capital investments we want to make, it was a mistake for our commitment to our public employees,” he declared.

But, if the session, held in the Walt Whitman High School cafeteria, hardly rose to the level of a political food fight, the polite tone masked behind-the-scenes tensions in the race – particularly in the two months since Frick abandoned his bid for attorney general against Frosh and two others, and opted to seek re-election to the seat he has held since 2007.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Feb. 25 filing deadline, the outcome of the contest for the three delegate slots had appeared preordained to many insiders, with Kelly seen holding on to the seat she first won four years ago, and the other two nominations likely going to Jamgochian – a health policy advocate who mounted a competitive bid for delegate in 2010 – and Korman, an attorney with strong local political ties thanks to seven years on the county’s Democratic Central Committee.

Also in the Democratic contest: former General Assembly aide Jordan Cooper, attorney/businessman Peter Dennis, local activist Karen Kuker-Kihl, and former Del. Gareth Murray, who represented a Silver Spring-based district from 2002-2006.

When Frick switched to the District 16 race hours prior to the filing deadline, it instantly created a game of musical chairs – with four top-tier contenders trying to make sure he or she was not the one left without a seat following the June 24 primary.

Frick’s move also ignited blowback among a number of local party activists, many of whom  already had been angered at the two-term delegate’s decision to take on Frosh – a fixture in District 16 for more than a quarter of a century – in the attorney general race. Some of these party activists were reported to be further piqued when Frick stepped back into the District 16 mix: Many of them already had swung behind Jamgochian and Korman along with Kelly for the three seats, and Frick’s reappearance placed them in an awkward position.

Whether this grumbling among insiders will permeate the upwards of 15,000 rank-and-file Democrats expected to go to the polls on Primary Day in District 16 (out of nearly 65,000 registered Democrats in the district) remains a continuing source of speculation within political circles.

Frick – who is said to have gotten off to a slow start on campaigning since re-entering the District 16 race – noted he is knocking on voters’ doors and preparing a mail campaign, as fliers from some of the other contenders are already arriving in residential mail slots.

“I’m going to go out and execute the campaign and remind voters of my record,” Frick said prior to Thursday’s forum. “I think when they’re reminded of the work I’ve done for them, they’re going to respond positively.”

If Frick – who ran just 12 votes out of first place in the 2010 Democratic primary – finds himself in a more complicated political situation this time around, he does have some strong cards on which to draw.

Yes, that’s as in “House of Cards”, the thriller whose production company threatened to pull out of Maryland earlier this spring. Frick’s legislative ploy to grab their property via eminent domain resulted in a win-win situation:  “House of Cards” cut a deal with Gov. Martin O’Malley to stay in the state for several millions dollars less in tax credits than the producers of the series were originally demanding, and Frick received exposure on national news shows that would be the envy of any elected official.

“Some of you may have seen something about film tax credits that got a little bit of attention this session,” he noted with a smile during Thursday’s forum, while declaring, “I have been trying to demand accountability and transparency as part of our budget.”

And, while Frick at times expressed frustration with the General Assembly when he jumped into the attorney general’s contest early last year, he returns to the District 16 race as a member of the House leadership: He was named House parliamentarian earlier this year. “By being part of that [leadership] team, I’m in the strategic conversations,” he boasted to the audience at the forum, noting later that House Speaker Michael Busch had named him to chair a task force on marijuana policy during the past session.

Kelly, as the only woman among the leading contenders, is seen as having an edge as she pursues a second term. If Frick’s bumpy re-entry turns out to be little more than inside political baseball, the battle for the remaining slot could become a dogfight between Jamgochian and Korman – who, between them, have received the lion’s share of endorsements among the non-incumbents.

Jamgochian got a boost by winning the influential endorsement of the Montgomery County Education Association, which also is backing the two incumbents. Both Jamgochian and Korman as well as Kelly have been backed by the Sierra Club, an important endorsement in a district where pro-environment sentiment runs high. That organization made its choices late last year, when Frick was still running for attorney general, and opted against revisiting them when Frick’s plans changed. Frick and Jamgochian Thursday did pick up the endorsement of the state’s League of Conservation Voters, which earlier endorsed Kelly.

Cooper’s aggressive campaign has placed him atop the second tier of candidates, albeit he still faces long odds against the leading contenders. “I’m working 18 hours a day, seven days a week running an 18-month campaign,” boasted Cooper, who has been sighted campaigning along on median strips and asking drivers waiting in traffic for their votes.