The contenders in the county’s marquee state legislative race this year, Del. Luiz Simmons and former Del. Cheryl Kagan, have been circling each other for months, each suggesting the other is preparing to run a bare-knuckled campaign.
Their first face-to-face encounter – Sunday afternoon at the Twinbrook Recreation Center – put on public view the acrimony that has surrounded the contest for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Jennie Forehand in Rockville/Gaithersburg-based District 17.
Kagan kept up a steady volley of criticism from the very start of the hour-long session, going after Simmons not only for his stance on several issues, but also for his political history – Simmons was initially elected to the General Assembly as a Republican in 1978, switching parties four years later – and his personal style.
“Working well with others requires that you not insult your colleagues,” Kagan gibed, alluding to an episode last year in which Simmons was quoted characterizing District 16 Sen. Brian Frosh as “incompetent” and accusing Frosh of reneging on a legislative deal.
Simmons, who returned to the House of Delegates as a Democrat in 2002, is regarded among many of his Annapolis colleagues as a highly intelligent but often abrasive legislator; the Gazette newspapers referred to this reputation in their decision last week to endorse Kagan, a member of the House of Delegates from 1994-2002.
At Sunday’s forum, Simmons – a career defense attorney — often appeared to be trying to show his more restrained side, as he generally avoided taking the initiative in going after Kagan. But he counterattacked as the two candidates exchanged harsh words over an issue that has permeated the campaign: Simmons’ record on domestic violence legislation.
“My opponent…has been described as the No. 1 roadblock against much-needed domestic violence reform,” said Kagan, referring to Simmons’ past resistance to altering the legal standard for obtaining protective orders in cases of domestic violence. “I’ve got a lifelong record of progressive leadership, especially when it comes to women’s health, women’s choices and public safety.”
In turn, Simmons asserted, “I want you to know that I have a distinguished record, contrary to what Cheryl just indicated, in promoting domestic violence legislation,” as he recited a list of several proposals he has sponsored that were enacted into law.
Central to the controversy is a bill, approved by the General Assembly this year, which changes the standard for obtaining a protective order in domestic violence cases from “clear and convincing” evidence to a “preponderance” of evidence. The latter, less restrictive standard already was in place in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.
In a switch from his earlier position seeking to block changes in the stricter standard, Simmons this year co-sponsored legislation to adopt the “preponderance of evidence” language after winning approval of changes he said would protect the rights of those in domestic violence cases that had been dismissed.
But the most heated exchange of Sunday’s session took place when Kagan brought up a 2010 episode involving Amy Castillo, a Montgomery County pediatrician who unsuccessfully sought a protective order against her estranged husband. The husband drowned the three children in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel room during a weekend visit. Amy Castillo later testified before the House Judiciary Committee, on which Simmons serves, during the 2010 debate over changing the evidence standard for protective orders.
Accusing Simmons of showing “supreme, unfeeling disregard for those who are most vulnerable,” Kagan referred to the videotape of the Castillo’s appearance and charged that Simmons had “interrogated her with pomposity, disrespect and disregard. It was chilling and inappropriate.”
Simmons, seated next to Kagan, shot back: “I hate to say, but that is an ugly and vicious statement, and it is not true. At no time during that hearing in 2010 did I interrogate Ms. Castillo.”
“Dr. Castillo” Kagan interjected.
Continued Simmons: “There were five lawyers that were [at the hearing]. And I interrogated the lawyers because of the accusation against a very fine Montgomery County circuit judge.” Referring to Kagan’s charge involving Castillo, Simmons declared, “…I never did that, Cheryl, and it’s wrong for you to continue to say that.”
Simmons went on to charge that “Cheryl Kagan has not told you the whole story about her record in Annapolis,” noting Kagan had co-sponsored legislation to establish the “clear and convincing” evidence standard while a member of the House of Delegates in 1999. A copy of the bill shows Kagan as one of 75 co-sponsors, including several other members of the Montgomery County delegation at the time.
Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has said he pushed successfully this year to change the standard after a conversation with a friend who is a District of Columbia judge. “I was asked ‘What is wrong with Maryland? I keep seeing women who can’t get protective orders in Maryland coming to my courtroom in D.C. to get protection’,” Frosh, now running for attorney general, recalled in a recent message to supporters.
During an interview last week in his Silver Spring law office, Simmons was true to his blunt-spoken reputation when asked about Frosh’s statement.
“Brian Frosh is absolutely wrong. Brian Frosh has no data. Brian Frosh is playing to the crowd,” declared Simmons, citing a recent study – repeated at Sunday’s debate – that found Maryland ranked 12th per capita among 37 states in the issuance of domestic violence orders.
Such rhetoric is only likely to intensify in the closing weeks of the race, into which Simmons had pumped more than $86,000 of his own money as of early January, He acknowledged last week he is planning to utilize more of his own funds, but wouldn’t discuss how much; Kagan contended Simmons has been spreading word in Annapolis that he plans to sink $250,000 of his own assets into the contest.
Simmons has been touting endorsements from several unions, while Kagan has been pointing to the backing of a number of women’s and progressive advocacy groups, as well as the endorsement of Forehand – who has held the seat since 1994, and who narrowly held off a primary challenge from Kagan four years ago.