This year’s primary contest for House of Delegates in District 18 has stood apart from state legislative districts in the rest of the county: While all three Democratic incumbents are seeking renomination, a large field of challengers has nonetheless jumped into the race despite the absence of an open seat.
On Wednesday evening, the incumbents – grouped together at the end of a long dais in the former Roundhouse Theater off Randolph Road in Silver Spring – were repeatedly assailed by the four challengers for what the latter contended was a failure to exert clout in Annapolis.
The sharpest attack of the night came after Del. Jeff Waldstreicher told moderator Charles Duffy, “I can assure you that not once has the [House] speaker [Michael Busch] come to me and offered some kind trade or offered some kind of threat or punishment in return for a vote.”
That prompted one of the challengers, attorney Elizabeth Matory, to declare, “The truth of the matter is that what is happening in Annapolis right now is that they don’t come to our delegation.” While praising District 18 Sen. Richard Madaleno, who was in the audience, Matory charged, “Our delegation currently as it stands in the House is considered the weakest delegation in the entire state of Maryland.”
“Who considers it that?” Duffy asked Matory.
”Every single person who sits in the House of Delegates currently,” Matory shot back. “I’m sorry, but we are all running around an issue way too much. We don’t have time to say ‘Everybody’s nice, and they do all these nice things’. The game has changed, and we need to up the ante.”
The incumbents – Waldstreicher and Dels. Al Carr and Ana Sol Gutierrez – opted for a strategy of ignoring Matory’s blast: None spoke up when asked by Duffy if there was a response.
The other challengers – former Casa de Maryland lobbyist Natali Fani-Gonzalez and former congressional aides Rick Kessler and Emily Shetty – were more restrained than Matory. But they nonetheless took turns taking swipes at several statements made by the incumbents, who represent a diverse district that extends from east Bethesda through Chevy Chase, Kensington and Wheaton to Silver Spring.
“We are the intellectual and economic powerhouse of this state,” Kessler declared in reference to Montgomery County. “Why aren’t we the intellectual and economic powerhouse of Annapolis?”
For their part, the incumbents avoided counterattacks, while emphasizing their roles in several landmark pieces of legislation adopted by the General Assembly in recent years, and arguing that their accumulated seniority and experience – Gutierrez has served in Annapolis since 2003, Carr and Waldstreicher since 2007 – will serve the district well going forward.
When the discussion turned to state school construction aid for Montgomery County’s mushrooming student population – regarded as the issue of interest to the largest number of voters this year — Waldstreicher declared: “We know that in Annapolis, big fights are difficult, and it requires shrewd, strong leadership, to push things through. We need to send folks back who have the skill set and relationships to build on what we did this year, and pass a historic school construction bill.”
But Waldstreicher’s assertion that “we had a big school construction victory this year – we brought $40 million in school construction dollars for Montgomery County” brought a sharp retort from Fani-Gonzalez.
“I find it appalling to say that you’re successful because you got $40 million for school construction. How could you call that a success?” she fired back, alluding to the failure to achieve passage of legislation that would have given Montgomery County an additional $20 million for school construction on a multi-year basis. “It was not a success,” she said of this year’s record. “We were shorted. We need to be honest with people, and we need to be effective in Annapolis.”
Gutierrez, noting it took Baltimore city two years to win passage of a major school construction aid package approved by the General Assembly in 2013, asserted that prospects are good for a similar package for Montgomery County in 2015. “We have a really solid case: I’ll bet my bottom dollar that we’re going to get it done next year,” she said.
At the same time, Gutierrez appeared to concede criticisms from the challengers that the Montgomery County legislative delegation needed to do more to flex its muscle in Annapolis.
“I think that Montgomery County has not learned how to play the state game,” Gutierrez said. “It is important that the delegation come together and ensure that the state pays into our needs in a fair share.”
Gutierrez also noted she has served on the Appropriations Committee for eight years, prompting a swipe from Kessler. “We have a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who says we’re not getting our fair share when you’re on the Appropriations Committee. We need to do better,” said Kessler, a vice chair of the District 18 Democratic Caucus.
On another education-related issue, the incumbents defended their votes two years ago for a controversial transfer of some teacher pension costs to the county – a move sharply criticized by county officials at the time. Carr and Gutierrez defended the legislation as compromise that was a significant improvement over proposals initially placed before the General Assembly — which Gutierrez said would have been “devastating” to the county.
But at least two of the challengers, Kessler and Shetty, said they would have voted against the package with the pension transfer provisions.
“We have a growing structural deficit in this county, and part of the reason is that we pass legislation in Annapolis that’s extremely regressive,” Shetty, currently a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, declared.
Kessler, reprising a phrase that he used throughout the campaign, said: “I think it’s just wrong to say that, every time there’s a problem, we’re going to go to the Montgomery County ATM and get some more cash from them to pay for it – because that’s what’s happening. It’s taken away from our ability to do the things we want.”
Both Kessler and Shetty said they would have pushed to pay for the teacher pension shortfall through so-called combined reporting – a proposal to force corporations officially headquartered outside of Maryland, but with large presences here, to pay taxes.
That prompted Gutierrez to note that past bills requiring combined reporting have met with little success – and to get in a plug for the incumbents’ Annapolis experience.
“That’s how important it is for the individuals you are going to vote for to be able to come together and pass this legislation. It’s not enough just to talk about it,” she asserted, adding later, ““There’s a saying that there’s no substitute for knowledge. That’s what we, the three incumbents in the House…bring to you: Experience [and] knowledge to put to good use for you.”