It’s nearly seven months until the April primary election, but tensions among the six contenders for the District 8 Democratic congressional nomination came into full view Wednesday evening, as the candidates shared a stage for the first time.
“Let’s not tear each other down in this campaign. This is our first time together—let’s not do it,” state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park pleaded, after the sniping got underway at a Silver Spring Civic Center forum sponsored by several environmental groups.
But, minutes later, Raskin was going at it with another leading contender, Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville, after Barve questioned why Raskin had contributed to the re-election campaign of a state Senate colleague who had been targeted for defeat by environmental groups.
Meanwhile, when it came their turn to ask questions of each other, several of the underdog candidates for the Democratic nomination targeted Kathleen Matthews, a former Marriott International executive and local TV news anchor—whose fundraising ability has put her in the top tier of candidates to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, despite a lack of prior political experience.
Neither the Wednesday night session, nor a separate District 8 candidate forum Thursday morning before the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors in Gaithersburg, yielded much in the way of policy differences among the candidates—although David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program, sought to portray himself somewhat to the right of his colleagues on several issues related to economic and foreign policy.
Rather, the back-to-back debates underscored that the forthcoming contest is likely to turn on the candidates’ differing backgrounds and experience, as well as their success in energizing their respective geographic and political bases. Coincidentally, the debates took place as the candidates wrapped up their fundraising efforts for the third quarter of 2015; Federal Election Commission reports due to be released on Oct. 15 will provide a further indication of the finances of the field of candidates, which also includes Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase—the only Latino candidate in the contest—and former Obama administration official Will Jawando of Silver Spring.
While the Realtors’ session Thursday was a relatively sedate affair, the Wednesday forum at the Silver Spring Civic Center was enlivened when Elizabeth Matory, who has filed as an independent candidate in the 8th District race, appeared after the start of the debate and insisted that she be included. The sponsors of the session agreed after confirming that she had filed an official statement of candidacy. (Matory was not invited nor did she appear at Thursday’s Realtors’ session.)
When given the floor, Matory—who in 2014 lost a race for the Democratic nomination for District 18 state delegate—called herself a “post partisan” candidate. “I have not backed down from this race, having heard numerous white men tell me to wait my turn, to wait until I had more experience,” said Matory, who is African-American.
The recent withdrawal of former County Councilmember Valerie Ervin from the District 8 race has left Jawando as the only African-American candidate in the Democratic primary—and he sought to draw attention to this when his turn came to question Matthews. “What do you think are the biggest challenges for underserved communities and communities of color and what changes would you propose to address this?” asked Jawando, who last year narrowly lost a bid for House of Delegates in District 20 to a slate organized by Raskin.
Replied Matthews: “I think the most important thing people need in life is a job. I think if we do the right kind of a strategy in shifting from a dirty energy economy into a clean [energy] economy, we will create so many jobs—and those jobs actually will help underserved communities.”
Jawando responded, “I was hoping to hear that we need new leadership and more inclusive leadership.” He recounted his tenure as a staffer at the U.S. Senate committee with jurisdiction over education policy “where around the room there are 20 people—and I’m the only person of color deciding education policy for the nation.”
For her part, Matthews sought to ramp up her effort to attract women voters, referring to the impending retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who Van Hollen is running to succeed. “We’re going to be losing Barbara Mikulski who has been a fighter for Maryland. How important do you think it is to have a woman, or a person of diversity, a minority, be elected in this seat in the 8th District?” Matthews asked Matory.
Matthews may have gotten more than she bargained for when Matory shot back: “We actually have a chance of sending an all-white male delegation back to Congress, depending on how the primary goes—and that’s another reason I took myself out of the Democratic primary. I can’t compete with your half a million dollars [of fundraising] in a month.” Referring at one point to Matthews as a “millionaire white woman,” Matory later noted that Montgomery County is majority minority, telling Matthews, “I also heard you’re having difficulty with quote-unquote ethnic support.”
Asserted Matthews: “I’m very proud of the support I’m getting in this campaign. I’m very proud that my support comes from across every ethnic group that we have represented ….in this county.”
But perhaps the tensest moment of the night came when Barve asked Raskin about the latter’s contribution to state Sen. Anthony Muse, a maverick Democrat who was targeted in 2014 for defeat by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV)—one of the groups sponsoring Wednesday’s forum. “I want you to explain to this group of environmentalists, many of whom are in the LCV, why you made a personal donation to this candidate when you could have supported a women of color who was pro-choice and pro-[marriage] equality instead?” Barve told Raskin, alluding to Muse’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Is it that late in the campaign that we have to get that silly and demagogic?” Raskin responded with irritation. He said he had given $500 to Muse after the primary was over, so it was not used to help defeat then-Del. Veronica Turner, the candidate favored by the LCV. According to Maryland Board of Elections filings, Muse was among several Senate colleagues to whom Raskin made contributions at a time when he was seeking to succeed now-state Attorney General Brian Frosh as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Raskin was ultimately passed over for the post by state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
“Look, guys, I campaigned on marriage equality, and we [enacted] marriage equality. And I campaigned to abolish the death penalty, and we abolished the death penalty, and I campaigned on restoring voting rights to ex-felons,” Raskin told the Silver Spring gathering, his voice rising. “The General Assembly has passed more than 100 of the bills that I have introduced. And ask my constituents who have re-elected me three times with 99 percent—do they think I sell out my principles?” There was loud applause from attendees to the event, held on Raskin’s home turf and attended by a significant number of Raskin supporters.
Barve responded: “I will only say that the record stands for itself. The fact of the matter is that every person here and every person running in this [congressional] district has an equal record with respect to marriage equality, with respect to social justice issues, with respect to the environment.” Alluding to his experience as House majority leader and the current chair of the House Transportation and Environment Committee, Barve declared: “Some of us are better at passing these laws than others. And I think that should be the central issue in this campaign.”