In a debate filled with appeals to female primary voters but which produced little in the way of verbal fireworks, the seven candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District faced off Tuesday night at a crowded event sponsored by the Woman’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County.
In comparison to the sniping that dominated much of the Democratic candidates’ first forum six weeks ago, the third debate of the campaign—held in the meeting room of the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad—was a largely civil affair. The only candidate-on-candidate criticisms of the evening came from David Anderson of Potomac, a former university professor, who repeatedly attacked two leading contenders, former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase and state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, as representing “an establishment orthodoxy” with regard to national family policy.
Under the debate rules, Anderson’s criticism triggered extra time for Matthews and Raskin to respond. But Matthews—utilizing a tactic often employed by frontrunners when criticized by an underdog opponent—opted to ignore the attacks, while Raskin responded with humor. At one point, seeking more time to respond to a question on environmental policy, Raskin asked plaintively, “Will David attack me again — please!,” as an audience of nearly 350 responded with peals of laughter. Earlier, Raskin breezily noted Anderson had donated to the Raskin campaign before deciding to get into the contest himself.
Also participating in Tuesday’s debate were state Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, and two former Obama administration officials: Will Jawando of Silver Spring and Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase. The seven are vying to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is running for Senate.
It was Rubin’s first appearance at a debate since entering the contest in early October, and, in his opening statement, he appeared to take an indirect swipe at Raskin, the state Senate majority whip, and Barve, a former House of Delegates majority leader.
“You’ll … hear a lot of discussion about important legislation that has been achieved in Annapolis,” Rubin said in his opening statement. “They were advanced in environments with strong Democratic majorities and a Democratic governor.” Noting that the U.S. House of Representatives is today in Republican control and likely to remain so, Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, added, “What has distinguished me in this race is my successful track record in advancing progressive solutions while taking on tough fights in this hostile arena.”
But, while pointing to his efforts as a congressional staffer “to protect military health care while George W. Bush was in the White House” and a more recent, contentious appearance before the Republican-created House committee looking into the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, Rubin did little to separate himself from the rest of the field—or to explain why he had chosen to jump into the contest nearly six months after most of the other candidates.
The other latecomer to the race—Anderson, an official of a Washington-based internship and seminar program who announced in August—continued to position himself as the contrarian, reiterating prior positions as the only candidate to oppose the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and to support raising the eligibility age for Social Security. But Tuesday’s debate failed to highlight any new policy differences among the candidates, all of whom have sought to label themselves as progressives.
All supported the United States strengthening the international coalition to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) in the wake of last week’s Paris attacks — while expressing opinions ranging from strong reluctance to opposition about committing more U.S. ground troops in Syria and the Middle East. Several also took strong exception to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Tuesday that he was joining most other Republican governors in opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees in their respective states.
“Larry Hogan, Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party have decided to score cheap political points at the expense of some of the most put-upon people on the planet today,” declared Barve, who noted that, if elected, he would be the first Asian-American elected to Congress from Maryland.
Anderson continued to emphasize what he termed “the centerpiece of my campaign”—a plan to provide not only paid leave and child care support to working families, but tax credits for parents who opt to stay at home to raise children. He charged Matthews and Raskin with a “narrowness of thinking” in pushing only for paid parental leave, saying they “have blindly accepted an outdated, unfair and unworkable establishment position that neglects the needs of half of families.”
Anderson continued to hammer away at the issue after initially failing to get a rise out of the two frontrunners. When he again returned to the subject during the debate’s closing statement, he was met by boos from audience that appeared to have sizable contingents of Matthews and Raskin supporters.
“I think you did send me a $500 contribution when this campaign started,” Raskin earlier reminded Anderson. Following the debate, Anderson said the contribution to Raskin had actually been $150, adding: “Jamie and I are friends. Several months later I emailed him and told him I had actually decided to run for the same seat and meant no disrespect to him.”
Matthews—who has tapped into a nationwide network of prominent political, business and entertainment figures to raise more than $1 million so far—sought to emphasize her efforts closer to home when asked about her views on campaign finance reform.
“In my campaign, I am reaching out broadly in Maryland, broadly in the 8th Congressional District,” said Matthews, a former local TV news anchor who is married to MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews. “And so I am reaching back to friends, family members, people who know me from 25 years on the air…and to people who worked with me at Marriott International, and to all of you who I would like to support my campaign for Congress.”
Earlier in the day, Mayday—a so-called super PAC that was created to push for campaign finance reform, and is supporting Raskin—issued a press release in which it said Matthews’ recent Federal Election Commission reports show more than 75 percent of her campaign funding is coming from outside of Maryland.
Mayday’s latest release followed a verbal skirmish late last month, in which Matthews criticized the super PAC for referring to her as a corporate lobbyist—saying that she was never a registered lobbyist during her almost decade-long tenure at Marriott.
Raskin, running a close second to Matthews in terms of campaign fundraising, sidestepped criticism of his leading rival, while noting, “In my campaign, 80 percent of our contributors have given us $100 or less.”
The remaining candidates were left to bemoan the difficulties of raising campaign funds under the current system. “I got to tell you as a first time candidate, it’s hard to run against candidates with lots of money, friends with lots of money. I’m finding it difficult to get my message out,” Anderson griped.
“Well, I have a degree in accounting from Georgetown University, and it’s hard for me, too—so there,” responded Barve—who, while generally viewed as among the leading contenders given his leadership position in the General Assembly, has struggled to keep up with Matthews and Raskin in fundraising.
In a primary contest in which a majority of voters are expected to be women, all five male candidates introduced their wives from the audience—and Jawando also introduced his mother, whom he said was watching him debate for the first time. “She is a working woman, and has always been—and often these things are held at times when she can’t get there,” noted Jawando, adding, “So I just want to say thank you, mom, and I love you.”
Raskin noted the support of a 550-member “Women for Jamie” organization within his campaign, including seven former presidents of the Woman’s Democratic Club. And Gutierrez pointed out that, in addition to being the first Hispanic-American woman to hold public office in Maryland, she had raised three children as a single mother while working as a chemist and engineer. “This little Latina, this little immigrant, this little Salvadoran has not been standing still,” Gutierrez declared.
Matthews, noting that voters have a “historic opportunity…to elect the first Democratic woman to represent the 8th Congressional District,” unveiled a 10-page set of proposals entitled “Working for Women” (www.KathleenMatthewsForCongress.com/WorkingForWomen) while pointing to her activities at Marriott and as a TV news reporter. “My Working Woman show profiled for many of you the struggles, but also the incredible advances of women,” Matthews said. “In fact, I profiled Jamie Raskin’s mom on my TV show.”
Whether Matthews’ stint on local television—which ended nearly a decade ago—will boost her among older women voters in the primary remains a question. “How many of you remember watching me on television for 25 years when I did Channel 7?” she asked at the outset of the debate. Just a scattering of hands went up from the audience.
“I wish there were more of you,” she responded wistfully.
First photo above of the crowd via Kevin Gillogly, @MoCoKevin on Twitter. Second photo of Kathleen Matthews by Edward Kimmel, MDfriendofhillary on Flickr.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect the current membership of the 'Women for Jamie' arm of the Raskin campaign. The figure previously contained in the story, which was cited by Raskin in Tuesday night's debate, reflected the membership at the time of a rally of the group in September.