Meeting for the third time in recent months, the crowded field of candidates for legislative seats in District 18—who previously had been in accord on virtually all policy issues—Wednesday night found something about which to disagree: Montgomery County’s public liquor sales and distribution system.
All eight Democratic candidates for the district’s three House of Delegates nominations in the June 26 primary, as well as two of the three contenders for the open District 18 Senate seat, appeared at a forum at Kensington’s town hall. They split almost evenly in responding to an audience question on whether the current control regimen should be retained or privatized.
“I just want to start off by congratulating the person who wrote that question,” joked one of the delegate candidates, federal contractor Ron Franks of Wheaton. “I don’t know if you get a chicken dinner, but you definitely get a little bit of a difference between the candidates—which is something that will benefit everybody in this room.”
But if the wide-open District 18 Democratic contest—where two delegate seats as well as the Senate slot have no incumbents running this year—has seen little disagreement on substantive policy issues, there has been no shortage of behind-the-scenes political tensions.
Some of these spilled over into public view at the forum, as a couple of the delegate contenders—Mila Johns of Chevy Chase and Helga Luest of Rockville—complained about the process by which the endorsements of the county’s teachers union, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), had been awarded in District 18.
Luest, a communications manager with a Bethesda-based federal contractor, also repeated charges that she made earlier this spring that Del. Jeff Waldstreicher of Kensington, a candidate for the seat now held by state Sen. Richard Madaleno, had sought to convince her to abandon her delegate bid in favor of entering the Senate race—presumably to split the opposition vote. On Wednesday, she alleged he had “lied” about the episode in March comments to Bethesda Beat. Waldstreicher was not present for the forum due to what sponsors said was a commitment in Annapolis related to his legislative duties. The other two candidates seeking to succeed Madaleno, former eye surgeon and political activist Dana Beyer of Chevy Chase and business owner Michelle Carhart of Rockville, were there, as were all eight delegate candidates: Del. Al Carr of Kensington and seven non-incumbents.
The District 18 political equivalent of musical chairs was set off by Madaleno’s decision to run for governor, with Waldstreicher seeking to succeed him and another incumbent, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, leaving to run for County Council. The district extends from Bethesda through Chevy Chase to Silver Spring, while including Garrett Park, Kensington, Wheaton and a portion of Rockville.
The first delegate candidate to whom the liquor control question was addressed, former congressional aide Jared Solomon of Chevy Chase, said he would not stand in the way if the county pushed for changes in the public liquor control regimen—which would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly. But Solomon said, “This may not be a popular answer—it’s not a priority for me.”
He pointed to the more than $30 million in net revenue the current system produces for the county, while citing arguments by advocates of the current system that it is a benefit to public safety. “Montgomery County has one of the lowest drunk driving rates in the country because we have a public entity that controls it,” Solomon said.
Solomon, along with Carr and Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee Vice Chair Emily Shetty of Kensington, have been endorsed by the UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO—which represents about 350 workers in the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC), and which has long opposed efforts to privatize the enterprise.
“If we go to a private system, not only will we lose 350 jobs for unionized workers here in Montgomery County, but it also doesn’t guarantee that we will get that [$30 million in] revenue back,” said Shetty. “The taxes on the sale of alcohol stays at the state level, and the state decides how to appropriate money for the general fund. For that reason, I do not currently support disbanding the liquor monopoly.”
But after Town of Chevy Chase Council member Joel Rubin also argued against getting rid of the current system—contending that “we need to try to get some other priorities on the radar screen of the [County] Council that are more pressing and urgent, like affordable housing and environmental protection and health care”—another delegate contender, Leslie Milano of Chevy Chase, objected to the comments by Solomon, Shetty and Rubin.
“I disagree with my three colleagues here 100 percent,” said Milano, a public health organization official. She characterized the current $30 million in annual revenue from the public liquor system as a “sluggish growth rate for all the liquor stores and wholesale that we’re doing.”
Continued Milano: “If you want to talk about a windfall, if we sell the licenses, that is a windfall of revenue that we’re going to have on a regular basis annually. And we’re going to be able to do all the things we’re talking about doing … but we don’t have money for.”
She added that “350 union jobs are important, but they would be going from MCGEO to the Teamsters—there are also, in the private sector, unionized liquor sales positions.”
Johns, a former researcher and project manager at the University of Maryland, made the same point—more bluntly.
“These 350 union jobs are still going to be union jobs if we privatize—they’re just not going to be MCGEO jobs,” she said. “I understand that nobody wants to lose their members to another union, but that’s no reason to inconvenience an entire county of people.”
She argued that the current system is a disincentive to attracting new restaurants and night life in the county. “We need to change that atmosphere, and we can do it by getting rid of the DLC,” she said.
Luest, Franks and Carhart agreed the county’s public liquor monopoly needed to be done away with—albeit with ample time and careful management—while Carr defended the current system. “Private does not necessarily equal better,” Carr said. “There’s not a consensus on it anyway at the county level, and I think we can do a lot of things to improve the system we have.”
He suggested “ordinary people care about things like ‘Can I buy beer and wine at the grocery store’—and I’d like to work towards that.” Current restrictions on grocery store sales of alcoholic beverages are mandated by a separate state law, and not part of the county’s present sales and distribution system.
Beyer came down on the side of moving away from the status quo, saying, “To me, the fundamental issue … is that the county shouldn’t have a monopoly,” she said. “We are the only county with it, it’s rather antiquated. Let’s find a new way.”
But she also praised the varying points of view brought up during the forum. “I would like to see the next county executive bring us all in to help solve this problem” she said. “Everybody down this row [of candidates] actually had … a very good point that needs to be taken into consideration. I think this is government at its best, even though we’re not all in the government yet. But this is how it should work.”
The discussion took a sharper turn several minutes later, when the candidates were asked about lessons they had learned in the wake of the “#MeToo” movement.
“One of the things I’ve learned—I’m going to be totally honest here—is when I see some of the endorsements from either individuals or groups that have gone all men, I wonder what we would feel like if we woke up on June 27 and had a slate of all men,” responded Milano. Noting that she is a working mother, she said: “I’m not suggesting we need all women. I just think that we need diversity of thought, and one of the perspectives that I think is very important is working parents.”
Johns followed up Milano’s comments by declaring: “I’m going to go a step further than Leslie, because I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say maybe we should vote for all women. To quote [Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it will look equal when there are nine women on the Supreme Court—because that’s how many men have always been there. That’s what it will look like when we have gender parity in Annapolis. And we need to do that.”
Johns also complained about the MCEA’s endorsement process, in which the group ended up backing Carr, the only District 18 incumbent seeking re-election to his current post, as well as Solomon, a former teacher, and Rubin—a former Obama administration official who noted that he is a certified elementary school instructor.
“We have a number of organizations that have issued endorsements for an all-male slate, including the teachers—which I find especially horrendous given that the vast majority of teachers are women,” said Johns, who later walked back her remarks somewhat to add: “I wasn’t attacking those who were endorsed—I was attacking the MCEA process.”
The sniping escalated when Luest later added: “I think the issue here was that four of the four female delegate candidates [in District 18] were not invited to do an interview with MCEA—and Joel Rubin, who had filed after most of us, was invited.”
Rubin shot back: “That’s not accurate. I’m sorry that we had to make it personal, but I actually did file on time and … did interview on time. I have the records for that. And I think you’re implying that somehow the endorsement’s not merited, which is disappointing.”
Earlier, in response to the question on the lessons learned from the #MeToo movement, Luest intensified her criticism of Waldstreicher first voiced in March.
“I would say the most personal thing I learned in this campaign is that sometimes you can make mistakes,” she said. “My mistake was that in the last primary election, I voted for Jeff Waldstreicher. And when I filed to run for delegate, Jeff Waldstreicher sat down with me and asked me to leave the delegate race and jump into the Senate race. And then he lied about it to Bethesda Beat, and he never apologized.” In a statement at the time, Waldstreicher called Luest’s allegations “false, defamatory and born of actual malice.”
In a parting shot at Waldstreicher on Wednesday, Luest added: “I’m a congressional award winner for the advocacy work I’ve done, and I felt completely disrespected and disregarded by him. For me, it just was very offensive, quite frankly—but it also told me that time’s up for him.”