2018 | Bethesda Beat

Beneath a Civil Surface, Some Jabs Are Thrown in First—and Only—District 6 Debates

Gibes reflect recent attack ads in state’s most competitive congressional race of 2018

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The District 6 candidates

Democrat David Trone and Republican Amie Hoeber met this week for their first—and only—face-to-face debates for the open District 6 congressional seat, and, with both candidates vowing to restore civility to political discourse, the events were largely polite affairs.

But a few jabs were thrown during the two sessions, held Tuesday night in Gaithersburg and Wednesday morning in Hagerstown. Those punches, in turn, reflected recent attack ads that have hit the airwaves in Maryland’s most competitive U.S. House race of 2018.

“I’m offering my commitment, I’m offering my integrity,” Hoeber declared at the end of debate lasting an hour and 40 minutes late Tuesday. “That’s something that’s rare in today’s world—and I’ve never been convicted of a violation.”

She did not elaborate on that comment. But it was an allusion to an episode early in his business career in which Trone—co-owner of Total Wine & More, a nationwide retail chain—tangled with Pennsylvania officials over efforts to sell beer at discount prices. Trone’s actions, which brought him into conflict with the state’s liquor laws at the time, resulted in his being arrested on three occasions.

While the charges against Trone in the three cases were ultimately dropped, the nearly 30-year-old controversy is fodder for an ad running this week on WTOP radio that is sponsored by the Value In Electing Women Political Action Committee (VIEW PAC), a so-called Super PAC promoting Hoeber’s candidacy. VIEW PAC, as an independent expenditure committee, is barred by law from coordinating its activities with Hoeber’s personal campaign organization. However, VIEW PAC has received $900,000 in contributions this year from Hoeber’s husband, telecommunications executive Mark Epstein, with $500,000 of these donations made last month.

[For more information on the District 6 candidates and others running in the Nov. 6 general election, check out the Bethesda Beat 2018 Voters’ Guide.]

For his part, Trone took a shot at Hoeber on health care policy during Tuesday’s forum, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington at the Gaithersburg’s Shaare Torah synagogue.

“Health care is a basic human right,” Trone asserted. Without naming Hoeber, he added: “Some of our opponents would like to take away health care for pre-existing conditions. That’s wrong. One of our opponents would like to take away funding for Planned Parenthood. That’s wrong.”

Later in the debate, Hoeber responded, “The criticisms that were raised in terms of pre-existing conditions and Planned Parenthood are absolutely incorrect.” Nonetheless, the charges are at the core of a Trone-sponsored spot that is currently airing in the Washington TV broadcast market.

When she first ran for the District 6 seat in 2016, Hoeber—during a debate during the Republican primary—replied “probably” when asked if she would support denying federal funding to Planned Parenthood. The organization was then at the center of a controversy over allegations that it had discussed selling tissue from aborted fetuses for profit.

However, Hoeber later that year sought to put distance between herself and efforts by congressional Republicans to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, as she unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. John Delaney in the general election. “Primarily, they do a great deal of helpful health services for women, and that should be continued,” she said during a forum.

When Hoeber ran for Congress two years ago, she advocated repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—so-called “Obamacare”—while replacing it with alternative health care insurance legislation. Hoeber reaffirmed her support of repeal of the ACA in a recent interview with Bethesda Beat, although she did not refer directly to that position at the Gaithersburg debate or at the Hagerstown breakfast forum Wednesday sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

A major provision in the ACA bars insurance companies from denying health insurance to individuals on the basis of pre-existing conditions. A replacement measure pushed by congressional Republicans last year—formally entitled the American Health Care Act, and dubbed “Trumpcare”—also contained a provision retaining protections for those with pre-existing conditions. But the bill—which failed to clear Congress—also included language allowing states to waive minimum health benefit standards, raising the possibility that residents of some states could be without coverage of pre-existing conditions under that proposal.

Meanwhile, Hoeber took a swipe at Trone during the Hagerstown forum for running in the 6th District after losing the Democratic nomination for Congress in neighboring District 8 two years earlier. District 6 extends 200 miles from Potomac and Gaithersburg to the western edge of the Maryland panhandle; Delaney is relinquishing the seat to make a longshot bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“I am loyal to this district. I have run here twice. I am not district-shopping,” Hoeber declared in her closing statement, adding, “I care about this district, and I give it my heart and soul as well as all of my expertise and competence.”

She also took a swipe at the level of campaign spending by Trone—who, between $13.4 million of his own assets spent in 2016 and another $16.5 pumped into this year’s campaign, has spent just shy of $30 million out of his own pocket while pursuing a seat in Congress. “I am not trying to buy this election. I am trying to earn this election,” she said at the close of the Gaithersburg debate.

Trone did not respond, other than to reiterate a past defense of his self-funding—that it avoids acceptance of contributions from interest groups seeking to influence legislation on Capitol Hill. “We’re not taking PAC [political action committee] money, we’re not taking lobbyist money, because that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said at the outset of the Gaithersburg forum. “We’re here for the people.”

However, Libertarian Party nominee Kevin Caldwell—one of two third-party candidates included in both the Gaithersburg and Hagerstown debates—took a swipe at the level of campaign spending by Hoeber and Delaney as well as Trone.

Caldwell also noted that the three, all Potomac residents, actually reside outside the District 6 boundaries in neighboring District 8. The U.S. Constitution requires only that a member of Congress reside in the state that he or she represents, not the specific district.

“To put this into some perspective for you, three members of that neighborhood have the excess income to have spent $40 million in the last two elections,” Caldwell, a Frederick County resident, declared. “I don’t know about you, but that isn’t very representative of everybody I live around. Can we not in the 6th District have common citizens who represent … the actual people’s interest?”

His figures are consistent with campaign finance disclosure filings to the Federal Election Commission. Besides the nearly $30 million in personal assets from Trone—a national record for self-funded congressional races—Epstein has donated $5.4 million over the two campaigns to Super PACs promoting Hoeber’s candidacy. Hoeber’s personal campaign committee has raised a total of $1.9 million—including about $650,000 in personal donations by Hoeber—during the two election cycles; Delaney’s successful 2016 bid raised and spent about $2 million, including $300,000 in personal loans from the candidate, a financial services entrepreneur prior to running for Congress.

The other third-party nominee participating in the forums, Green Party nominee George Gluck of Rockville, chimed in with a wisecrack aimed at Trone. “Who would you rather have represent you—a Democrat who spreads green, or a Green who spreads democracy?” he asked at the close of the Gaithersburg session.

On the policy front, Trone and Hoeber skirmished over last year’s tax cut proposed by President Trump and passed by the Republican-controlled Congress.

On several occasions during the two debates, Trone called for repeal of the measure—estimated to cost $1.9 trillion over 10 years. “All it drove was more dividends, more stock buybacks—and a higher stock portfolio for [the] stock portfolio for the top 1 percent,” he said in Gaithersburg, adding the following morning in Hagerstown: “I benefited, but, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the right move for America.”

Hoeber, at the Hagerstown session, said she “fully” supports the legislation. “I believe that tax cut has resulted in more money in the pockets of people here in District 6,” she contended. “It has increased investment that has led to the economic growth in this country. We have economic growth that we haven’t had since 1969.”

For the most part, however, Hoeber cast herself as a centrist unafraid to buck her party. “I am an independent thinker. I have never been a partisan, I have stood up to presidents I have worked for when I disagreed with them,” said Hoeber, a deputy undersecretary of the Army during the Reagan administration who is a long-time national security consultant. She vowed: “I will put district ahead of party. I will put district interests ahead of everything else.”

On the issue of increased gun restrictions, Hoeber sought to walk a middle course between the Democratic-dominated, Montgomery County portion of the district and its Republican-dominated western end—where support for gun rights runs strong.

“I am very much a 2nd Amendment supporter, but I think there are some reasonable restrictions that can be placed and some changes that can be made to improve the situation,” she said at the Hagerstown forum, referring to recent mass shootings. “I totally support keeping guns out of the hands of people who have mental problems, or are prone to violence.”

She advocated increased background checks and giving physicians greater ability to report problem patients. “If you look at the various shootings that have happened, there were clear indications ahead of time of the instabilities of the shooters,” she said. “If we could have had that reported in some fashion, those people might have been able to be prevented from having access to the ability to kill others.”

At the same forum, when asked about Trump, Hoeber replied, “My position on this current administration is that I like the results, I don’t like the process. The current president is someone who has done what he promised. I don’t particularly like the personality. I would not invite him home for dinner, but that isn’t what I hired him for … I voted for him, and stand behind the results that he’s gotten.”

Trone repeatedly criticized Trump’s style and rhetoric, saying, “The problem [I] have with our current president is simply a total lack of leadership. How the heck are we going to run the country on tweets? … He watches Fox TV all day. If that’s how you get your news, you’re not going to be making balanced decisions.”

Asked about the possibility of impeachment if Trone’s fellow Democrats win a House majority on Election Day, Trone replied: “As far as impeachment goes, let’s let [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller do his job. Let’s see … where the cards land, and we’ll go from there.”