In one of the rare instances in which the two major party candidates have appeared together during this fall’s contentious District 6 congressional race, Democratic Rep. John Delaney and his Republican challenger, Amie Hoeber, clashed Wednesday over issues ranging from the scope of the federal government to military spending—while tangling repeatedly over how best to improve Maryland’s traffic-clogged highways.
In addition, sparks flew at the end of the hourlong forum in Hagerstown, sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, when Hoeber took aim at what has been a consistent theme of Delaney’s bid for re-election to a third term: that he has a record of bipartisanship and of voting against his own party in the House.
“The incumbent talks about his bipartisanship—and yet he paid thousands of dollars to have a billboard run around Annapolis attacking our governor. He participated in a kindergarten sit-down in the floor of the House,” Hoeber declared in her closing statement. Her references were to Delaney underwriting a billboard truck last spring to prod Republican Gov. Larry Hogan—then silent on his choice for president—to declare his position on Donald Trump, and Delaney’s support of a protest against the House GOP leadership last summer for not bringing a gun control bill up for a vote.
Delaney “has voted almost entirely with the current administration and I think when he talks about bipartisanship, what I hear is that he is speaking one way and voting another,” Hoeber contended during an appearance in a section of the 6th Congressional District where Republicans enjoy a clear registration advantage. About half of the district’s voters reside in Montgomery County; the Democratic registration edge is better than 2-1 in that portion of the district.
Delaney, who during the forum cited instances in which he voted against a majority of his own party on issues involving trade and military spending, bristled at Hoeber’s remarks. “I was just going to say, it was a pretty civil debate until that kind of attack at the end here. My bipartisanship record is clear,” he said immediately after the forum had formally ended. He reiterated past statements that GovTrack, a non-partisan online service that follows federal legislation, has rated him as the third most bipartisan member among House Democrats. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/john_delaney/412544/report-card/2015
But there was no shortage of sniping during the session on an issue close to home for many District 6 voters: highways. The district stretches nearly 200 miles west from Potomac and Gaithersburg to the edge of Maryland’s panhandle, and encompasses much of Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Frederick counties as well as a section of I-81 in Washington County.
Looming in the background in the tangling over transportation issues was the popular Hogan, against whom Delaney is considered a potential challenger in 2018 if he overcomes Hoeber in what is regarded as the state’s only competitive congressional race on the Nov. 8 ballot. In an effort to preempt such a scenario, Hogan has endorsed Hoeber and raised funds for her—and the governor’s former campaign manager is a consultant for Maryland USA, a pro-Hoeber Super PAC that is spending heavily from funds provided by Hoeber’s husband, telecommunications executive Mark Epstein.
At times, Wednesday’s forum sounded like a trial run for a possible 2018 gubernatorial matchup, with Hoeber, a national security consultant making her first run for office, a stand-in for Hogan.
“When the congressman talks about bipartisanship, I would include actually working with the governor rather than opposing the governor,” Hoeber declared. “I note that Gov. Hogan has already said that Congressman Delaney did not appear at any of his meetings he was invited to discuss the issue of I-81.”
Hoeber’s assertion followed an interview with Hogan conducted last week on radio station WCBC in Cumberland, in which the governor sharply criticized Delaney.
“I just don’t think he’s done a very good job of representing western Maryland in Congress,” Hogan declared. “Everything we have been working on to try to improve things he has not been a part of. We’re working on improvements to I-81 and [I-]270, and he doesn’t show up for the meetings, but then criticizes us in the paper.” Delaney, however, disputed both the governor’s and Hoeber’s contentions Wednesday, saying he had missed just one meeting to which the governor had invited him about a year and a half ago due to another commitment.
I-81 is a major route for commerce between Canada and New Orleans, and the portion of the road that traverses Hagerstown and Washington County is acknowledged by all parties to be in need of widening and other improvements. What appears to be at issue is the pace at which that work is being pursued.
Delaney complained Hogan had been slow to pursue funding for improvements to I-81 under a federal grant program known by its acronym, FASTLANE. Hoeber defended Hogan, saying, “The FASTLANE grant will be applied for as soon as the project is adequately shovel-ready for that grant.” But Delaney shot back that “this notion that I-81 isn’t shovel-ready is ridiculous.”
Added Delaney, “The governor has asked me to support several transportation projects for FASTLANE funding [including] two in Baltimore. He reached out to my office and wanted my support. I supported them. I just asked him to support I-81—because I think you could make it shovel-ready…I work with him on his transportation priorities. I just ask him to work with [me] on mine.”
The debate over I-81 came just two days after Hoeber, releasing her list of what she sees as transportation priorities for all five counties in the 6th District, criticized Delaney—honorary chairman of the newly formed Fix270NOW coalition—for not moving fast enough to relieve traffic congestion on that roadway. The coalition last month unveiled its proposal for improving the road, a couple of months after Hogan announced his I-270 plans, including investing $100 million to relieve traffic congestion.
Fix270NOW has advocated optional toll lanes on I-270, similar to those now in use in Northern Virginia and on I-95 north of Baltimore, to bring in revenue for road improvements. But Hoeber contended in an interview earlier this week that construction of toll lanes on I-270 would be hampered by a lack of eligibility for funding under the current federal surface transportation act.
“My problem with most of the proposals is that they are essentially increasing taxes. A toll lane is by definition in my view a tax on people who work,” Hoeber added. She vowed to seek a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, if elected, to pursue federal funding for both I-270 and I-81. “I’d work with him—I’d be his person in Congress to help him get this stuff actually done,” Hoeber said, referring to Hogan.
Delaney, in an interview after Wednesday’s forum, said of Hogan’s plan, “I have no issue with $100 million. That’s a start.” But he added: “I believe in providing solutions that are commensurate with the problem. One hundred million dollars is not a solution commensurate with the I-270 problem.” Of Hogan, Delaney declared, “I just don’t think he’s thinking as big as we need people to think on I-270.”
Because the I-270 project would be done in phases—with proposals other than the toll lanes to widen the northern portion of the road that is now only two lanes and expand the American Legion Bridge on I-495 for traffic coming off I-270—Delaney contended much of the work would be eligible for federal funding. Of the toll lane proposals, he said, “I would never support toll lanes that take away free lanes. If people want to pay the tolls, they can—and you’re taking traffic off the free lanes, so they are good for the free lanes as well.”
The jockeying over how to funnel federal funds for road improvements in the 6th District came amid an underlying debate Wednesday between Delaney and Hoeber on the overall role of government.
“My opponent, Congressman Delaney, is encouraging additional federal programs, is approaching the world as governance from the top down,” Hoeber responded when answering a question about where the two agreed and disagreed. “My approach is really to do it strictly from the bottoms up. I want to be out with the people, talking to them and finding out what their needs are—and minimizing the role of the federal government in solving any of those needs.”
Delaney, first elected to Congress in 2012 after nearly a quarter of a century in which he founded and ran two financial services companies, shot back: “I don’t favor… some big, top-down government approach. What I favor is a smarter government, a government that increasingly uses market-based solutions where it’s partnering more with the private sector to solve problems. I don’t want a big government or a small government. I want a smart government.”
On national security policy, Hoeber—a deputy undersecretary of the Army during the Reagan administration—complained that the U.S. Army is the smallest it has been since the start of World War II, and the Navy is at its smallest point in nearly a century. “This administration, with the congressman’s concurrence, has reduced the military budget by more than 28 percent in the last eight years,” Hoeber said. “I think this needs to be redressed. I think we have lost our capability and our respect in the world.”
Responded Delaney, “My opponent’s characterization of my record is…not true.” He said military spending had decreased due to a lessening U.S. engagement in the Middle East, as well as so-called sequestration—automatic, across-the-board spending cuts imposed in 2013 after Congress failed to find alternative means to reduce the federal budget deficit. “I have consistently voted for defense spending levels above the sequester levels, and [was] in the minority of my party when I did that,” Delaney declared.
Delaney’s efforts to position himself toward the center provided a political opening for a third candidate seated in the middle of the dais between Delaney and Hoeber—Green Party nominee George Gluck, a Rockville resident who also ran for the seat in 2014. Gluck boasted of being “the only progressive at the table and on the ballot.” Another minor party nominee, David Howser of the Libertarian Party, was not present for the debate.
Gluck used his closing statement to urge Delaney “to vote with the majority of his fellow Democrats on any bills that come up for a vote during the lame-duck Congress” following this year’s election. “For the sake of workers and consumers of our country and the ecological future of our globe, I implore him to vote against the very destructive Trans Pacific Partnership in particular,” Gluck said, shortly after Delaney had noted being the “only member of the Maryland delegation, Senate or congressional level, to support President Obama’s trade efforts.” Delaney contended the controversial, 12-nation TPP would benefit agriculture in western Maryland.