For much of Saturday’s District 8 congressional forum in Silver Spring, the candidates present ignored the elephant in the room—or, perhaps, the figurative donkey in the room, given that it was a debate among Democratic contenders.
David Trone of Potomac, who entered the District 8 Democratic contest 10 days ago with a self-funded TV advertising blitz, attended an informal breakfast gathering prior to the annual summit of the county’s African-American Democratic Club. He also was listed as one of three “platinum” sponsors of the event, at a contribution of $1,000. (His two leading rivals for the nomination, former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase and state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, kicked in $250 each to be “silver” sponsors.)
But Trone was gone before the start of the African-American Democratic Club’s five-hour long formal program Saturday, and did not participate in a one-hour candidate forum held at midday. It was the first scheduled debate among the District 8 Democratic contenders since Trone announced his candidacy late last month.
“We received the invitation to the event late. Unfortunately, he had a long-standing personal commitment in the afternoon,” said Trone spokeswoman Mary Werden, noting that Trone “was able to rearrange his schedule” to mingle at the breakfast prior to the event.
The seven congressional aspirants who did participate responded by avoiding any mention of Trone until the tail end of the debate segment, when a few jabs were thrown.
“There is a new dynamic of money in this race—but public office is something we earn, it’s not something we buy,” Raskin declared, alluding to the more than $1 million that Trone is said to be spending in his initial ad blitz on broadcast stations and cable channels.
“Watch for somebody’s ads in the Super Bowl—unfortunately, they’re not going to be mine,” Raskin wisecracked. Trone, co-owner of Total Wine & More, made a $200,000 buy for ads during pre- and post-game shows in conjunction with Sunday’s Super Bowl, his campaign confirmed.
At times Saturday, there appeared to be something of a sense of solidarity among the candidates in the field prior to Trone’s entry.
“I just want to commend all of us who are up here on this stage who have been at this for months and months and months—some of us getting in as early as March, most of us being part of this campaign since June, eight months on the campaign trail—coming out and talking to you and asking you for your vote,” Matthews told the crowd at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
Pointing to staff members who had accompanied her, Matthews, in a gibe aimed at Trone, added, “I would not give up a single day I have spent on this campaign trail building a coalition of young people like my staff over here…and I know every [candidate] at this table has done that.”
Matthews’ position as the leading fundraiser in the race has been significantly undercut by Trone’s vow to spend “whatever it takes” from his own pocket. The Matthews campaign did announce Monday it is going on the air with a 30-second TV spot highlighting her stance in favor of tighter gun controls, making her the only other candidate besides Trone to run TV advertising so far. The Matthews ad will run during the next week on the the ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in the Washington market.
Matthews campaign manager Ethan Susseles declined to say how much the campaign is spending for the ad buy.
The most direct swipe at Trone during Saturday’s debate came from former State Department official Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase, who entered the contest in early October. “I do want to say that I wish Mr. Trone were here,” he told the audience. “I really do not think we are being served by just having video ads out in the debate. We are here because we believe in you—and we want you to believe in us.”
There are three more public debates scheduled this month among the District 8 Democratic contenders: Feb. 14 at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Feb. 27 in Rockville sponsored by the Sentinel newspaper, and Feb. 28 in Bethesda before the District 16 Democratic Club. Although it was not immediately clear whether Trone would participate in any or all of these, “David is looking forward to attending as many forums and debates as his schedule permits,” Werden said.
Also present for Saturday’s candidate forum were state Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, former White House aide Will Jawando of Silver Spring and David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program. Yet another candidate, Dan Bolling of Bethesda, was not there. Bolling filed just hours before last Wednesday’s legal deadline without any public announcement, and African-American Democratic Club officials indicated he was not invited because they were unaware he had entered the race.
Whoever wins the April 26 Democratic primary in the Montgomery County-based district—which also includes portions of Carroll and Frederick counties—will be a heavy favorite to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is vacating the seat to run for Senate. Van Hollen made an appearance at Saturday’s African-American Democratic Club gathering, where he continued to argue that he would be a more effective member of the Senate than his leading opponent, Prince George’s County-based Rep. Donna Edwards.
“I do think the reason I have the support of so many leaders in our community in this Senate race is because of our work together to get things done for our community and our state,” Van Hollen declared, pointing to his endorsement by two of the state’s leading African-American elected officials: Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.
Edwards did not attend the gathering, sending former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin in her place. If Edwards “is not successful in winning her bid for the U.S. Senate, our congressional delegation will look very male and very pale,” Ervin asserted. The retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Edwards giving up her House seat to run in a competitive primary to succeed Mikulski has raised the prospect of an all-male Maryland congressional delegation following the 2016 election—a point Matthews has made repeatedly to bolster her District 8 candidacy.
Jawando is the only African-American candidate in the District 8 Democratic contest, but all of the candidates at Saturday’s congressional forum went to lengths to highlight portions of their background that might resonate with minority voters.
“One of the reasons I am running for Congress is that I understand the experience of having to brush up against what really can only be described as white privilege,” declared Barve, vying to be only the fourth Indian-American ever elected to Congress. Gutierrez, the only Hispanic-American in the race, noted she was the “first Latina ever elected to anything in Maryland” when she won a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education in 1990.
Anderson, who holds a doctorate in political philosophy, recalled teaching “Pilgrimage to Non-Violence,” Rev. Martin Luther King’s essay, “over 30 times to graduate students at George Washington University when I was an academic.” And Rubin recalled how his mother-in-law, a native of Sri Lanka, was forcibly sterilized in this country after giving birth to his wife—an episode that is the focus of a recent Web ad put out by the Rubin campaign.
As in past debates, it was difficult to discern significant differences on issues among the candidates, who took turns advocating additional economic and educational aid targeted to minorities and decrying the current state of the criminal justice system.
The most pointed comments came from Jawando, who declared, “I think the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our criminal justice system is a legacy of slavery—that our mass incarceration system comes directly from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to a system where we have privatized prisons so that people are profiting from putting black and brown people in jail.”
Jawando also took a swipe at Raskin, saying he was “disappointed in Sen. Raskin for voting against a bill last session [of the General Assembly] that would have prevented juveniles from serving life sentences, which we know happens.”
Raskin did not respond during the debate, but later, in an interview, bristled at Jawando’s charge, calling it a “half-hearted effort to pick a fight—he swung and he missed.”
Raskin said a provision to do away with life sentences for juveniles was contained in legislation introduced in 2015 by Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County. Raskin said the original Kelley bill, which also contained numerous other provisions, was considered politically and legislatively unwieldy and was voted down 9-1 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
At the start of the 2016 session, Kelley introduced a modified bill focused on doing away with life sentences for juveniles, and Raskin said he is a co-sponsor of that measure. “I would put my criminal justice reform record up against any legislator in America,” Raskin declared, pointing to his role in passage of proposals to abolish the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana, and restore the right of ex-felons to vote.