The nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen faced off for the third and fourth time in a month Saturday and Sunday. And, as in past debates, the differences—and frequent sniping—between the candidates centered around their professional experience and the strategies they are utilizing to win election to Congress rather than their positions on policy.
As one candidate, former university instructor David Anderson of Potomac, wryly observed, “In this campaign, there’s been a lot of discussion about money and where it’s coming from.”
Anderson, now an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program, has sought repeatedly to position his underdog candidacy to the right of what he termed “the progressive establishment” in the race on policy matters. But he faced an uphill effort to gain attention this weekend in debates dominated by discussion of election reform as well as campaign finance.
Total Wine & More owner David Trone of Potomac, who appears to have spent at least $2 million on TV advertising alone in the last month—more than any of his opponents have raised throughout the entire campaign—tried to turn his self-funded candidacy into a political asset during a Saturday forum in Rockville sponsored by the Sentinel newspapers. While he was pounced upon by several of his opponents, Trone managed to go on the offensive at a subsequent forum—sponsored by the District 16 Democratic Club—at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda on Sunday, when the topic turned to “gerrymandering” of congressional districts and the related issue of gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Decrying “all the special interests which…are continuing to corrode democracy,” Trone said Saturday, “fortunately, I am able to self-fund. Because of that, the only people I have to listen to…are the voters of the 8th District.”
That prompted the debate’s moderator, Sentinel executive editor Brian Karem, to ask, “Are you telling me in effect that if you don’t have money, you can’t run for office?”
Responded Trone, “You can certainly run for office but, unless you’re able to really generate small contributions, and not take the [political action committee] money, not take the lobbyist money, you’re going to run the risk of being somebody else’s congressman.” Trone later acknowledged, “The fact that someone has the dollars is clearly going to give them an edge, but it also gives them independence of point of view, and that’s the key.”
However, former biotech industry official Dan Bolling of Bethesda—making his first debate appearance since filing for the seat hours prior to the Feb. 3 deadline—noted that self-funding does not always translate into political victory.
“I applaud David for his success” in business, Bolling said, while adding, “I think he’s going to find what Jeb Bush has found—that having a lot of money does not guarantee success in electoral politics.” The failed Republican presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spent more than $130 million, according to a recent analysis by The New York Times.
Indeed, data compiled by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics show a limited record of success among self-funded House candidates nationally. Of the top 10 such self-funded candidates who ran over the past two decades, all of whom spent at least $5 million of their money, just three won election to Congress.
But this provided scant comfort to other candidates in the 8th District Democratic contest, several of whom took on Trone’s multimillionaire status as well as his high-spending campaign.
In addition to Anderson, Bolling and Trone, the field includes state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase, Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, and former Obama administration officials Will Jawando of Silver Spring and Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase.
“The question that really has to be asked by the people of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties is ‘Who do you want representing you?’ Do you want somebody like an Indian-American kid who grew up in Silver Spring and who went through the public school system and did well, or do you want somebody who knows the greatest number of millionaires who live within in a 100-mile radius of the spot that we’re sitting in?” asked Barve, in a comment that appeared aimed not only at Trone but another wealthy candidate—Matthews, whose campaign has benefitted from well-heeled contributors in the Washington political establishment and elsewhere nationally.
Among the sharpest criticisms during Saturday’s debate came from former state Department official Joel Rubin, who sought to compare Trone to another of this year’s self-funded candidates: Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.
“There’s a very serious danger in having a single-financed campaign—and that is the candidate may very well be promoting their own corporate interests. Mr. Trone has already said he did so at the state level,” declared Rubin, alluding to recent disclosures that Trone has donated more than $150,000 to Republican candidates over the past 15 years in states where Total Wine & More does business. Added Rubin, “We are watching Donald Trump right now promote his corporate interests through essentially self-financing his campaign.”
Joined by Raskin, Rubin pressed for a show of hands at Saturday’s debate on which candidates would favor limiting self-funding to $2,700, the current cap on contributions by outside donors to candidate campaign committees. A scattering of hands were quickly raised and lowered. “Why should one individual go over that just because it’s their own money?” Rubin said.
However, Rubin—whose campaign is benefitting from the support of a so-called Super PAC, “A New Voice for Maryland,” that was set up to boost his candidacy—later declined in an interview to support such limits on donations to Super PACs, to which individuals and corporations can give unlimited amounts. A friend of Rubin’s, Pittsburgh-based medical services executive William Benter, has donated $100,000 to A New Voice for Maryland.
“That is how our system is structured right now. It should be changed,” Rubin said of Benter’s donation, adding that he favors repealing Citizens United v. FEC—the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the way for Super PACs.
Raskin, a constitutional law professor who has criticized the Supreme Court’s rationale for that ruling, has made repeal of Citizens United a repeated theme of his campaign. But, as a leading rival to Trone and Matthews, Raskin found himself slammed by both at Sunday’s debate on another issue: his vote in the General Assembly for a 2011 congressional redistricting plan that has been decried as gerrymandering.
As Gutierrez repeatedly noted that she was one of the few Democratic legislators to vote against the redistricting plan—which led to the election of Democratic Rep. John Delaney in the neighboring 6th District, but which has been criticized as diluting the vote of minority groups in Montgomery County—Matthews noted that Raskin as well as Barve had voted for the plan.
“[It] did create another Democratic district, and that’s fine if you’re a Democrat,” Matthews declared. “But what if it’s Virginia, where the Republicans have the control? And they created more Republican districts. And what does that do? It creates the hyperpartisanship that we’re living with in Congress…and we’re not getting anything done.”
Raskin responded by pointing to legislation he has introduced for a compact between Maryland and Virginia to create an independent redistricting commission. “We should get out of gerrymandering in Maryland, but we should do it with Virginia at the same time,” said Raskin, noting that Virginia’s congressional map has been drawn to create an 8-3 Republican advantage despite two victories by President Obama in that state.
But Raskin bristled when Trone—joining Matthews in calling for a national commission on redistricting—dismissed Raskin’s plan as “politics as usual” that is “going nowhere.”
Raskin, describing himself as “a leading national critic, both academically and politically, of gerrymandering,” shot back at Trone and Matthews: “You guys might not like that vote [on redistricting]. I don’t like the fact that you didn’t vote in two of the last three Democratic primaries. We’re even there.”
It was an allusion to Trone’s failure to vote in local Democratic primaries in 2010 and 2012, and Matthews’ missed primary votes in 2012 and 2014. Both of these instances have been used by some local party activists to question Matthews’ and Trone’s Democratic bona fides.
Even the U.S. Senate candidacy of Van Hollen got caught in the crossfire.
During both of the weekend debates, Matthews called repeatedly for the election of more women to Congress, which she noted is now only 19 percent female. “Studies have shown when institutions like the U.S. Congress become more than 20 percent female, the dynamic changes, the priorities change, and the effectiveness of getting things done also changes,” she said.
But Matthews last week also endorsed the Senate candidacy of Van Hollen, a highly popular figure in the 8th District, over that of a female contender, Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County, for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski. On Sunday, she praised Van Hollen as a “bridge builder” and for his “global mindset.”
Gibed Raskin, “We have a great congressman who is running for Senate, and I endorsed him on day one when he called me up.”
Raskin also used the exchange to contrast his 10 years in Annapolis with Matthews’ and Trone’s lack of prior experience in public office. “My friend Kathleen skipped over one part of Congressman Van Hollen’s resume: He spent 12 years in Annapolis learning the arts of legislative leadership,” Raskin said. “Those of us who hold public office [in the General Assembly], we have 150,000 constituents. That’s a serious, solemn responsibility to undertake. We’re going from 150,000 to 800,000—and there are people [on this] dais who are proposing to go from zero constituents to 800,000 constituents overnight.”
Trone got in the last word, asserting, “The only way we’re going to end gridlock in Washington is that we change the type of people we send there.”