George Leventhal

George Leventhal

Interviews with the six Democratic candidates for county executive

| Published:

Age: 55 
Home: Takoma Park; married, two children
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of California, Berkeley, 1984; master’s degree (public administration), Johns Hopkins University, 1987; doctorate (public policy), University of Maryland, College Park, 2017
Professional Background: Congressional aide (Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland); lobbyist (Association of American Universities)
Political Experience: Member, Montgomery County Council, 2002-present (president, 2006, 2015); chair, Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (1996-2001) 


What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?

Immigration has immeasurably benefited Montgomery County, and it has immeasurably benefited my family. My wife came here as an adult, and we’ve raised our two sons in a multicultural, multilingual household. We all speak English, Spanish and Portuguese. My wife’s immigrant experience has highlighted for me the experiences that many of my constituents live with, and…it’s very, very important that the next county executive have a deep understanding of the day-to-day immigrant experience. I sincerely feel I have the greatest depth in terms of understanding the changing demographics of this county and the broadest set of relationships with community leaders.

I have the most extensive experience in county government. I’m not running as an outsider. …The job of county executive is a complicated [one], and I think it is important that [its occupant] has years of service to the county and understands the relationships between the executive, the county council, the state legislature, [the county] planning [board], the school system. I think I was a really good councilmember about three years in. I fully understand the job of county executive; I’m ready to get started on day one. I think anyone who comes in as a pure outsider with no background and no history who’s very bright will learn how to do the job after a couple of years. And I don’t think the county can wait a couple of years for someone to learn the job. 

During your four terms on the council, you have acquired a reputation for flashes of temper, causing some to wonder how well you would work collaboratively in a highly visible, high-pressure role. Are these concerns merited?

My colleagues elected me council president twice, and 2015 [second term as president] was a particularly cooperative year in which councilmembers got along very, very well. I view my role as county executive as the coach of the team. Every member of the team has got to be given credit for his or her accomplishments. I understand how to do that, and I did that as council president. I recognized and praised my colleagues, and worked very well with them.

Now, I am passionate about having government provide housing for the homeless, I am passionate about reducing educational and economic inequity. It’s because I’m passionate about things that [the] Purple Line Now [organization] maintained its advocacy for the Purple Line in good times and in bad. You have to have passion to accomplish big things, and that’s been my record. I’m not running as an outsider: I like interacting with other elected officials. I understand where they’re coming from, I understand what their needs are. So I’m entirely comfortable I will play well in the schoolyard with others.

Over the next decade, what do you feel are the major challenges facing Montgomery County?

The single largest challenge is inequality of educational opportunity. The largest demographic group in the public schools today is Latino, and we are not serving our Latino students as well as we are serving other demographic groups. And we are not serving African-American students as well. But those are the workers of the future, and the future of our school system and what it means for our economy is much too important for the next county executive to play a hands-off role. 

I’m not proposing structural changes. I am proposing an assembling of data [and] outside review and audit. …I would make sure that the school system is accountable for results, and I would detail staff to assess whether we are achieving measurable reductions in the achievement and opportunity gap. And I would speak to issues of [allocating] resources, making the most rigorous curriculum available to every student regardless of ZIP code, and providing more choices and more options for students. 

There continue to be complaints that the county is not business-friendly. What needs to be done to address this?

The county executive has to spend his or her time getting to know employers and understanding their needs. An important employer in this county, [Mayorga Organics President] Martin Mayorga, is a good friend, and last year I went to visit [him] and said, ‘So Martin, what can county government do for you?’ He said, ‘You know, you are the only elected official who has sat at my conference table and asked me that question.’ So that kind of relationship building is something that the next county executive has to prioritize—both in the county and traveling to identify opportunities with people who might want to move to the county. We need to let employers know that we care about them, that we’re responsive to them, and that we have a culture of customer service.

We’ve got a great story to tell; we’ve got to market ourselves better. Clearly, the fact that we have advanced to the second round on Amazon’s [second headquarters] speaks well of the county. The things that made us attractive to Amazon should make us attractive for investment around the globe.

You were part of a unanimous county council vote in 2016 for a property tax increase that averaged about 9 percent. County Executive Ike Leggett urged a lower increase, and there is a widespread view that the hike was a major factor in term limits being approved by voters that year. Any second thoughts?

We made the decision to make a major investment to keep pace with rising student population. Public education is the most important function of local government, we were falling behind, and it was necessary. Some of it [also] went to road resurfacing, some of it went to police protection, some of it to libraries. These are core functions of county government that constituents expect. Everyone wants great services, and nobody wants a tax increase—and that’s the reality of being an elected official.

I would not anticipate a property tax increase during my term as county executive. I think we have to prioritize and we have to seek efficiency. I think our economic prospects are bright, and we have every reason to look ahead to a prosperous future.

In 2017, you supported two versions of the bill to raise the local minimum wage to $15 per hour—the first one vetoed by the county executive, the second one signed into law. Are you concerned this move could affect the county’s competitiveness?

The jobs that we’re seeking to attract, including Amazon but not only Amazon, are not minimum-wage jobs. Employers benefit when workers can afford to live here, and when workers feel they’re being treated decently and that they want to stick around in a job. I’ve read a lot of the economic literature on this; I think the multiplier effects of having more cash in the pockets [of those] at the low end of the income scale will be of significant benefit to the very merchants and retail establishments who are complaining about the minimum wage. 

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed to widen I-270 and I-495 and put in toll lanes similar to those in Virginia. Is that a concept you support, and what are your transportation priorities?

I was pleased that Gov. Hogan identified I-270 and the American Legion Bridge as a priority. I would like to see a [mass] transit component in the plan. I’d love to see rail all the way to Frederick, but I think that’s a long-term goal. Short of that, if we had a dedicated busway, people will take public transportation if it’s rapid and it’s reliable. And I think they would take it on I-270, not just in Montgomery County, but from Frederick all the way down.

East of the I-270 spur, widening becomes very problematic. There is residential and commercial construction right up to the edge of the Beltway. …Tolls are not popular, but everything has to be paid for. I think Virginia has moved more successfully and more rapidly than we have on I-495. Virginia is having difficulty on I-66; the tolls are out of reach of ordinary commuters. Somewhere in there, there’s got to be a sweet spot where the tolls are reasonable enough that people use the lanes and the revenue is enough to pay for the improvements. 

During the 2016 campaign, you called the effort to impose a three-term limit on county elected officials a ‘dumb, unnecessary protest gesture,’ and contributed funds to an unsuccessful effort to defeat it. If elected county executive, could you see yourself seeking to reopen this issue?

No. The voters have spoken. …It was never my intention to run for a fifth term on the county council. Had term limits not passed, had Leggett decided to run for a fourth term, I would not have run for council under any circumstances. I’m very proud of what I accomplished, but for me, four terms on the council is enough for one lifetime. 

Having said that, I worked closely with County Executive [Doug] Duncan and County Executive Leggett. I think they were both superb leaders for our county, but I don’t think either of them shone the brightest in their third terms. So if I’m fortunate enough to be our next county executive, I would hope to serve two terms only, regardless of what limits the voters have imposed. 


Other candidate interviews: 
Roger Berliner | David Blair | Marc Elrich | Bill Frick | Rose Krasnow

Read the extended versions of the interviews in the Voters Guide

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