Interviews with the six Democratic candidates for county executive
Home: North Bethesda; married, two children
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Dartmouth College, 1973; law degree, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, 1983
Professional Background: Congressional aide (U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California); policy adviser (California State Assembly); attorney; legal counsel (County of Los Angeles); small-business owner (energy consulting firm)
Political Experience: Member, Montgomery County Council, 2006-present (president, 2012, 2017)
What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?
[I] started as a small-business man, …grew a small business and actually was in business more than I’ve been in public life. That experience, [along with] having worked on Capitol Hill, having worked for the California State Legislature, and having represented the largest county in the country, Los Angeles County—all before my service [in Montgomery County]—is, I think, a unique and strong background for this work.
I believe [my] record stands apart, particularly when it comes to knowing the county. It’s a big county; it took me two years on the council before I was able to have a good understanding of the breadth of county government. So I do think it matters that the leader we pick is someone who is conversant with and has been involved with the county.
Even some of those who support you feel that you can be slow to make a decision, perhaps owing to an abundance of caution. Are they on target?
I actually take some pride in that I approach my work thoughtfully. I try to make sure I understand the arguments from both sides, if it is a controversial issue, before I make a decision. And I actually think that is the best way to go about our work. But it does not prevent me from moving forward, and advancing legislation that, quite frankly, has been groundbreaking. I work really hard to reconcile competing truths. That’s how I go about my business. That’s what some people might accuse of being ‘cautious.’ For me, it is trying to strike the right balance. I am progressive and pragmatic. That is my brand, and I stand by it.
Over the next decade, what do you feel are the major challenges facing Montgomery County?
I think the greatest challenge is creating greater shared prosperity. It does mean our county needs to be more competitive economically, it needs to be able to attract as well as retain businesses. And it also needs to make progress addressing what I think is the overarching national issue, which is income inequality and growing poverty in our county. We need to [address] both. If we are competitive economically and grow our tax base, it will give us the revenue we need to make progress on the other. To me, the future is pretty clear. It is an innovation economy. And our county needs to be positioned as a county that itself is innovative, and encourages entrepreneurs and an innovative economy.
Our county is getting poorer. It is shocking. I got involved in creating a hunger plan because our county had never formally said, ‘We need to reduce hunger.’ And I said, ‘We’re just giving dollars to nonprofits, and we don’t have a plan?’ And now we need [a plan] on poverty, too. That means also that our education system needs to adjust. …Institutions as large as county government, as large as the school system, are, by definition, slow to adjust. So my hope is to be a spur to overcome sort of the natural stasis that sets in and see if we can’t spur a little more innovation across the board.
Notwithstanding several steps taken in recent years, such as the creation of a small-business navigator, which you sponsored, there continue to be complaints that the county is not business-friendly. What additional moves are needed?
We do need to change the perception of our county, and I think there are enough things we don’t do particularly well to justify a perception. I just had a meeting where someone was sharing with me his experience of building a 10-foot-by-10-foot shed in his backyard. It took 14 pages [of paperwork] and a plat—and two inspectors. And he’s a land-use expert. He said to me, ‘I don’t know how somebody who isn’t a land-use expert could possibly have done this; they would have needed to hire a lawyer.’
[If elected], I’m going to have to really dig down in departments like the Department of Permitting Services. Why does it take this long, why do our residents have to go through this kind of process? Aren’t there ways we can make it easier for…them to interact with county government?
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?
No. It was all about the school system. The county executive proposed exceeding the charter limit [which restricts the growth of property taxes to the rate of inflation without a unanimous council vote]. The difference in the county executive’s proposal and what the county council ultimately passed was really so on the margin at that moment in time. Everybody understood in county government that given the challenges that our school system faced, that it required $90 million above the maintenance of effort [level required by the state]. We could not do that without raising taxes. The school system in my judgment is one of the pillars of our community. We can ill afford for that reputation to be tarnished.
And now we need to grow our economy instead of raising taxes. It is not my intention [if elected] to be proposing any further tax increases. Do I fully appreciate that our residents have tax fatigue? Absolutely. I feel like we’ve hit the wall on tax increases, which is why I think the focus must be in this race on: ‘Who do you have confidence in who can grow our economy, who can grow our tax base? Who has the vision that will allow us to prosper without raising taxes?’
In 2017, you opposed a bill, vetoed by the county executive, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. You later supported the revised $15 minimum-wage increase that he signed. Are you concerned this law could affect the county’s competitiveness?
[Councilmember] Sidney Katz and I worked very closely together to make sure we negotiated a deal that we felt stretched it out in a way that was least damaging to our small-business community. Am I concerned about it? I am, but in terms of the overall equities, it is also true that people work too hard for too little in our county.
Gov. Hogan has proposed to widen I-270 and I-495 and put in toll lanes, similar to those used in Virginia. Is that a concept you support, and what are your transportation priorities?
I am a [mass] transit guy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t attend to I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. It is intolerable for people who drive I-270 every day. Now, there are important differences [with Hogan’s proposal to widen I-270 and I-495]. Our council has been on record for years supporting the adding of two reversible lanes to I-270. Anybody who looks at I-270 sees it is a totally peak-driven system. So I don’t get where we need four lanes…and, hopefully, it would be less expensive and therefore the tolls would be less. And what you can do on the Beltway is somewhat of a mystery, because any of us who have driven it see how tight the Beltway is.
If we fix Metro, have the Purple Line, and have bus rapid transit, you have the bones of a state-of-the-art system. And then you can focus on one of the more perplexing problems, which is the first mile/last mile problem: How do you get people out of their homes to the transit? Other communities are now partnering with Lyft and Uber to do that, and I sent a letter to our Department of Transportation saying, ‘Excuse me, why aren’t we doing this?’ Those are the kinds of things I would seek to do as county executive.
You’re one of several candidates who has spoken about how the county government needs to improve its attitude toward business. Has it also become overly regulatory in terms of the rank-and-file citizen?
The short answer is yes: We went further than we had to [to] address serious issues. [Regarding the ban on cosmetic lawn pesticides], we were advised by the attorney general’s office that it was likely to be preempted. I also felt that this was a realm in which…we were going from zero to 100 miles per hour in a nanosecond. I felt like we needed to lead our community to understand more fully the dangers. So I proposed an alternative that would have been the strongest pesticide law in the country, short of a ban…and do that for several years and see if it didn’t reduce our use of pesticides by 50 percent. That, to me, is good government: You lead people to the result you want to take them to without breeding resentment and pushback. Now, there are some situations where you can’t afford to do that, and there are those who argued this was one of them—that lives are at stake. I understand that, too. So I again tried to reconcile what I thought were competing truths.
Read the extended versions of the interviews in the Voters Guide.