ROCKVILLE — The four Democratic candidates running for Montgomery County Executive squared off in a debate Monday night to make their cases to County residents.
The debate, hosted by the Sentinel Newspapers, was an opportunity for the four men vying for the Democratic nomination for County Executive – Council members Marc Elrich (D-at large), George Leventhal (D-large), Roger Berliner (D-1) and Del. Bill Frick (D-16) – to separate themselves from one another.
New in this year’s election, is a campaign finance system. For those participating in it, the program limits donations to county executive candidates to $150 and matches a portion of donations with public money.
Debate moderator and Sentinel Newspapers Executive Editor Brian Karem asked the candidates if they took campaign contributions from developers.
“I will say under the new system, I’m spending less time asking very, very wealthy people for very large checks,” Leventhal said.
Two of the candidates, Leventhal and Elrich, opted to participate in the public campaign finances system. Leventhal, then called out Berliner by name saying that he held a fundraiser two weeks ago to raise money from wealthy donors.
Berliner, who is not part of the public campaign finance system, responded by saying Leventhal, like him, ran “traditional” campaigns.
“You can look at my record, if you disagree with my record then you shouldn’t be voting for me, but I am very comfortable with how I’ve gone on about my business on behalf of you the residents in Montgomery County,” Berliner said.
Berliner said his record on the Council shows that he is not a developer-friendly candidate, and he needed to take large donations because two of his opponents are AtLarge Council members, while he represents only one district on the County Council.
Elrich was the candidate who said he does not take donations from developers and has sent back donations checks.
“I’ve already sent back checks that people have sent me…I just do not want the confusion that I am taking developer money,” Elrich said.
Frick criticized the County’s campaign finance law saying tax dollars should not go to support funding elections.
“They’re (residents) willing to pay taxes for roads and schools and police, and I think folks are a little frustrated that they’re not hearing, that their voices aren’t heard,” Frick said.
On the economy, the candidates agreed the County has to do more to help small businesses, but disagreed on what exactly they mean.
Berliner suggested the issue with small businesses in the County is not about taxes, but rather the County’s regulations. Berliner said the County Council has not thought enough about the impact of how some of its bills and regulations such as paid sick leave and a proposed bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour will have on small businesses.
“It is hard to do business in Montgomery County, the regulatory tapes that people have to go through are unbelievable,” Berliner said.
Elrich said he agreed that some regulations need to change, but County businesses need to be more specific about how County regulations hurt them.
Elrich said he and Council member Sidney Katz (D-3) are introducing a resolution to study the impact of fees and regulations on small businesses.
“If there is ever a place to reform it’s probably in here,” Elrich said.
Frick said small businesses in the County are often viewed buy business owners with “suspicion” and “contempt” specifically mentioning the way the County regulates liquor-- the Department of Liquor Control-- which has a monopoly on the liquor supply in the County.
“If you look at the liquor control issue, our small businesses, our restaurants – are classic small businesses -- and they complain for year in and year out that the Department of Liquor Control was broken and not working, and our council for the most part said we’re not willing to fix it,” Frick said.
Leventhal said the County needs to be “case specific” on the County needs to be more responsive when a small business has an issue with the County.
“I think every business’ issue is case specific,” Leventhal said. “I think that government needs to be responsive, we need to provide government that works.”
The candidates also responded to questions about President Donald J. Trump taking, turns criticizing him. Since becoming president Trump promised to deport undocumented immigrants, while Department of Justice officials said they will pull federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions that do not enforce immigration law.
County officials maintain Montgomery County is not a sanctuary county, and honors Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers for “serious” criminals.
Frick called Trump a “bully” and said he won’t let the Trump administration “bully the County.”
In March, Trump proposed significant cuts to many federal programs, including a 20-percent cut to the National Institutes of Health’s budget. Members of the Council have said Trump’s proposed budget would harm some of the 48,000 federal employees who live in the County.
Frick mentioned his experience as a Maryland delegate lobbying Gov. Larry Hogan to take a stronger stand against Trump’s proposed budget.
“We tried to get our Republican governor off the sideline and into a position of where he would actually try to do something about it and stick up for the people of this state,” Frick said.
Berliner in response to Trump’s budget said he is skeptical whether Congress, which has the final say over the federal budget, will go along with Trump’s proposed cuts. Berliner, characterized the Council as fiscally conservative on budget issues.
“We take seriously the need to be conservative on fiscal issues and if we have to then we will deal with what we have to deal with,” Berliner said.
Elrich said the County receives little in indirect funding from the federal government, but large federal budget cuts to NIH or other agencies such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would mean a loss of jobs and tax revenue for the County, meaning the County would need to make cuts from its budgets.
“Is there any tolerance in the wake of madness in Washington for increasing revenues in order to deal with some of things we need to do,” Elrich said. “People are going to have to ask themselves, what are you willing to sacrifice or give up in Montgomery County that makes this a place you want to live.”
Leventhal said he is worried about Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end Medicaid expansion, which covers healthcare costs people who are poor or who have disabilities. Leventhal said the County expanded its healthcare coverage through Montgomery Care, a group of healthcare providers who help insure the uninsured, and it would be severely hurt by federal cuts to Medicaid.
“We are severely affected negatively by the Trump administration, especially our immigrant communities, but also because of the tone in our communities. We’ve seen a rise in hate crime,” Leventhal said.