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County Executive candidates square off again

SILVER SPRING — If any of the 300 spectators who arrived at the Northwood High School gymnasium for Sunday’s County Executive candidate forum hoped one of the candidates in attendance would distinguish themselves from the crowded field, they probably left the three-hour event disappointed. 

Seven candidates are vying to replace Democrat Isiah Leggett as County Executive, who became term-limited in 2016 after voters approved a ballot initiative championed by attorney, activist and perennial candidate Robin Ficker, the sole Republican in this year’s race.

Ficker, who has run for office more than a dozen times since 1972, announced his candidacy last year after previously assuring voters that his support for term limits did not stem from a desire to run for office again. The other six candidates are Democrats, including County Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal, former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow, Maryland Delegate Bill Frick and businessman David Blair. 

Among the many issues on which the entire field appeared to be in agreement was the need for the County to close the Dickerson landfill and to work on mitigating the effects of climate change. One of the only matters on which one could find anything resembling daylight between any of the candidates was the impact of the Purple Line light rail project, which County Council member Marc Elrich (D) predicted would harm the County’s minority population by causing a dearth of affordable housing when home prices rise due to gentrification. However, Council member George Leventhal (D) – who attempted to stake out a position as the most minority-friendly candidate due to his fluency in Spanish – dismissed Elrich’s concerns as nothing more than fearmongering.

But the rest of the candidates expressed support for the project, predicting that it would be helpful to the County’s minority population by creating more jobs as businesses move to locations along the rail line and making it easier to get to work.

“We need to get Montgomery County moving again,” said Frick. “Minorities are going to take advantage of the Purple Line more than anyone else.”

“It’s a good thing for our County,” said Krasow, the former Rockville mayor, adding that while the project would inflate property values, it would also create more income to balance out the higher housing costs.

Making Montgomery County more hospitable for minority residents was a common theme among the candidates, several of whom stressed the need for County schools to ensure that its students are fluent English speakers when they graduate so they can obtain jobs. Ficker suggested that additional English classes be taught on Saturdays, while Berliner joined Krasnow and Elrich in stressing the need for prekindergarten and early childhood classes.

All the candidates agreed that County leaders must ensure that sufficient resources are directed toward the needs of the County’s minority population, with Elrich endorsing the hiring of more community organizers and a multicultural staff that is representative of the County’s increasingly diverse population. 

“It’s important to me to get out of that bubble,” Frick said. “You’ve got to be out there. You’ve got to walk the streets.”

Leventhal added that he would augment the County’s minority advisory committees to include representatives of the LGBT and Jewish communities as well as teachers and small-business owners.

Candidates also agreed on the need for local law enforcement to have good relationships with minorities in the County. While Krasnow praised Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger’s efforts to foster better community relations, she said there is still room for improvement. 

“We do need more training,” she said. Both Krasnow and Blair stressed the need for the police department to better reflect the County’s demographic makeup, and to collect more statistics on their use of traffic stops.

Ficker emphasized his experience as an attorney, which he said gave him insights into what can happen when police abuse their authority. 

“I know what brutality is,” Ficker said. We are not going to tolerate it in Montgomery County.”

Candidates found yet more common ground over the need to limit the extent to which County law enforcement cooperates with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, with all candidates specifically opposing the use of County detention centers to house immigration detainees awaiting deportation. 

“Our immigration population is the backbone of our community,” said businessman David Blair, while suggesting that the County should provide legal representation to residents facing federal immigration charges in the same way representation is provided to criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer of their own. “We’ve got to have universal representation,” he said. “I would fund that.”

Blair also said he supports issuing some manner of identification to County residents regardless of immigration status, which would allow them to access County libraries and other services.

Frick lamented that the Trump administration is willing to use federal resources to separate parents from their children but not to separate guns from people who shouldn’t have them, calling the situation “a sad state of affairs to me.”

Yet another area of universal agreement was the need to stimulate the County’s economy in some way, with Democrats suggesting such a stimulus can be accomplished with the help of microbusiness enterprises and mentoring programs. 

Elrich suggested that the surplus of empty retail space throughout the County would be put to better use if occupied by small commercial kitchens and other microeconomic enterprises. 

Berliner noted that “[Immigrant-owned] businesses are the fastest growing ones in the County,” but discrimination in lending means minorities often “can’t walk into Wells Fargo and get a loan.” If elected, he would remedy the problem by increasing funding to the County’s microloan program, he said. He also decried the County’s racial disparities in home ownership, declaring that “Montgomery County really is a tale of two counties,” and that the county “must confront” what he called “an east-west divide.”

While candidates touted the recent County Council vote to increase the county’s minimum wage, Ficker adopted a more populist tone by slamming the Council’s decision to phase in the increase over several years – a compromise to address concerns of the business community which caused Leggett to veto an earlier increase – as “gutless,” and said that it should have gone into effect immediately.

The Democrats often spoke of the need for increasing funding for County programs meant to help those in need. But in a rare moment of partisan disagreement, Ficker – who has sponsored a number of anti-tax ballot initiatives over the years, including the 2014 charter amendment to require unanimous votes for certain property tax hikes – vowed to oppose any funding increase that would necessitate higher taxes. 

“I am not going to increase taxes,” Ficker said. “Taxes don’t help.” 

He instead suggested that a better way to stimulate the economy would be to induce Amazon to choose Montgomery County as the location for its planned second headquarters complex, an honor for which 20 jurisdictions are currently competing.

@SuzannePollak

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