HYATTSVILLE – Congressional candidates took their case to the people at a Democratic debate in Hyattsville last week.

Five of the six Democratic contenders for the open 4th District House of Representatives seat participated in the debate held April 7 in the Hyattsville municipal building. The only female candidate in the race, Joseline Peña-Melnyk, canceled due to a schedule conflict, but Anthony Brown, Warren Christopher, Matthew Fogg, Glenn Ivey and Terence Strait all answered questions about national issues tailored to Prince George’s County concerns.

Hyattsville City Councilman Joseph Solomon, The Sentinel’s Assistant Editor Candace Rojo Keyes and Maria James, Managing Editor of the Hyattsville Life & Times moderated the debate. Their organizations did not sponsor the event.

After the debate, the candidates mingled with voters at a meet-and-greet. The event allowed residents to get their individual questions answered to help them in making their choice.

“I wanted to get a better idea of who these candidates were because I haven’t made up my mind yet,” said Hyattsville resident David Perry, husband of city Councilwoman Paula Perry. “They’re all Democrats, and they’re all pretty strong Democrats, so I kind of heard what I expected in a sense.”

Ever-popular Democratic base issues like raising the minimum wage (which Brown supports), protecting the environment (which Strait advocates), creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (which Christopher believes in), criminal justice reform (which Fogg champions) and gun control efforts (which Ivey described) were addressed throughout the evening.

Questions were also tailored to Prince George’s County specifically. One segment of the debate focused on the candidates’ opinions on the county council’s proposed restrictions on the location of medical marijuana dispensaries.

None of the candidates agreed with the bill, saying it was too limiting. In fact, they advocated for full legalization of the substance.

“I don’t agree with that. I think they are very unfair,” Christopher said. “We know based on what we’ve seen around the country that there haven’t been any real detrimental health effects (from marijuana). I believe we should not put certain prohibitions on the use of marijuana as opposed to the use of alcohol.”

Strait also pointed out the disparity between how marijuana is treated and how alcohol is treated.

“I’m in favor of full legalization. From everything I’ve seen, marijuana is a less harmful drug than alcohol and tobacco. There’s no legitimate reason for it to remain criminalized,” he said.

Brown said many strains of marijuana are being developed to treat specific conditions and the government should largely leave the decisions to doctors.

“Let the physicians, the health providers, work with their patients to decide what the condition is and what is the prescription and let it be regulated that way. If you have these limits (from the bill), you won’t have it in Hyattsville, you won’t have it a lot of places,” he said.

Resident James Boarblby, who attended the debate to learn more about the candidates, said he was impressed by their views on veterans’ issues.

“In particular, I was happy to hear what was said in reference to veterans and veteran’s affairs, the Veteran’s Administration (VA). We need to recognize the job they have done when they went in the service of our country,” he said.

Ivey said he supports President Barack Obama’s efforts to reform the VA, and that while allowing veterans to use private healthcare might be a practical stop-gap measure, he was not in favor of privatizing the VA completely.

“I don’t want to see the treatment for veterans entirely privatized. I think we want to strengthen the VA, better fund the VA, build it up,” he said.

Brown added he would work toward getting another veterans’ retirement home built in Maryland.

Another resident, Gerhard Meinzer, said he appreciated the tone throughout the night, with no candidate attacking another.

“There was no slamming against each other, no fighting. That was the nicest thing,” he said. “I don’t know which one to choose, but I’m glad I came.”

That does not mean the candidates agreed on every issue. The topic of how to handle sexual assault in the military garnered a range of responses.

Brown, a former Army officer, said he supports taking such cases out of military hands to try in civilian courts, saying the military is smaller and more integrated with the civilian world now.

“I would take all non-military offenses away from the commander, with the exception if it occurs in (a combat) theater. The only offenses I would leave other than that are military offenses- dereliction of duty, treason and things like that,” he said.

Fogg agreed, and said when he was a U.S. Marshall, he saw how officers worked to shield each other from lawsuits.

“There are too many connections, too many friends and buddies. It’s the same way with law enforcement. We’re going to look out for each other, we’re going to protect each other,” he said.

Christopher, also an Army officer, disagreed, and believes undermining a commanding officer’s authority over his soldiers would hurt the unit.

“We have to be very careful when we talk about taking authorities away from combatant commanders or ground commanders. When you begin to do that, then what is going to erode is the discipline and the good of the service of that unit that is responsible for fighting and winning wars,” he said.

He added he would like all military commanders to take a hard line against sexual assault and hold perpetrators accountable.

Strait questioned the effect on discipline of the current climate, where female soldiers are victimized.

“I would just counter that by saying it really damages discipline when women in the military think their commanders aren’t going to look out for them when they’re sexually abused. It damages discipline when men think they can get away with these abuses,” he said.

Ivey took a middle ground, saying the military tribunals could retain jurisdiction but adopt some of the practices of civilian courts.

“Sometimes military prosecutors will decide to move forward with a sexual assault charge. It can be overridden by the superior officer. That needs to be eliminated,” he said.

Both candidates and the public thought the debate was a success.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Perry said. “I was impressed with everyone and I appreciate the fact all of them are willing to run. I appreciate how difficult it is to run for office and it’s quite something to be willing to do that.”

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