Editor’s Note: Bethesda Magazine writer Louis Peck sat down with the six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive to discuss the issues and their visions for the county for the magazine’s May/June issue. This week, Bethesda Beat is running an extended version of each candidate’s Q&A interview, in alphabetical order of the candidates’ names. For more information on the candidates, check out our 2018 Primary Voters’ Guide.
Tuesday: Roger Berliner
Wednesday: David Blair
Thursday: Marc Elrich
Friday: Bill Frick
Monday: Rose Krasnow
Tuesday: George Leventhal
Age: 48 (born Aug. 20, 1969, Silver Spring)
Home: Potomac; married, six children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Clemson University, 1991
Professional background: health care industry (executive chairman, Accountable Health Inc., 2013-2017; CEO, Catalyst Health Solutions Inc., 1999-2012), minority partner, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, parent company of Washington Capitals and Wizards (2013-present), co-owner, Badlands Playspace (2017-present)
Political experience: none
You’re the one candidate in the Democratic primary field who has not previously held elected office. What else do you feel distinguishes you from the other contenders?
I have spent my entire professional life as an executive running a billion-dollar corporation. I have developed unique skills around creating jobs, [exercising] fiduciary responsibility when we have someone else’s money, accurately forecasting revenues, adhering to a budget, stamping out redundancies [and] looking at … how we get more done with less. I ran a company that touched millions of lives, and so you focus on things like first-class customer service.
As a business leader, you’re always coming up with big ideas, you’re challenging the status quo, you’re pulling together groups in a collaborative manner. And then you’re executing—getting things done. I think that’s what this county needs.
After a career in business, what prompted you to decide to seek elected office? And how steep a learning curve do you feel you would face moving from the private to the public sector?
I live here. And I don’t need a job—I need good schools, I need roads that aren’t gridlocked. And so I don’t want to leave, and neither am I going to sit home and complain. I believe I’m qualified, I have some big ideas of where this county ought to be, and I think I can lead us there. I am a lifelong Montgomery County resident; I certainly have a keen understanding of the county.
I think it’s easier for an executive to transition into government than a legislator into an executive role. Part of being an executive is setting big goals, and then leading a group of individuals to achieve those. …You are surrounded by the best and the brightest in their respective fields, and we have many of them right here in Montgomery County. So, while I haven’t held an elected office position, I have been an executive, and I know what it takes to recruit the best and the brightest to lead. I think as a leader, you quickly recognize that you’re not the smartest guy in the room and you can’t be—and you need to surround yourself with those individuals.
Over the next decade, what do you feel are major challenges facing Montgomery County?
I think the biggest priority is creating jobs, because we need to expand the revenue base. Over the past year and a half, as I’ve met with government officials and community leaders, there’s one thing that’s consistent—and that is everyone needs more resources. And I believe that in Montgomery County we should have the best schools and the best social services. But to do that requires money, and continually raising the property tax and other taxes is not sustainable. If we want to be the best county, we need to pay for that … and [we] can get that through a growing economy.
What specifically do you think must be done to expand the tax base and create jobs?
I have a vision that we can be the startup capital of the East Coast. We have the best schools, we have a talented workforce. We have access to some of the best research and development in the country—in the world for that matter—as well as the federal government. I want to set a culture of innovation that starts at the top. So I think about things like reprioritizing our marketing expense. Right now, we spend less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our annual budget on economic development. That’s got to change. Today, it’s about $5 million, and I think it needs to be at least $15 million. As a CEO, when I was around the country, other Fortune 500 CEOs didn’t know what a great place Montgomery County was.
[With regard to] procurement—right now, the county is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on significant projects. I think we need to do a better job steering that money back into our local economy, so that we are doing everything we can to make sure that the home team wins. Incubators are a great way to spur new business. We’re not doing enough of that. I would have silos of incubators around things like hospitality, cybersecurity, health care technology, health care services, green industries as well as expanding what we do in the biohealth side.
Several candidates in this race have cited complaints that the county is not business-friendly. As someone who has done business here, what’s your perspective?
That’s one of the reasons I’m running. Having run a business here for close to 20 years … not once did someone knock on my door—from the city of Rockville or from the county or from the state. At first, I thought that’s just how business was, because I was [already] here. But then, as we opened offices in 30 other states, I realized that was not the norm. The other states and jurisdictions took a much different approach to economic development.
While it’s getting better, it is still not a business-friendly environment. When we opened up Badlands Playspace in Rockville, we were told by one inspector: “The lighting looks great. We’ll sign off on it next week. You’re ready to go.” And then the next week, an inspector came in and said: “That wiring will never work, you’ll need to redo that.” We were fortunate that we could afford to get the lighting redone. But it’s just a crime to think there are many folks out there who are maxing out their credit cards and borrowing money from family and friends, [and when] they’re about to open up their small business, they’re told: “The inspector missed it.” To me, what business-friendly means is that if the inspector misses it, we’re going to pay for it—we being the county.
There have been frequent complaints that, as the county has grown, public infrastructure has not kept up with private development. What would you do to address this problem?
One of my biggest frustrations with the county is we develop these master plans that include everything from schools to roadways to mass transit. And then we only implement a portion—10 to 15 percent of that plan gets implemented. And then we’re surprised when the residential units go up, and all of a sudden there’s bad traffic, or when the schools are overcrowded.
So for projects like M-83 [an extension of the Midcounty Highway envisioned to run between Clarksburg and Derwood], where the developments were built based on the expectation that those roads were going to be put in place—either we need to build those roads, or we need to find a viable alternative for those residents. But we can’t leave them hanging out there. The residents who have built those homes have counted on that infrastructure.
One of the things I would propose is that not only do we need master plans, we need an implementation plan—so that we’re building the infrastructure while the developers are building residential units. The pace of the development needs to be thoughtful, so that one doesn’t outpace the other. I think we often find ourselves behind the eight-ball where parts of the plan have been implemented that create a strain on our infrastructure. So we need to start investing more in the infrastructure first before approving more developments.
County Executive Ike Leggett recently suggested altering school boundaries as a way of dealing with capacity issues in crowded districts. Do you agree with this approach?
I think we have to look at all options, for sure. The tradeoff obviously is that many residents have moved into specific communities for those specific schools, and so we have to be thoughtful about that. But we haven’t been able to fully fund the school budget, we haven’t been able to satisfy their requests for numerous years—and so one way, perhaps, to provide the school system more money would be taking a hard look at school boundaries.
Had you been on the County Council in 2016, would you have been part of the unanimous majority that voted to raise property taxes by an average of almost 9 percent?
No. In the position the [council] found themselves in, I think what would have been appropriate would have been to follow [County Executive Ike] Leggett’s recommendation, which I think was roughly a 6.2 percent increase. The council put themselves in a very difficult position, because for 15 years we haven’t created jobs: We created 3,900 private sector jobs while the population has grown by 150,000. It’s roughly one job for every 38 residents. What that has done is to put a tremendous strain on everything—our roadways, the schools, the tax base.
So, if elected county executive, you would not foresee yourself asking the council to increase property tax revenues by more than the charter rate of inflation—a move that would require another unanimous council vote?
No, I would not propose that.
You have indicated that you would not have supported the recordation tax increase approved by the council in 2016 to fund the school system’s capital budget. Would you seek to roll back this hike?
My first approach would have been to find those monies elsewhere—to look at the $5.5 billion budget and our … other areas of spending. Would I look to repeal it? Yes, [after identifying revenues to replace it.]
After vetoing an earlier version, Leggett last year signed a bill to make the county the only one in Maryland with a $15 per hour minimum wage. Would you have signed that legislation?
My strong preference would have been to see this measure at a more regional level. You can drive 20 minutes in any direction and be outside our county, and the concern about losing jobs is a real one. And [raising the minimum wage is] at best a partial solution several years down the road. By any study that you see … the cost of living here is significantly higher than $15. In fact, someone would have to work 100 hours a week at $15 an hour to make ends meet. Right now, there are something like 40,000 jobs available in Montgomery County. I would like to invest in programs that train those individuals to fill those jobs. The plan that I am proposing is not how do we get folks to $15 an hour, but how do we get them to $30, $40, $50 an hour—so they can live and work in Montgomery County.
Are you supportive of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen I-270 and I-495 and include toll lanes? What are your transportation priorities?
I divide [transportation] up into short-term solutions and long-term solutions. What can we do right now for our residents? First, fix Metro. Second, we’ve done a nice job with the east-to-west traffic—the Intercounty Connector and the Purple Line—and we’ve got to start thinking about the north-south. With regard to the governor’s specific plan, it’s easy to be critical, but at least he’s put forth a plan for us to consider. I think we have to have reversible lanes on I-270.
I would make the Ride On buses free. Right now, we’re subsidizing [fares] at about 80 percent. If you look at the utilization of our Ride Ons, you see six people, 10 people in a bus that costs over $500,000. So, we need to fill up the buses, which would get cars off the road and make this county more livable. But if we make it free and people still aren’t going to use the buses, we need to rethink our transportation plan, because there are 12- to15-passenger vehicles that cost $70,000 that we could be utilizing.
I like the idea of bus rapid transit, but it requires a dedicated lane. I would like to see us make some traction on getting folks out of their cars and onto the buses before we started building new roadways. Transportation is changing rapidly with driverless vehicles, and I would caution us from spending billions of dollars on new roadways while these new technologies are being adopted.
One perennial idea to relieve traffic has been a second Potomac River crossing in addition to the American Legion Bridge. Is this worth considering?
We don’t need a second crossing into Virginia. We need to start creating jobs in Montgomery County. I mean, 200,000 people are getting in their cars every morning and leaving this county. We’ve got to stem that tide.
My joke is, “Should we make I-270 24 lanes wide—and put three bridges in so that everybody can get from Montgomery County to Virginia in 15 minutes?” Is that what we’re trying to do? I think alternately, if we’re going to relieve traffic congestion, we’ve got to start creating jobs upcounty.
In addition to improving its attitude toward business, do you feel the county has become overly regulatory in terms of rank-and-file citizens?
Yes. In many instances we’ve overstepped, and the law of unintended consequences has played out. I think the bag tax is a good example. We haven’t seen the actual usage of bags decline; the revenue from the tax has been pretty consistent for the last three years. The other unintended consequence is the administrative burden on small businesses. If you’re a grocery store, you get into the routine of issuing these bags. But if you’re running a beauty parlor, and maybe you’re only issuing three or four bags a day, you’ve got to track that and pay it. So you might be spending more money on the [postage] stamp than on the actual tax.
It hasn’t had the desired impact we were hoping it would. I would propose that we ban plastic bags. I have been to our up-county incinerator in Dickerson: 18 percent of what we were burning up there was plastics that could be recycled. As a county, there’s a level of pride that we’re the best and the most environmentally conscious. But yet, there are some things we are not leading the country on, and we need to step it up.
Speaking of regulation, Montgomery County is virtually alone nationwide in its public system for the sale and distribution of liquor. Should this be changed?
I think there are bigger priorities in the county right now. It’s pretty clear that if we had a blank slate, this is not how we would draw it up. [But] we find ourselves in a difficult spot because we have these laws that date back almost 100 years … and we’ve securitized the revenues. We’ve used that money to pay for [infrastructure projects] and we’ve also hired county workers. We have almost 300 county workers who are working there [at the Department of Liquor Control].
At my company [Catalyst Health Solutions], one of the commitments we made early on is that we weren’t going to lay people off. Because early in my career, I was at a company that had acquired another company, and there were redundancies. It was my job to lay off a half-dozen folks. Those were workers who had done an outstanding job; they presumably had mortgages, car payments, kids. When I think about the position we’re in in the liquor business, we have 300 individuals with families who are counting on that. So with the solution we come up with, that’s probably the most important thing: What are we going to do with those 300 individuals, and how are we going to make sure they have secure jobs going forward? And then we need to think about how we could replace those revenues.
In 2016, voters imposed term limits on the executive and County Council by more than a 2-1 margin. Was this a good idea, and did you vote for it?
I did. I’m in favor of term limits. There’s such an advantage to being an incumbent. The benefits [of term limits] are new perspectives, new visions and diversity. At my company, when we had new people coming in from different sectors, they had new ideas and brought a new way of thinking that moved us forward. And if one department kept the same group of people for 10 to 15 years, they all patted each other on the back and they said, “We’re doing a great job,” and they weren’t pushing themselves—versus somebody coming in from the outside, bringing new ideas.
You’re among three candidates in the county executive race who have opted not to utilize the county’s new public campaign finance system. Philosophically, is the latter a good idea—and does a candidate such as yourself, who has the ability to self-fund, have an advantage over candidates using public financing?
I do think [public financing] is a good idea. I love the idea that we can have so many candidates running. Look at [the primary for] council at-large seats; we have 30 candidates. I think that’s great. The more people we have running, the better ideas we’ll have. When I’m at a forum or a debate, and I hear one of our other candidates, I’m like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that.” And I imagine that I may say something, and another candidate might say, “Ah, I hadn’t thought of that either.” So ultimately, public financing has given us a bigger field of talent, and I think whoever ultimately is elected will benefit from this.
My preference would have been to put it to the voters to decide whether they wanted to fund it. It seems like this is a voter question [rather than one for] the council. But philosophically, I think it’s appropriate. I think public financing levels the playing field. Right here in our own community, we’ve seen you can’t buy an election by spending a ton of money—that the voters will ultimately decide based on the message and the vision the candidate is putting forward.
You’re presumably referring to David Trone and his $13.4 million self-funded bid for Congress in 2016. This year, word in political circles is that you’re prepared to spend upward of $4 million from your own pocket in the county executive race.
We don’t have a precise budget. I think it will be a good balance between my wife and I contributing and collecting money from the community. Right now, we have a grassroots effort to get out there and knock on as many doors, go to as many town halls and be at as many Metro stops as we possibly can. And obviously, we’ll supplement that with some television and some mailings … . I think television and mail play a much smaller role than perhaps in a congressional race.
I do not want to buy anybody’s vote. I want to earn votes one at a time. This is a local election, and, to me, a local election is about getting into the communities and the groups—and earning their votes.