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: 68 (born Nov. 2, 1949, Washington, D.C.)
Home: Takoma Park; divorced, four children
Education: bachelor’s degree, University of Maryland, College Park, 1975; master’s degree (teaching), Johns Hopkins University, 1993
Professional background: teacher (Rolling Terrace Elementary School, Takoma Park, 1990-2006); retail store manager (Montgomery Ward, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op)
Political experience: member, Montgomery County Council, 2006-present; member, Takoma Park City Council, 1987-2006
What distinguishes you from the other Democratic contenders for county executive?
I think I probably have the broadest range of experience. I’ve done everything from worked in a small business to, oddly enough, a real estate development [in Howard County]. I was a school teacher in the county. I worked in local government as a [Takoma Park] council member. The legislation I’ve passed has probably been some of the most difficult to get through the County Council. I’m willing to take on hard issues, and I’m consistent: If you ask me a question, you’re going to get the same answer. You’re not going to discover that when you’re talking to somebody, that they’ll say, ‘Well, hey, he told me something different.” So I think I offer a kind of … trustworthiness that people really need.
You caused a controversy in this campaign with a remark about “ethnic cleansing” perceived as aimed at the light-rail Purple Line, with several of your opponents citing it to question whether you have the temperament to be county executive. Your perspective on this?
The ethnic cleansing thing was taken way out of context. When we were doing the Long Branch [Sector] Plan, we all knew the Purple Line was coming through. I thought the [Montgomery County] Planning Board did one of the most unconscionable things that I’ve ever seen a planning board do: It actually went to the property owners of the low-rise apartment buildings and basically wanted to incentivize them to tear down the buildings. I never said that the Purple Line would bring ethnic cleansing. It was what the Planning Board did with this rezoning plan [for the Long Branch area].
I asked at a council meeting, “Couldn’t we just once let the low-income people who live in a community that we’re revitalizing stay there after we revitalize it?” And I got no positive reception. So I [later] said to the planning director, “What you’re doing is ethnic cleansing. And ethnic cleansing doesn’t mean you kill people; it just means that you dislocate them.” Within a week, the planning board withdrew its proposal to rezone all that. So yeah, I upped the temperature a little bit. …When I said it the nicer way—“Shouldn’t these people be allowed to stay here?”—I got no support. … I have been really troubled by a planning department that has targeted large apartment complexes that are occupied by minorities for replacement, knowing that it would radically change the mix of people there and that we don’t have anywhere else for them to go.
Another criticism often aimed at you: Unlike your two County Council colleagues in this race, you were never chosen to be president or vice president of the council. That, along with your being on the losing end of a number of 8-1 votes, has caused some to question whether you have the collaborative skills to be county executive.
I never really pushed to be [council] president. The president doesn’t have any magical powers; the president has no veto power. The one time I was interested, I discovered there was an expectation that I would trade things … to be president. And I wasn’t willing to say, “I’ll do this for you,” in exchange for a vote. …Working with people and reaching compromises—I’m happy to do. Voting for something wrong—that’s not something I will do. More broadly, I’ve always been uncomfortable —particularly on the land use stuff —being expected to defend the council. I think we have made some fundamentally wrong and irresponsible land use decisions … . So I value my independence.
After the vote on the White Flint [Sector Plan], I raised concerns that it was not working out as planned. And the moment I said that on the dais, two of my colleagues said, “You voted for it.” So there’s a dilemma: If I vote for something that I still think has issues, I’m not allowed to raise the issues —because I voted for it. If I don’t vote for it, then it’s: “You vote against everything, Marc. You don’t support anything. Why should we give you anything?” It’s like forcing people to conform and be silent.
Over the next decade, what do you feel are the major challenges facing Montgomery County?
I absolutely think this county has to do something about the achievement gap and the poverty gap. We pretty much have the same achievement gap that we had when schools were integrated over 50 years ago. Part of it is because we have almost solely emphasized the schools and haven’t looked at the broader social context. If you don’t deal with poverty, there is no curriculum in the world that undoes the damage coming from a home destabilized by economic problems.
I think we have an obligation to try to redress some of that. Into that, I’d put early childhood education. When I was [younger] and put my kids in the day care program [at] Montgomery College, I did not have to make horrible economic choices, and I wasn’t being paid a whole lot of money. But the cost wasn’t simply just out of control. Today, people are routinely talking about $15,000 to $20,000 to put a kid in child care, and that’s just not a problem for working people; it’s a problem for middle class people.
What are the priority steps that must be taken to help pay for the needs you have described?
If you grow, it’s going to take care of some of that. We should grow jobs in lots of different sectors. I do support doing what we can do without giving away the store. We do incubators; our own study says our incubator programs are weak. I think they need to be more broadly focused—and not just on tech companies, but on craft-working and light industrial uses. But there is no way we’re growing faster than the needs are growing. It hasn’t happened anywhere, and there’s no reason to believe that it’s going to happen here, that you’re going to generate that much tax revenue.
I could give you 20 things in the social sphere that we ought to do. But the truth is we don’t have any money. We can’t even address the needs we have today. What I really believe we have to do is reshape the county government in a fundamental way. We’ve got to look at how we do business … . The employees who work in county government can tell you tales of things that they don’t feel are well done or efficient. And I don’t think we’ve gone to our employees and the unions and said, “Look, we’re both in this together. If I run out of money, you run out of salaries.” They’re as vested in this county becoming sustainable as we are.
I think I can bring the unions to the table. The one thing they’ve said is, “If we’re going to go through restructuring, we want everybody’s job on the line”—not this stuff where “I’ve got a budget crisis, I’m cutting 2 percent, and the easiest thing is to just lay off people.” That’s not restructuring; you’re just chopping whatever gets you to 2 percent. You’re not saying, “How can I run this better, how can I accomplish what I set out to do with fewer resources?”… I’m interested in engaging people in how do we go about making this place more efficient, so that I can pivot people and dollars to some of the stuff that we’re not able to do.
One barrier often cited in attracting new jobs and increasing the tax base is what many feel is an unfriendly business climate. How big a problem is this?
I had a meeting in Fairfax County with their planning agency. I said, “I wanted to come over and talk to you, because developers in Montgomery County tell us you’re nirvana and we’re hell—and I wanted to kind of understand what’s the difference between what we do and what you do.” And they looked at me and laughed. They said, “When [the developers] come over here, they tell us that Montgomery County’s heaven and we’re hell.” So I think we’re less unfriendly than the dialogue says. But there are things we do, in what’s required in permitting, in stuff in the building code, where some of the [complaints] to me seem legitimate.
I’ve had a conversation for years with the chambers of commerce, saying, “Set up a meeting with me. Let’s talk about what are the regulations you think are impediments.” The number of times they’ve come into my office? Zero. One of the things I would convene—since as county executive I’m sure they would then come to the table—is [an examination] of what things we require that maybe we don’t need to do.
Speaking of the chambers of commerce not coming to the table, there is a perception among some in the business community that you’re a philosophical socialist in a capitalist society. In fact, the Democratic Socialists of America have endorsed your candidacy. Do you regard yourself as a socialist?
I don’t know what it means. I always tell people: “You tell me what you mean, and I’ll tell you if that’s what I am.” I can say I’m a democratic socialist, and the emphasis is on socialist. You could just as easily say that I believe in a democratized economy, and what would you emphasize if I told you that? If you looked at the answer I gave to the Democratic Socialists of America, I actually think that you need a mixed economy—there’s no way the government should run everything—and I’m not sure the government needs to do more than regulate in most spheres. So I’m not into the state-managed and the state-directed economy.
The things that they associated with socialism in the 20s and 30s? Social Security. A 40-hour work week. Health care. We’ve adopted a whole bunch of things that were once considered socialist. I think the really big challenges for America going forward are dealing with wages, dealing with health care, dealing with the educational challenges and dealing with the legacy of racism. If that’s a socialist agenda, we’re in trouble: That ought to be everybody’s agenda.
There have been complaints that, as the county has grown, public infrastructure has not kept up with private development. Does more of the cost of that infrastructure need to be put on developers?
Hell yes. The [Montgomery County] Planning Board got a recommendation from its own staff that they should look at the Virginia system. Because in Virginia … if [a developer] wants new density, it’s “the street is this wide, the sidewalk is this wide, there’s a mid-block crossing —this is what you’re giving us in exchange for the density”… . The planning board rejected that.
We owe it to people to stop calling them NIMBYs when they’re worried about overcrowded schools and [traffic congestion]. One of my colleagues is fond of saying, “Well, you don’t want to be in the place that doesn’t have congestion. Nobody wants to be there.” That’s not an excuse for being irresponsible. I said, “You can have growth, and you can manage it.” If we’re not putting in the infrastructure, it’s not a sign of our success; it’s a sign of our mismanagement.
I think the planning board in its recommendations and the council in many of its votes are just flat out mismanaging. They have the ability to solve this problem. Some of the solutions are not even massively expensive. And time after time they refuse to do it… . I voted against the Bethesda [Downtown Plan] because we could have staged it. And we refused to stage it knowing it wouldn’t come in balance for 15 to 20 years.
Regarding overcrowded schools, County Executive Ike Leggett recently suggested altering school boundaries as a possible solution to capacity issues. Do you agree?
This is a really difficult issue, and it’s made difficult by the geography of Montgomery County. It would be easier if you had this nice clean line, with school systems of one type on one side of the line, and school systems of another type on the other side of the line, and you could just say “I’m going to balance.” But it’s not like that.
Some of our entrenched low-income schools are a long way away from schools that aren’t. And then, you’re not just talking about readjusting boundaries; you’re really talking about large busing programs across the county. I think if you can achieve [student redistribution] in a natural way, that would be the very best thing you could do. But it’s very hard to do, and I think that much busing is going to get resistance. While I do think you should look … to see whether boundary changes can help you, after you do the easy ones you’re still going to be stuck with this conundrum that, when you get east of Georgia Avenue, there aren’t two school districts next to each other where there’s an easy swap between boundaries.
You were part of a unanimous council vote in 2016 for a property tax increase that averaged about 9 percent. The county executive urged a smaller 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?
I don’t have any regrets. We have struggled to deal with issues in the schools. A large portion of the money is going to the schools, but not all of it. I felt that we have to bring back the libraries, to bring services back to a level that people expected of us. We’ve got the problem that we were never able to recover from the recession; in some parts of our budget we’re funding roughly where we were 12 years ago.
And what people don’t understand is that we were facing [requirements] where [bond underwriters] want you to have reserves at a certain level. We have put tens upon hundreds of millions of dollars into reserves that we weren’t doing before the recession. We could have done a gazillion things with that money if it weren’t sitting in reserve accounts for future retirement benefits—and that’s what people don’t understand. I think we communicated that really poorly. That has taken money away that would have solved all these problems without any tax increases.
As county executive, could you foresee yourself proposing a property tax increase above the charter limit of the rate of inflation, requiring another unanimous council vote?
I would seriously hope not. I feel that before you go talk about a tax increase, I would have to demonstrate to people that I’ve done everything I can do to lean out the county, to make sure we’re as efficient as possible, that I’ve taken people and been able to repurpose them, rather than just going to taxes first. I think the days of going to taxes first are over.
As the sponsor of the 2017 minimum wage increase, does the $15 per hour rate put the county at a competitive disadvantage?
Not for the kind of businesses we’re trying to attract. Businesses which are what we say we want—which pay decent wages—are not minimum wage businesses. Most businesses [in the county] pay more than minimum wage, so it doesn’t even affect most businesses. The businesses that don’t pay more aren’t really geographically flexible. If you’re a McDonald’s owner, I’m sorry, you’re not going to leave here and go to Virginia. None of your customers are driving across the river to go to McDonald’s.
My minimum wage push was as much about schools and school kids as it was about anything. My goal is to try to stabilize the lives of low-income people, so that [they don’t face] issues like “Where am I going to live next month?”, “Do I have to choose between food and medicine?” and “Am I going to leave my 4-year-old at home with my 8-year-old because I can’t afford child care?” All those things become problems for kids. I don’t think children should be dealing with adult problems.
Gov. Larry 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 of which you support and what are your transportation priorities?
I-270 is easy: Go ahead with reversible lanes. There is no need to run two lanes north to Frederick in the morning. And I don’t need two extra lanes going south in the evening. The Beltway is really problematic because … you can’t mess with Rock Creek Park. So unless they’re going to deck the Beltway, which I actually heard is one thought, I don’t see how you do it.
I’d like to build out bus rapid transit. This is critical, because people tell us transportation in the county is one of the major impediments to economic development. And you’re not going to solve it with roads; I think everyone agrees that you’re not building another road into Bethesda or Silver Spring or Wheaton or Rockville. If you’re not building roads, you’ve got to get a transportation system. I’ll say that if we land the Amazon deal, I will be 100 percent vindicated on this, because the means of getting people to Amazon is going to be a bus rapid transit route.
One perennial idea to relieve traffic has been to build a second Potomac River crossing in addition to the American Legion Bridge. Is this worth considering?
No. The American Legion Bridge is the No. 1 problem. We ought to fix it. There was talk you could get [additional] lanes across the bridge today, at least a lane across the bridge. And I think those are things we ought to seriously explore.
You’ve indicated you support the continuation of the county’s current public system of liquor control. Can you discuss your reasons, and whether you feel any changes are needed in that structure?
I think they’ve begun making the changes. [The county] hired two actual professionals—one to run the warehouse, one to run the system—which is what you’re supposed to be doing if you’re running a business … . [The current system yields] real dollars that come into the county government that would have to be replaced. And there is no replacement source. The governor is not going to take the equivalent of their tax and hand me $30 million. That’s not going to happen, because every other jurisdiction would then say, “Well, we want our share of the liquor tax.” And when you’re done, the state has no liquor tax. So I think that [proposal] is—stupid is not too strong a word. You can’t just make up solutions to a problem.
And then I get this argument that you’re going to get rid of the monopoly from people who know the whole state system is a monopoly. There are something like seven or eight major distributors. They sell at the same price in every jurisdiction in the state, they do not carry the same lines or compete against each other, so you have no less of a monopoly if the county is gone. So people have been fed this line that you’re going to get competition, you’re going to get lower prices. It’s bogus.
During the 2016 campaign, you contributed funds to an unsuccessful effort to defeat the referendum imposing a three-term limit on county elected officials. If elected county executive, could you see yourself seeking to reopen this issue at some point?
I wouldn’t do it myself. I’d do it if there was wide support for it. [Term limits are] a philosophical bridge too far for me. That’s why you have elections. If you don’t like people, don’t vote for them. And I thought if they could mobilize people at the scale they did—supposedly to vote for term limits—they could have just as easily gotten rid of the people they don’t like … . So I’d prefer more democracy and more debate rather than just forcing people to leave after 12 years. If it had been five terms, I might not have objected to it. That’s 20 years; it’s like a generation—and then it passes. That’s less of an issue to me.
I do think public financing kind of addresses some of this, because it’s hard to break somebody if you have a system where you can get unlimited amounts of money from one particular industry—and then drown out everybody else. But if you have a system where you have public funding and candidates can become viable, it’s more likely that incumbents can be challenged. If you can show you’re getting a modicum of support in the community, you can get enough money to challenge incumbents and run real races.
You’re one of three candidates in the Democratic primary who has chosen to use the county’s new system of public campaign finance system. What’s your response to one of your rivals for the nomination who has questioned spending $11 million for public funding of campaigns at a time when a revenue shortfall recently prompted more than $50 million in cuts.
I don’t think it’s going to get to $11 million; people are struggling to qualify. And I think democracy is worth the price. Having this county controlled by large contributors from one industry is wrong—and there’s no way to break the power of that industry without having the ability of people to raise money and campaign.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to add the inadvertently omitted question concerning a second Potomac River crossing.