Seven of the eight candidates for the Democratic nomination for Congress in District 6 gathered at Gaithersburg High School Thursday night in a forum that produced no sharp clashes over policy—but which featured several digs at one of the front-running contenders, Potomac businessman David Trone, by his rivals.
Trone sought to claim the mantel of the centrist Democrat whom he is running to succeed, Rep. John Delaney of Potomac—invoking Delaney’s name on five occasions throughout the 90-minute forum. Both men are self-made millionaires who entered politics after starting highly successful enterprises; Trone is co-owner of Total Wine & More, a nationwide retailer of alcoholic beverages.
Meanwhile, the two candidates widely seen as Trone’s leading opponents in the June 26 primary—state Sen. Roger Manno of Silver Spring and Del. Aruna Miller of Darnestown—sought to highlight their progressive credentials. Both advocated moving toward a single payer health insurance system—being pushed by many on the left wing of the Democratic Party—in which the government would provide health insurance for all.
Delaney, who has not made an endorsement in the contest, is leaving the seat after three terms to pursue a longshot bid for the 2020 presidential nomination. The 6th District extends from Potomac and Gaithersburg 200 miles west to the edge of the Maryland Panhandle; about half the district’s voters are Montgomery County residents.
Trone—who has spent nearly $5.3 million of his own money on this year’s contest, after a record $13.4 million in self-funding in pursuing the congressional seat in neighboring District 8 two years ago—was dinged repeatedly by another contender, Andrew Duck, the District 6 nominee in 2006 and 2010, on campaign spending. “I do not believe that someone should have a $15 million megaphone to drown out somebody who has worked his entire life defending this country,” declared Duck, who spent two decades in the U.S. Army.
But the sharpest exchange of the night—between Trone and Miller—came early in the debate, when an audience questioner pointed to the fact that Trone actually resides in District 8 rather than the district in which he is now running.
Trone responded by noting that both Delaney and the likely Republican nominee this fall, Potomac-based national security consultant Amie Hoeber, are also 8th District residents; the U.S. Constitution requires a member of Congress to be a resident of the state he or she is representing, not the specific district.
“If I lived on the north side of River Road, I’d be in the district. I’m on the south side of River Road, as is John and as is the presumptive Republican nominee,” Trone noted. He proceeded to launch into an attack on gerrymandering, even though the 6th District—now the subject of a legal challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court—was redrawn by the Maryland General Assembly in 2011 to facilitate the election of a Democrat.
“People in Annapolis have gerrymandered this so that the politicians have picked their voters—not the voters picking the politicians,” Trone complained. “And that’s what’s led the polarization all through America. We Democrats have been absolutely guilty. The Republicans are absolutely guilty. Together, we’ve got to end the gerrymandering and move America back to the middle—because only in the middle are we really going to be able to…get things done, and move forward.”
Miller shot back: “I’m the only candidate who not only lives in the district, but who currently represents a portion of the 6th District. I think it’s important to have a representative who knows what it’s like to live in the district. My husband and I have lived here for 28 years; this is where our kids went to school.”
She continued: “Now Mr. Trone just said that it’s because of redistricting that he’s not in the district. Well, if I recall, he just ran in 2016 in the 8th District that he lives in. And so, now he’s coming over to this district that he doesn’t live in. Which is it? If you believe in that, you should be running in the district that you live in. If you don’t believe in it, then by all means, run in every district that you want to.”
Asked for a response by debate moderator Paul Bessel, Trone replied: “The only response to that really is that we’re going to always take the high road. We’re going to always talk about policy over politics. And I know the 6th District is going to vote for the best person, not a Zip code.”
But, in a debate format in which the candidates were allowed to either answer or ignore questions posed by the audience, it was difficult to discern major policy differences among them.
Neither Trone nor Miller responded to a question regarding the legalization of marijuana, while two other contenders—former aerospace executive Christopher Hearsey of Gaithersburg and pediatrician Nadia Hashimi of Potomac—spoke up to advocate legalization, at least for medicinal purposes.
Hearsey was one of two candidates to note that he had lost a relative to opioid addiction; Trone earlier had cited the death of a nephew last year as a result of opioids, while saying that dealing with opioid addiction would be his first priority if elected to Congress.
Said Hearsey: “My father unfortunately overdosed on opioids when I was very young. If my father had had access to [marijuana], as someone who was a police officer, I think he would have been a little bit better off dealing with the level of pain he had to deal with from injuries [sustained while] working.”
Hashimi spoke of prescribing marijuana “to a young girl who was dying and in severe pain that [could] not be addressed by standard practices,” adding: “I can tell you there is a use for it. It is a tool that can be used to treat pain.”
Hashimi sought to highlight her background as a physician and concern about access to health care throughout the debate. “We don’t have a single woman physician in Congress right now,” said Hashimi, noting she is the daughter of Afghan-American immigrants. “That’s the reason I’ve stood up.”
Miller, a transportation engineer by profession, also pointed to her immigrant status. “I came to this country when I was seven years old, and when I came, I didn’t know a word of English,” she recalled. “It was the public school teachers that taught me English, and gave me a dream.”
Describing herself as a “progressive Democrat,” she also cited health care as her major concern in seeking to move to Congress—while also noting the absence of any women in Maryland’s current 10-member congressional delegation. “We need to move toward making sure that health care is the 21st century’s social compact. This is an ethical issue, this is an economic issue—and I believe we should be moving towards single payer,” she said.
Manno, who arrived about one-third of the way into the forum due to another commitment, also tapped health care as his top priority. “Growing up, we had it kind of hard. I wanted to fix health care—that was the issue that took my dad from me at a very young age,” he said, emphasizing his 12 years in the General Assembly and prior service as a congressional aide.
He added: “We [Democrats] need 23 seats to take back the House of Representatives. What I’m concerned about is those 23 individuals, and the incoming caucus in general, reflects the values of hard-working people and supports the progressive platform, beginning with universal single payer health care.”
Trone, who has not held public office, sought to position himself as a political outsider. “We need a disrupter in Washington,” he declared. “Who here thinks Congress is working now? I don’t think anybody believes that fairy tale. We need folks who like change, who like new ideas.
“We need to shake up Washington. I can definitely make that happen.”
On several occasions, Duck criticized Trone for funneling his personal fortune into an effort to reach Capitol Hill. “I believe our political system today is broken,” Duck declared. “If you’re tired of millionaires who are trying to buy a seat…I’m going to offer you a better choice.”
Trone waited until his closing statement to respond, once again citing Delaney. “We talk a lot about money in politics,” he said. “I just want to read a quick quote that John Delaney, my friend, said. This is his tweet that went out the other day: ‘The problem with money in politics is not the candidates who invest in their own campaign in a transparent manner, like I have or [former New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg or David Trone has. The problem is dark money, the super PACs, the donors whose agendas are hidden.”
Also participating in Thursday’s forum was George English of Kensington, a retired economist who has made several past runs for U.S. Senate and Congress. He cited income inequality as his key issue. “Until we solve the problem of inequality, we’re not going to solve the problems of the country,” he contended.
The remaining candidate in the Democratic primary, solar electric firm owner Chris Graves of Montgomery Village, did not participate in the forum—withdrawing from it in an email to sponsors two days prior to the event without explanation. The forum was sponsored by 10 Democratic clubs from around Montgomery County.
Meanwhile, Manno—who said during the debate that he was “extremely honored” to have been endorsed by two Annapolis colleagues, Dels. Cheryl Glenn and Carlos Sanchez, who chair the Legislative Black Caucus and the Legislative Latino Caucus, respectively—was passed over earlier Thursday by one of his Montgomery County Senate colleagues.
Sen. Nancy King of Montgomery Village, who chairs the county’s state Senate delegation, threw her support behind Trone in the race for the District 6 Democratic nomination.
“David has shown his commitment to education by making it a central theme of his campaign,” King said in a statement from the Trone campaign. “He has released a comprehensive policy paper and recently held an event with former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley on improving education outcomes. I know David will be a strong advocate for the next generation in Congress.”
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