For the second time in less than a week, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates in one of Montgomery County’s eight legislative districts expressed divided opinions over the future of the county’s public liquor control system —a matter over which the Maryland General Assembly has the ultimate say.
The latest comments, coming late Tuesday during a delegate forum for Gaithersburg/Rockville-based District 17, echoed the split sentiments voiced a week earlier by state legislative candidates in District 18 —just to the south in the Chevy Chase/Kensington/Wheaton area.
The two incumbent delegates seeking re-election in District 17, Kumar Barve and Jim Gilchrist, both of Rockville, voiced support for the current system. But they said they were open to changes to improve it —particularly with regard to special orders for liquor and other needs of the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“The county has a liquor monopoly right now, and it’s been with us for a long time. My position is that it is good for the health of the county—studies show when liquor is controlled, there is less alcoholism, less drunk driving,” Gilchrist told the forum, held at the public library in downtown Rockville. At the same time, he acknowledged, “There’s a lot of room for movement with how restaurants get beer and wine and alcohol.”
However, two of the other candidates competing in the June 26 primary—Montgomery County Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski and physician Esam Al-Shareffi, both of Gaithersburg—said they support doing away with the county’s current monopoly on the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. They did say it needs to be done gradually, to lessen the impact on both county revenues and existing jobs at the Department of Liquor Control (DLC).
“I was very supportive of trying to make changes at the county level originally,” said Smondrowski. “[But] I haven’t seen—and the restaurants and business owners I’ve spoken to have not felt that they have seen—the changes needed to be made.”
While saying that she has concerns about the loss of more than $30 million in net annual revenue that the county now receives, Smondrowski added, “I also believe that bringing in new jobs and increasing sales from small business owners could help make up a lot of that.” Al-Shareffi noted that “we need to compete with other jurisdictions, D.C. and northern Virginia, for instance, who don’t have as restrictive a [system].”
Barve and Gilchrist are both seeking re-election with the support of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, the union that represents about 350 DLC employees—and which has long opposed privatizing the current liquor system. Attorney Julian Haffner of Gaithersburg, who also has MCGEO’s endorsement, joined the incumbents in urging that the present control regimen be reformed rather than done away with.
“Generally, I’m not in favor of monopolies,” said Haffner, who until recently was treasurer of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. “But it is the game we’ve been given.” Pointing to the loss of the $30 million in net revenues, Haffner said, “…Rather than getting rid of it or phasing it out gradually, what I would propose is greater efficiency—because right now the main complaint we hear from business owners around the county is that it’s an inefficient system, and people can’t get what they want when they need it.
“So I would say don’t scrap it unless we can come up with a way to fill up that $30 million shortfall, unless we have exhausted all possibilities of building in greater efficiencies.”
Meanwhile, Rockville City Council member Julie Palakovich Carr—running on a candidate slate with Barve and Gilchrist —echoed the sentiments of her slate mates.
“As has been pointed out, there are still some opportunities for improving things for the concerns that restaurants and business owners have in terms of selection,” she said. “I think we really need to exhaust all of those options before we take more drastic measures.”
On other issues, both statewide and closer to home, there was little daylight among the six Democrats competing for three available nominations for delegate in the primary. The non-incumbents—Al-Shareffi, Palakovich Carr, Haffner and Smondrowski —are taking aim at the open seat of Del. Andrew Platt of Gaithersburg, who is retiring after one term in Annapolis.
The six expressed strong reservations, if not outright opposition, to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen I-270 and add toll lanes —with several suggesting instead incorporating reversible lanes into the current roadway and increasing mass transit options.
The sharpest criticism came from Barve, a legislative veteran who chairs the House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee.
“The governor’s proposal is an election year stunt. He has no idea about how to implement it,” Barve charged. “The governor didn’t talk to any local planners in the process of doing this—he simply did a press conference and made everybody happy with the fact he knew we have a traffic problem.”
Barve—who, if re-elected in November, would become the senior member of Montgomery County’s 32-member state legislative delegation—expressed strong opposition to portions of Hogan’s plan that include the state taking over the Baltimore Washington Parkway from the federal government and widening the Capital Beltway. “Expanding the Beltway is literally a physical impossibility. You only need to drive past Holy Cross Hospital to know that,” he said.
While calling for “reversible toll lanes on I-270 to ease traffic flow” within the current footprint of the highway, Barve also said he was “not necessarily opposed to expanding the number of lanes between Gaithersburg and the city of Frederick as long as we have a [bus rapid transit] or transit complement to it.”
Both Haffner and Smondrowski advocated an increased emphasis on telecommuting to ease traffic in the I-270 corridor. “This is something that I think millennials are starting to adopt more and more,” Haffner said. Haffner also called for construction of the long-proposed Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus rapid transit line running from the Shady Grove Metro station to the Metropolitan Grove commuter rail station, as a way to get cars off of I-270.
“I am against the governor’s plan to widen I-270, largely because it has never been proven that we can pave our way out of any traffic problem: The more lanes we add, the more traffic comes,” he said. “Add to that the fact that I can’t see how we widen 270 without impacting severely several hundred businesses and residents.”
Palakovich Carr, saying that “it’s been pretty disappointing how few details the state has released to date,” noted the Rockville City Council recently sent a letter to the state expressing the council’s unanimous opposition to the physical widening of the footprint of I-270, “because of the impact to many homes and businesses in Rockville—it’s the same case in Gaithersburg and other parts of Montgomery County as well.”
Al-Shareffi separated himself a bit from the other candidates, indicating he is “not completely opposed to a plan like Governor Hogan’s. I think it’s not enough just to invest in Metro and do the bus rapid transit—I think there is also a roads solution that needs to be put in place.” However, he added, “I agree that the governor’s plan was not well thought out, and I don’t know what it is I would be voting on if I were elected.”
Asked by one questioner if they would “be willing to be extremely active in opposing Amazon coming in and disrupting our county,” all six candidates responded by expressing support for having Amazon’s second headquarters—and its 40,000 estimated jobs—come here. Barve and Gilchrist noted they had both voted for legislation to provide an estimated $5.5 billion in tax breaks to Amazon—a bill that was supported nearly unanimously by the county’s legislative delegation.
Haffner said he would like to have seen some “clawbacks” incorporated into that legislation “so that if Amazon promised a certain number of jobs or certain kind of community amenity and they [didn’t] provide it, the money that we provided comes back to us—perhaps with interest. It keeps them honest.”
But he added: “Jobs, jobs, jobs, that is kind of the buzzword surrounding this election. I believe that Amazon is the economic development opportunity of a lifetime. For Montgomery County to opt out or the state of Maryland to opt out and say we’re not going to compete, I think would be akin to political malpractice.”
Several other candidates, while also expressing support for the second Amazon headquarters coming to the county, did voice concerns about some of the local impacts.
Said Gilchrist: “They’re looking at the White Flint area. I’m a little skeptical about the size of that for the size of what Amazon wants to do.”
Added Smondrowski: “When the news first came out and Montgomery County public school officials came to us at the Board of Education and said ‘We’re having conversations with the county and we’re looking at ways of helping to talk up a proposal for Amazon’, my first question was ‘Where are all those kids going to go to school? And how are they going to fit?’.” She said the county needs to be “making sure that we’re looking at the bigger picture, as opposed to just the spotlight of a big company like Amazon being here.”
Palakovich Carr cited the pressures on the local housing market that Amazon’s second headquarters would bring.
“The proposed site here in Montgomery County is very close to a number of naturally affordable neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m pretty concerned about what’s going to happen to those neighborhoods for many families like my own.
“When my husband and I moved to Rockville almost 11 years ago, there were not very many places where we could afford to buy a house in Montgomery County or Rockville. I worry about the opportunities for future residents and for the kids who have grown up in our community.”