By Glynis Kazanjian
Three Democrats vying for Montgomery County’s top political post tried to define their differences at the first debate before the June 24 primary, two of them with a total of 20 years of experience in the job and the other portraying himself as the independent voice in the race.
Correction, 3/10/14, 2:45pm: Andrews, who said he has knocked on 18,000 doors in the past year, will not take donations from political action committees or groups that do business with the county.
“I am the only candidate running that doesn’t take any campaign funds from the groups the county executive negotiates with, namely our public employees and developers,” Andrews told the crowd of about 150. “So ask yourself, who you think is going to get the better deal.”
Andrews said 70% of the county’s operating budget goes to county employee benefits and the county had to improve the way it negotiated with labor unions.
State House delegation accused of not fighting for Montgomery
He also called for Montgomery’s State House delegation to unite in fighting for the interests of county residents instead of giving in to state politics or special interest groups. Currently, county residents get only get 20 cents back on every dollar sent to the state, he said.
“I like our senators and delegates,” Andrews said. “They are good people, but they are not often fighting for us in a way that is effective. They are too responsive to what their legislative leaders want them to do, and they are too responsive when they get a call from an interest group.”
Duncan said the county was at a critical juncture. He listed school overcrowding, the $100 million Silver Spring Transit Center “debacle” and not getting enough dollars back from the state as major concerns.
“Schools are terribly overcrowded,” he said. “There are many more students who are living in poverty, and many don’t count English as their first language. Thanks to our current county leaders, Annapolis is taking us for granted,” Duncan said.
Duncan hammers Leggett
Duncan called for strong leadership, and throughout the debate hammered Leggett for what may be his biggest vulnerability in the election – the unfinished $100 million Silver Spring train and bus hub, which is over budget and years overdue.
“When is it going to open?” Duncan asked. “What’s the detailed plan to fix it? What is it going to cost? Is it going to be safe?”
Leggett, who has been county executive since 2006, said the transit project had started in 2002 during Duncan’s term. “Duncan had six and a half years to build it, and it never happened.”
“Neither one of them finished it,” Andrews joked. “I don’t know why you would elect either one to finish it.”
Leggett touts achievements, transportation dollars
Leggett said he has moved the county forward by securing $1 billion from the state for the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Purple Line, the Shady Grove Smart Growth initiative and other transportation projects that will create 100,000 jobs.
“I was the person that went to Annapolis each and every year arguing for transportation dollars,” Leggett said. “We’ve been able to move forward because we’ve provide budgets that are sustainable.”
Leggett said the county is standing with the highest financial reserves in its history, has the lowest unemployment rate in the state and had the highest job growth rate in the region from 2010 to 2013.
Much of the debate, however, Leggett spent time fending off attacks from Duncan and Andrews.
Duncan said Leggett went to Annapolis to support funding for Baltimore City schools, instead of fighting for funding for Montgomery.
“He was there fighting for the children of Baltimore and not for the children of Montgomery County on our school construction needs,” Duncan said. “That’s a real problem – when the county executive of Montgomery County isn’t looking out for the interests of Montgomery in Annapolis.”
In response, Leggett said you couldn’t compare the problems Baltimore City schools have with those in Montgomery.
Leggett defends advocacy for Baltimore schools
“I find it very interesting that when I’m standing up for poor kids in the City of Baltimore that there is something wrong with me,” Leggett said. “To argue to the delegates in Annapolis that our school problems are the same . . . they would find laughable.”
“We have to deal with those problems before we can deal with the rest of it,” Leggett said. “I understood that. The state understood that, and the leaders understood that.”
Montgomery currently serves 17% of the state’s student population, but only receives funding for 11 to 12%, Andrews said. “We need to make sure we get our fair share.”
On Montgomery’s business climate, Andrews said the county cannot legislate in a vacuum, and the county has to recognize there is competition among regional jurisdictions.
Energy tax too high, Andrews says
“Our energy tax is by far the highest in the region,” Andrews said. “In 2010 Mr. Leggett proposed a huge increase in it, said he would limit it to two years. Two years later he proposed keeping it all.”
Andrews said he committed to bringing the energy tax back down to 2010 levels, which he called “still a sizable level.”
Leggett said there is a perception that the county is over taxed and has too many regulations. He said he made 67 recommendations to change the regulatory process.
“I agree with some of those perceptions because we’ve been our own worst enemy,” Leggett said. “We have not been able to move forward to make the kinds of changes I wanted, that I’m on record for.”
Duncan said the economic recovery in the county is not where it should be, and the state tax structure is not competitive. “We lost that competitiveness over the last eight years.”
Duncan called for streamlining county permitting services.
The debate was hosted by the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine at the Bethesda Hyatt Friday.
The Democratic candidates will face off at least five more times between now and the end of April. The next scheduled event is a forum at Leisure World in Silver Spring on Thursday, March 20.