Social justice advocates get the last word in final Montgomery executive candidate forum

The candidates for Montgomery County executive did most of the listening, rather than the talking, in their final joint appearance before next week’s primary.

“No stump speeches” was the directive from Action In Montgomery (AIM), the faith-based advocacy group that packed Silver Spring United Methodist Church on Tuesday evening with more than 500 people from its member congregations.

For the most part, it was a stump-free. Incumbent County Executive Isiah Leggett, Democratic primary challengers Doug Duncan and council member Phil Andrews, and Republican James Shalleck were supporting players who spoke for a total of about 20 minutes during a tightly-scripted and choreographed 95-minute event.

The Rev. Nancy Ladd, senior minister at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, set the tone with a feisty mini-sermon on “the real Montgomery.”

“We’re not all white picket fences and suburban lawns,” said Ladd. “We are all sadder and madder and more powerful than anybody assumes.”

The candidates spent much of the evening hearing testimony from that Montgomery.

Keith Jones, principal at Summit Hall Elementary in Gaithersburg, spoke to the desperate need for more after-school programming in his overcrowded majority-Hispanic school. A Nigerian-American, Ogechi Akalegbere, described the marginal experience of many African immigrants in the county.

“My people are sometimes invisible to politicians and people in power,” she said.

Jackie Davidson, who lives in Victory Tower, talked about the two-year waiting list for spaces in the rent-subsidized Takoma Park apartment building for low-income seniors.

“You have the power to make affordable housing a reality n Montgomery County,” she said.

Candidates knew in advance that they would be asked to publicly commit in two specific areas. The first was a gimme: If elected, would they spend a half-day getting to know the African immigrant community? All said yes.

The more substantive ask was about affordable housing. AIM wanted a commitment to a minimum of 1,000 units annually, and dedication of 2.5 percent of property tax revenue to fund affordable housing, a set-aside the county last did in 2008.

Total housing outlays took a huge hit with the recession. While Montgomery has been restoring funds, the $43.6 million in the 2015 budget is still down from $56.1 million in 2010

The County Council, not the executive, has the final word on spending. So Leggett and Duncan had every reason to say yes.

“I will fund it at 2.5 percent every year I am county executive,” Duncan said.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Leggett. who added that his administration has invested more than $300 million in the county’s Housing Initiative Fund to underwrite new units over the last eight years.

Andrews declined, contending that such spending commitments unfairly tie the hands of officials.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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