The two Democratic candidates for county executive met Monday in the first of several debates planned before next year's primary election. Although the event was more like a candidates forum than a traditional debate, council member Steven A. Silverman (At Large) and former council member Isiah Leggett spent more than an hour fielding questions from Democratic activists at the Golden Bull Grand Cafe in Gaithersburg.

The gathering exposed early differences between Silverman and Leggett on issues that are expected to be central themes in the race.

On the topic of growth and development, it's increasingly clear that Leggett wants to be known as the candidate who supports limiting growth. "In order to go forward, we have to grow," Leggett said. "It's not a question of growth or no growth, it's a question of growth and slow growth. Believe me, I will slow growth."

Silverman's approach to development appears to be grounded in his desire for more affordable housing. Without new development, he argued, there will be fewer opportunities to build affordable housing, and a shrinking housing supply will continue to drive up prices.

"Let me be crystal clear," Silverman said. "We have to be sure we have a balance of transportation, infrastructure, schools, as well as opportunity for affordable housing, as well as jobs."

But Silverman and Leggett said they want to protect the county's agricultural preserve from development.

One of the biggest disagreements between the two centered on their plans for building more houses that middle-class families can afford.

Silverman's proposal would require developers to set aside a portion of their units for affordable housing. He has introduced legislation to require that 10 percent of homes built in new developments near Metro stations be set aside for middle-class families, defined as earning roughly between $50,000 and $100,000 annually.

Leggett, noting that the county needs more than 30,000 affordable units, said Silverman's approach will do little to increase the supply of housing for middle-class families. He instead wants to construct entire neighborhoods of houses that can be set aside for families who can afford to buy a house in the $300,000 to $350,000 range.

"If you want it, you are going to have to go out and build it," Leggett said.

Leggett offered no details as to where he would build such neighborhoods or who would pay for such a massive construction project. Silverman disregarded Leggett's plan as unrealistic.

"I'm not sure we are going to be able to identify entire communities we can build workforce housing in," Silverman said.

The issue of spending and taxes was also a major concern. Montgomery's budget will probably be at least $4 billion by 2007, which would be larger than the spending plan of six states. During last spring's budget battles, Silverman advocated breaking a voter-imposed tax cap to assure, as he put it, adequate funding of public schools and health and human service programs. Leggett opposed breaking the cap, saying he feared it would lead to a taxpayer rebellion at the polls that could hurt the Democratic Party.

If elected, Leggett said he will also strive to stay within the charter limit on property taxes. But when asked if there was any tax he would promise not to raise, Leggett said he would keep all options on the table.

"I think every potential revenue source is eligible to be raised," Leggett said.

Silverman never responded to the question about taxes he wouldn't raise. Instead, he said he would aim for making property tax cuts for senior citizens and lower-income homeowners. "I thought that is what we as Democrats stand for," he said.

As in past county elections, traffic congestion and the planned intercounty connector highway also were a major theme of the debate.

With the support of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), six of nine council members, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) and the Bush administration, construction of the connector is scheduled to start next fall. Silverman, who has led the effort on the County Council to get the ICC built, said transportation will continue to be one of his top priorities if he is elected county executive.

He vowed to invest more money in transportation and push to construct Metro's purple line, connecting communities near the Beltway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He also supports the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed light rail that would run along Interstate 270.

During most of his political career, Leggett has been neutral on the ICC because he owned property along its path.

Silverman was hoping to make Leggett's stance an issue. But during the debate, Leggett vowed that if elected he would "make sure it gets built."

"We need to move forward and put the ICC behind us," Leggett said, while warning that he will not allow it to become just another corridor for development.