After the county executive forum, candidates shake hands. From left, council member Marc Elrich, council member Roger Berliner, moderator Brian Karem, council member George L. Leventhal and Del. C. William Frick. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for county executive of Montgomery County squared off in a debate Monday, touching on local issues ranging from traffic congestion to a minimum-wage increase to the influence of developer money in county races.

The forum, hosted by the Sentinel Newspapers, attracted few audience members but fueled two hours of questioning among Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), at-large council members Marc Elrich and George L. Leventhal and the race's newest candidate, state Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery).

As candidates made their cases for how they would lead Maryland's largest jurisdiction, Frick sought to position himself as a lifelong resident whose time in state rather than local government could give him a fresh perspective on how to bring about a "new generation of leadership in Montgomery County."

By contrast, the three term-limited county council members said their years of experience in local politics laid the groundwork to address issues ranging from public safety to the needs of the county's senior population.

"It's hard to believe these are the people who are going to solve the situation when they've been there for more than a decade," Frick said. "Nothing is changing. Talk is cheap."

Berliner responded: "I think talk is cheap from someone who hasn't done this work."


Roger Berliner, center, laughs as he listens to Marc Elrich, left, at a candidates forum on Monday. Moderator Brian Karem, executive editor of the Sentinel Newspapers, is standing. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Elrich noted that if term limits had been enacted at the state level, where Frick has served in the House of Delegates since 2007, Frick would eventually be unseated too.

More than eight months ahead of the Democratic primary, the forum did not include two Democrats who are expected to run for county executive but have yet to file for candidacy.

Potomac businessman David Blair is expected to announce his campaign later this month, and former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow is expected to make her decision in coming weeks.

Robin Ficker, the only Republican who has filed to run for county executive, was not invited to participate in the forum but was present in the sparse audience.

Ficker, a longtime activist who led last year's successful campaign to institute term limits on the county council, told The Post that the debate lacked "robust" discussion because it included only Democrats.

But there were some issues on which the candidates split, including the county's public-financing system, in place for the first time this election cycle, and whether to take campaign contributions from developers. Elrich and Leventhal are participating in the public-financing program while Frick and Berliner are not.

Frick said he is frustrated by the idea of using taxpayer money to provide matching funds for political candidates. Berliner said he supports the public-financing program as a means of "leveling the playing field" but believes the system's limits on donations would leave him at a disadvantage, since he is running countywide for the first time — unlike Elrich and Leventhal — and will need more resources to reach voters and build name recognition.

In response to a question from the moderator, Berliner said he does accept developer money but added that doing so "has never compromised how I have gone about my business."

Elrich said he has never accepted developer money. Leventhal said he would accept such funds up to the $150 threshold allowed by the public-financing system.

Candidates also addressed gang violence in Montgomery County, two weeks after the council allocated additional funds to try to combat the issue. Emphasizing the need to address the public-safety concerns and the social issues at the root of what draws youths to gangs, candidates agreed that they would be open to taking extra measures — such as designating more funding to county police — if elected county executive.

"We are committed to a comprehensive approach," Berliner said. "Just know we are not throwing money at this issue."

The candidates also spoke along similar lines when reflecting on the successes of Montgomery County and their pride as local residents and public servants.

"We have a great story to tell, and we need to do a better job of telling it," Leventhal said.