The three Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive could not have found two more different audiences for debates this week: the Montgomery County Renters Alliance and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.
Tenants--now a third of county households-- gathered at the Silver Spring Civic Building Wednesday evening and filled out index cards with questions about rent control, retaliatory evictions and penalties for leasing month-to-month. The timekeeper used a cowbell to cut off Isiah Leggett, Doug Duncan and Phil Andrews when their answers ran long.
The chamber debate Friday morning at the Hyatt Bethesda was the full Jim Lehrer, with lecterns, blue backdrop, rebuttals and timekeepers flashing “30-seconds” index cards to warn the speakers. Bethesda Magazine political blogger Lou Peck moderated and asked questions. Bethesda Realtor Jane Fairweather, a co-sponsor, asked for a show of hands from those who owned their homes.
“My people!” she exulted as a forest of hands shot up.
The chamber forum, with its broader range of questions, allowed the more revealing look. It also provided Andrews, the underfinanced longshot, with his best opportunity to date drive home his core message: that Leggett and Duncan--who have held the county executive’s office between them for the last 20 years--are both past their sell-by dates. Andrews, who takes no developer or union contributions, depicted them as traditional free-spending Democrats beholden to interest groups.
“It’s time for a change,” said Andrews, who emphasized holding the line on taxes and labor contracts.
Leggett and Duncan created openings for Andrews by sparring over decade-old county budgets, a 20-year-old trash dump fire on Travilah Road in Rockville and which of them spent more years trying to build the Silver Spring Transit Center.
Accuracy and context were early casualties.
In response to Duncan’s charges that mismanagement has delayed opening of the transit center, Leggett produced a list of Duncan quotes stretching back to 2000 promising the bus-and-train hub. One 2002 statement assured the opening by 2005.
“This is the record. This was not done for seven years on his watch,” Leggett said.
But the project on Duncan’s watch was slowed by many of the same conditions that have plagued Leggett’s attempts to put it back on track. One is the multiplicity of agencies involved, including Metro WSSC, PEPCO, the Maryland Transportation Agency and the federal government. In the Duncan era, the project was slowed because the Montgomery County Planning Board and Metro rejected a series of proposed designs.
Then, as transit-oriented development became the planning philosophy of choice, the scope of the project morphed. Metro and and transit center general contractor Foulger-Pratt explored the idea of apartments, retail and a hotel adjacent to the center. Those plans have since been dropped.
Ground was finally broken in 2008, during Leggett’s first term.
“This is Doug Duncan in 2014,” Duncan said. “When is it going to open? What’s it going to cost? And is it going to be safe?
But the takeaway line belonged to Andrews.
“I don’t know why you’d want one of them to finish it,” he said, drawing laughter.
The three candidates agreed that Montgomery has never received a fair share of funding for schools and other basic needs from Annapolis. Duncan and Leggett debated whose administration brought home more school construction funding over their respective last seven years in office.
“Montgomery County has been shortchanged in Annapolis for a longtime. My opponents have been in office for a long, long time,” Andrews said.
One of Andrews’ best moments came as Duncan and Leggett debated Leggett’s contention that the county was left “broke” by Duncan’s overspending. The issue is far more complicated, as explored here.
Andrews argued that both of his opponents contributed to the county’s financial challenges by funding rich wage and benefit packages for public employee unions. In 2005, at Duncan’s urging, the County Council approved a collective bargaining agreement with firefighters allowing them to retire after 20 years service instead of 25, a provision projected at the time to cost an additional $40 million in pension and other benefits over the next three years. In 2007, Leggett negotiated a 29 percent raise over three years for police officers and 26 percent for general government workers.
“On this issue they are more alike,” said Andrews, who consistently voted against the packages. “I’ve stepped up and been a leader on this.”
Leggett had a better outing at the Renters Alliance Wednesday evening. While none of the three candidates offered any support for the group’s centerpiece issue--rent control--Leggett was able to legitimately differentiate himself as a friend of tenants in a county where home ownership is considered the norm.
Leggett, with support from Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large) formed the non-profit alliance in 2011 as a voice for tenants. Its creation was one of the recommendations of a working group Leggett appointed three years earlier. He also cited his commitment to affordable housing, citing the $300 million the county has spent in his tenure to leverage the construction or preservation of moderately priced units.
“We’ve stepped up the plate in an unprecedented way,” Leggett said.