Six Democrats vying for Montgomery County executive squared off Wednesday evening to pitch how they would grow the county's economy, support small businesses and widen the local tax base.
In a debate that touched on issues including transportation, the minimum wage and Montgomery's liquor monopoly, candidates placed particular emphasis on how they would encourage businesses to start — and stay — in one of Maryland's wealthiest and most diverse jurisdictions, albeit one pocketed by poverty and economic disparity.
"My vision is of a county that is rooted in our unique Montgomery County culture and values, and yet has a thriving private-sector business economy and a responsive constituent-centered local government," said state Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery).
The debate marked a debut of sorts for the race's newest faces: Rose Krasnow, deputy director of the county's planning department and a former three-term mayor of Rockville, and David Blair, a Potomac businessman entering his first political race.
Over more than an hour and a half of questioning, a divide emerged among the three longtime County Council members looking to defend their records and the "outsiders" positioning themselves as offering fresh perspectives one year after Montgomery voters overwhelmingly supported term limits. The primary is June 26.
Among the current council members — Marc Elrich (D-At Large), George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Roger Berliner (D-Potomac Bethesda) — all promoted the body's unanimous passage of a $15 minimum wage and stood by its decision to raise property taxes by nearly 9 percent in 2016.
Blair said he would not have voted for the minimum wage bill and that such an increase should be a state or regional issue. Frick reaffirmed his stance that the minimum wage should be dealt with in Annapolis. Krasnow said she still had concerns over the bill's effect on working teenagers but supported the legislation's final timeline.
There was no mistaking the term-limited council members as one solidified cohort. Answering a question on the minimum wage, Elrich and Leventhal charged Berliner with taking too much credit for the compromise brokered earlier this month.
"He has greatly overstated his role in the minimum wage outcome," Leventhal said of Berliner.
In a separate instance, Berliner criticized Elrich for his use of the phrase "ethnic cleansing" at a debate earlier this week. Elrich had previously stated that the Purple Line would result in "ethnic cleansing" if there was no rent stabilization around station stops.
"To equate potential gentrification with ethnic cleansing is offensive, period," Berliner said. Krasnow agreed, saying " 'Ethnic cleansing' is not a good term to use."
The debate was hosted by Bethesda Magazine and the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, with many in the large crowd representing Montgomery's business community. Candidates repeatedly called for a more inclusive county government that encouraged job creation and fostered a business-friendly culture, even if they differed on how that could be achieved. Elrich emphasized enhancing the quality of life in Montgomery to attract and retain businesses. Blair said that through improved traffic congestion and telecommunication, residents should be able to live and work in the county.
"We don't seem to be proud of having a business community," Krasnow said, adding that county restrictions on businesses — on top of state regulations — push workers into neighboring jurisdictions.
Talking about the need to "embrace the private sector," Frick said that none of the candidates "could say with a straight face that Montgomery County is a business-friendly environment."
Leventhal shot back: "I don't think our business climate improves with constant bad-mouthing of our business climate."
Yet, in a wide-open race with three months left before the filing deadline, the candidates used their closing remarks as a unifying call to progressive Democrats that they cannot meet their social justice priorities without a strong economy.
Krasnow said that while the country "is going through difficult and trying times, we cannot give up the good fight." Elrich said that while he was "as liberal as you think I am, maybe more liberal, but despite how liberal I am, I can't do anything without money."
"Imagine our county being all it can be," Berliner concluded.