Beth Daly, an at-large candidate for Montgomery County Council, thought she was being clear when she answered the questionnaire from Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group preparing an issue scorecard to be distributed at Metro stops before the June 24 Democratic primary.
Did she support the Purple Line, the Bethesda-New Carrollton light rail project, as currently planned?
“I support the east-west connectivity of the Purple Line, much needed in the county,” Daly wrote. But she also expressed concerns about the cost of the county’s financial contribution — yet to be determined — as well as transparency, safety and potential impacts to communities along the 16-mile route.
That said, she concluded: “I commit to working with each government entity and business to make sure we get the best Purple Line that can be built.”
The answer earned her a “minus” on the ACT scorecard. Candidates were required to support the Purple Line as currently configured “without qualification.”
But Daly supporters contend that she is being misrepresented as an anti-growth, anti-transit ideologue in an effort to protect council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), a passionate Purple Line supporter whose seat may be at risk.
Other incumbents who have raised similar issues over the long years of debate on the project received “plus” marks on the scorecard. They include council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large), whom Daly regards as her political lodestar. They share the same critique of the county’s planning process, calling it seriously flawed when it comes to assessing the impact of high-density development on traffic and infrastructure. Daly, an upcounty activist who lives in Dickerson, was a major voice in the successful fight to limit construction in the Ten Mile Creek watershed, as was Elrich.
ACT has detailed criteria for scoring each question. In essence, the group feels it’s been burned in the past by candidates who seemed to be with them but left enough room in their rhetoric to slip and slide.
Ben Ross, long-time Purple Line activist and ex-officio ACT board member, who helped create the scorecard, said Daly’s response was not the only reason she received a minus.
“People on our board heard her say negative things about the Purple Line at house parties in Chevy Chase,” Ross said.
The Town of Chevy Chase has waged a long fight against the segment of the Purple Line that would run along its border, and the Georgetown Branch extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.
Lydia Sullivan, Daly’s campaign manager, called Ross’s assertion “convenient hearsay.”
“Ben Ross didn’t attend any of our events,” Sullivan said.
Elrich, eager to have a natural ally on the council, expressed deep frustration at the rigid, my-way-or-the-guideway approach of transit advocates.
“You tell me how those are negative answers,” Elrich said. “If you raise any concerns about anything it’s perceived as negative. If you think anything should be changed or discussed, that’s just wrong.”
That’s no doubt why Elrich, a seasoned candidate, offered a one-word answer to the Purple Line question: “Yes.”
Daly is the only viable Democratic challenger in the at-large race. The other candidate, former Army nurse and Montgomery Democratic Central Committee member Vivian Malloy, has just $13,000 cash on hand, according to finance reports filed last week. Most successful at-large candidates raise at least $100,000. Daly has just under that amount on hand.
Montgomery Democrats tend to retire at least one at-large incumbent each cycle: Duchy Trachtenberg in 2010; Michael Subin in 2006; and Blair Ewing in 2002. The chatter inside the county’s political class is that George Leventhal, one of the Purple Line’s most passionate advocates, may be most at risk this year. He has lost key endorsements that he secured last year (although he gained a big one last week in The Post editorial board).
Leventhal voted along with the rest of the council last year to preserve low-income garden apartment complexes along the Purple Line route in Long Branch. But CASA in Action, the political arm of the Latino advocacy organization that has been a consistent supporter, dropped Leventhal from its 2014 endorsements. It cited his hard line on the Purple Line.
“George’s perception is that any discussion of equity around the Purple Line undermines its chances of going forward,” said CASA in Action Director Kim Propeack.
Leventhal has close ties to ACT. Architect Ralph Bennett, an ex-officio ACT board member, is president of Purple Line NOW!, which Leventhal helped found. Leventhal still serves as an ex-officio board member.
ACT’s scorecard is featured prominently on the Purple Line NOW! site.
A week before last Thursday night’s Silver Spring candidates’ forum on transit issues, sponsored by ACT, Purple Line Now!, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) and other groups, Bennett attempted to intervene on Leventhal’s behalf.
In an e-mail to CSG’s Kelly Blynn, who was finalizing a list of questions to be sent to candidates in advance, Bennett asked that a question about affordable housing issues around the Purple Line be dropped.
“Just got a call from George ... ” Bennett wrote to Blynn. “I agree with George that a direct question about support for the project is more appropriate than the housing preservation question. He points out that Beth Daly is opposed to everything and would be useful to get her on the record, ditto for Marc.”
Blynn said that the questions had been set at that point, and would not be changed.
Leventhal said that he knew nothing about Bennett’s e-mail, but that there was nothing inappropriate or nefarious about trying to get an explicit Purple Line question into the forum.
“It seems reasonable to me that at a transportation forum, one might want to hear a candidate’s position on the Purple Line,” he said.
Bennett said he reached out to Blynn because he shared Leventhal’s concern that some candidates were “getting a little weak-kneed about the Purple Line.”
“On behalf of my board, I registered my board’s concern that we should ask a different question,” Bennett said.
Daly did not attend the transit forum, citing a previous commitment to a fundraiser in Takoma Park. She didn’t arrive until after the Q&A had ended. But Daly’s husband, attorney Steve Seeger, arrived ahead of her and told ACT President Nick Brand that he was unhappy with how his wife had been misrepresented.
“I constrained myself mightily not to grab the guy by the neck,” Seeger said.
Brand said he didn’t feel threatened.
“People can be unhappy because of the way we ranked or didn’t rank them. We have no particular ax to grind. We think we did a fair job.”