David Trone and Kathleen Matthews, two wealthy novice candidates for Maryland’s 8th District Democratic congressional nomination, have had to defend their lack of traditional office-holding experience from opponents’ barbs and voters’ skeptical questioning.
They pushed back Sunday in a forum at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, calling two of their incumbent competitors to account for supporting the state’s notorious redistricting plan.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. Kumar Barve voted in 2011 to redraw Maryland’s congressional district boundaries to create a seventh “safe” Democratic seat. The shift resulted in the 2012 defeat of longtime Sixth District Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and the election of Democratic Rep. John Delaney. Critics assailed the redrawn map as brazen gerrymandering by the state’s Democratic leadership that diluted the influence of minority voters.
The issue surfaced as Del. Ana Sol-Gutierrez and former White House aide Will Jawando responded to a question about election reform.
“The map, I think, is really unfortunate,” said Gutierrez, who opposed the plan.
“You want to ask people on this stage when you’re looking for differences why they voted for it and who’s not represented when we gerrymander? People of color,” said Jawando, the only African American among the nine candidates.
He was referring to an element of the plan that removed a portion of Montgomery County represented by Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), stretching her 4th District into largely white Anne Arundel County.
Edwards is running in the Democratic senatorial primary against 8th District incumbent Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
Trone, a national wine retailer, and Matthews, a former news anchor and Marriott executive, both assailed the boundary shifts as part and parcel of a dysfunctional political system.
“Jamie and Kumar voted for the gerrymander in Maryland, which did create another Democratic district, and that’s fine if you’re a Democrat,” Matthews said. “But what if it’s Virginia, where Republicans have control? It creates the hyper-partisanship we’re living with in Congress today.” She said she supported a national commission to address gerrymandering.
Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University, said the solution is an interstate compact with Virginia to create a neutral commission.
“We should get out of gerrymandering in Maryland but do it with Virginia at the same time. Stop gerrymandering the opposition to oblivion.”
Trone scoffed at Raskin’s regional solution.
“A commission with Virginia is rhetoric. It is going nowhere, is politics as usual. . . . We need a national commission. We need to start in Congress.”
Raskin later tried to have the last word: “You guys might not like that vote,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that you didn’t vote in two of the last three Democratic primaries, so we’re even there.”
Raskin was referring to Montgomery County voting records that show Matthews did not vote in the 2012 and 2014 Maryland Democratic primaries. Trone did not vote in the 2010 or 2012 primaries. Both said they were away on business travel.
Barve did not address gerrymandering directly during the debate, sponsored by Montgomery County’s District 16 Democratic Club. In an emailed statement Monday he said he also supported “national and regional solutions.” He added:
“David Trone has spent hundreds of thousands dollars electing Republicans to legislative seats throughout the nation and yet criticizes the Maryland Redistricting Plan that added a Democratic seat to the U.S. House of Representatives.” Barve was referring to Trone’s contributions to state-level Republicans to lobby for regulations favorable to his wine business.
Also running in the primary are David Anderson, a vice president at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, and former State Department congressional liaison Joel Rubin.
The Sunday forum was a mostly tame affair, with a decorous tone set by the moderator, former Montgomery County Council member Gail Ewing. When the sparks over gerrymandering flew, she expressed surprise and a bit of disappointment:
“Well, I have to commend the group. This is the first time somebody pointed somebody else out in a negative way,” she said. “It’s all been very positive until this minute.”
A Saturday evening forum, sponsored by the Montgomery Sentinel, was another story. Executive editor Brian Karem poked, prodded and interrupted the candidates for two-plus hours.
Things turned a little tense during a segment he called “Keep It Real,” in which Karem asked candidates to express themselves with Trump-like bluntness.
Karem asked Jawando, the only African American on the dais, to go first.
“I won’t ask why you a started with me,” Jawando said.
“Because I looked at you first,” Karem said, sounding annoyed.
Jawando agreed to lead off, and spoke about mass incarceration of blacks as a legacy of slavery.
The evening did produce a couple of illuminating exchanges.
Trone, who has vowed to spend millions of his own money to win, was asked if wealthy self-funded candidates are as harmful to democracy as the unlimited amounts of donor cash allowed under the Citizens United decision.
Trone said special interest groups “are continuing to corrode democracy” but that his money was different because it afforded him complete independence.
“Because of that the only people I have to listen to . . . are the voters of the 8th District. That’s a pretty big difference,” Trone said.
Karem: “Is there any greater risk if the congressman we elect is part of the 1 percent and not part of everyone else who doesn’t make that much money?”
Trone: “You shouldn’t have to apologize for success . . . ”
Karem: “I’m not asking that.”
Trone: “I started with zero, the same as everybody else in this room, and I’ve done well. That is a testament to a lot of really hard work . . . ”
Karem: “And God bless you, but still the question is does it make it any different? Does someone who has money [have] a better chance of running for office than someone who does not?”
Trone: “The fact that someone has dollars is clearly going to give them an edge. But it also gives them independence. That’s the key.”
Raskin took issue with Trone’s definition of success.
“You use it the way Republicans do," Raskin said. “There are a lot of successful school teachers and bus drivers and journalists and artists who live in our district and they are just as successful as any millionaire or billionaire who decides to run for office.”
When the forum slipped past its scheduled 7:30 ending, Trone, who was due at another event, slipped off his watch and dangled it in front of Karem, reminding him that the evening was over.