On the issues, the only major differences between six of the seven Democratic primary candidates at Tuesday evening’s 8th Congressional District forum were in degree, not kind.
Dels. Kumar P. Barve and Ana Sol-Gutierrez, state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, former news anchor Kathleen Matthews, former White House aide Will Jawando and ex-State Department official Joel Rubin all supported an aggressive response to the attacks in Paris, but only in concert with allies. They deplored Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s request that the federal government bar Syrian refugees from settling in the state, and they called for a humane path to citizenship for all immigrants on U.S. soil.
There was agreement on the need for campaign finance reform and for putting an end to the unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions allowed under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.Not a shaft of daylight appeared among the candidates on paid parental leave, pay equity and the protection of Social Security benefits — core issues for a primary electorate that is dominated by women ages 50 to 70.
The lone dissenting voice was David Anderson, an academic and education nonprofit executive, who said Matthews and Raskin “represent an establishment orthodoxy” that favors working parents at the expense of those who choose to stay at home. He wants the federal government to provide tax credits for working parents who need child care and for mothers or fathers who opt to stay at home.
For the audience of about 300 at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad building, the real question was which package of experience, skill set, temperament and style they want for the person succeeding Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Raskin, who represents Silver Spring and Takoma Park, touted his record as “a relentlessly effective legislator” who played major roles in the passage of state laws banning assault weapons, legalizing same-sex marriage and banning pay discrimination.
The American University constitutional law professor brought the biggest rhetorical flourish to the table. He called the Islamic State “a terrorist death cult that has set itself to war against all civilization” and called climate change “the entire context in which we have to make every other decision.” He called for a “Green Deal” to help disengage the world from fossil fuels.
Matthews, who leads the field in fundraising, brought the poise and polish that comes from a career in front of the camera and as a communications executive for Marriott. She said she “wasn’t just sitting behind the anchor desk” during her television days but worked as a reporter who was immersed in the struggles of women.
Her pitch was heavily gender-based, featuring the rollout of a “women’s agenda” to support legislation pending in Congress. Matthews said she would fight for passage of a bill — sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) — providing up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.
“When you raise women’s voices, you raise women’s choices,” said Matthews, who is supported by Emily’s List, a PAC that supports pro-choice Democratic women.
She described her candidacy as a historic opportunity, noting the possibility that the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and the departure from Congress of Rep. Donna F. Edwards — who is running against Van Hollen in April’s primary — could leave Maryland with an all-male congressional delegation.
“You have a chance to elect the first Democratic woman to represent the 8th Congressional District,” Matthews said.
Barve, who represents Rockville and Gaithersburg in the House of Delegates, told two basic stories, one as an immigrant and the other as “a liberal accountant,” reflecting his private-sector career as chief financial officer for an environmental cleanup company and two decades in Annapolis. As head of the Environment and Transportation Committee, he shepherded a moratorium on fracking to approval.
He also recounted the life of his grandfather, Shankar Laxman Gokhale, an Indian engineer for General Electric whose struggle to retain his U.S. citizenship in the 1920s went to the Supreme Court. His grandfather’s legacy makes the current immigrant-bashing all the more repugnant, he said.
“Larry Hogan, Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party have decided to score cheap political points at the expense of some of the most put-upon people on the planet,” he said.
Jawando told a personal story that echoes President Obama’s: He’s the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, who struggled to raise a family largely on her own. As an African American who grew up poor in Silver Spring and went on to work in the White House and on Capitol Hill, Jawando said he is well suited to building bridges between the powerful and the powerless.
Sol-Gutierrez, a Salvadoran American who represents Kensington and Chevy Chase in the House of Delegates, also made a largely identity-based appeal. “I am a woman. I am an immigrant. I am a fighter,” she said. The former Montgomery County school board member drew laughter when she said: “I have a record. I was arrested four times” for demonstrating on immigrant issues.
Rubin, a first-time candidate making his first forum appearance, emphasized a career that began as a Peace Corps volunteer and includes posts in the Energy Department and on Capitol Hill, where he was House liaison for the State Department. Rubin is also a former political and governmental affairs director for J Street, the liberal Jewish lobbying group that favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We need people who understand how to work with advocates,” he said.
Anderson was the lone advocate for raising the age for Social Security eligibility from 62 to 64. He also proposed college loan forgiveness as a way to draw millennials to suburban Montgomery. “If you offer tax credits to Republicans, that is close to their heart. You have to go to them with something they want,” Anderson said. He eventually drew the only boo of the evening for his continued criticism of Raskin and Matthews as representatives of an “outdated” approach to family policy.
But the heart of his message was a family tax-credit plan that he said would resonate with Republican leaders in the House.
He tried to win the crowd over with this unusual boast: “I can also say ‘Thank you’ in 30 languages.”