State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin was on the defensive early in Sunday’s League of Women Voters Debate at Hood College in Frederick, placed there by two opponents whose own polling shows them in close pursuit of the Maryland lawmaker for the Democratic nomination for the 8th District congressional seat.
Wine retailer David Trone and former news anchor Kathleen Matthews blasted Raskin and Del. Kumar P. Barve, another candidate in the race, for the redrawn Congressional boundaries that they voted for in the state legislature in 2011.
The map paved the way for a Democrat to be elected in Maryland’s 6th Congressional district, a seat that was previously held by a Republican. It is frequently cited as an example of the kind of blatant “gerrymandering” that has led to polarization and partisan gridlock in Congress.
Trone called the state’s current Congressional map “an abomination,” and scoffed at Raskin’s proposed solution — a regional reapportionment effort by Maryland and Virginia state legislators — as “silly” and “a waste of time and rhetoric.”
Matthews called the map “the result of an old boys network protecting themselves” and called for an independent national commission to address the issue.
Raskin — who won the support of about 30 percent of respondents in the two recent polls — said that his opponents “need to get real about this” and acknowledge that “every redistricting is gerrymandering” because the party in control of the state legislature has no incentive to act differently.
He then pushed back at Matthews and Trone for contributions they have made to Republican lawmakers.
“Both of them have given thousands of dollars to right-wing Republicans who have participated in gerrymandering plans in their states,” Raskin said.
He was referring specifically to Trone’s donations to Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, where his big box store chain, Total Wine & More, does business. In Matthews’ case, it was a $2,600 donation in 2014 to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), co-sponsor with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) of legislation to promote international tourism.
“I wonder if Kathleen would approach Sen. Roy Blunt, her friend from Missouri, the anti-choice, anti-birth control Republican, and ask whether he’s doing anything about gerrymandering in his state,” Raskin said, “And I wonder whether Mr. Trone would approach Governor Abbott . . . to see whether he’s doing anything about gerrymandering.”
Trone admonished Raskin for his tone, and said his donation to the governor of Texas was related to the business he iowns in that state. “First, I would start with the word respect. That’s where you start, Jamie,” Trone said. “Next point would be in Texas we have a thousand employees and we’re working for pro-consumer bills like Sunday sales, wine tastings, good things. . . . That’s money well spent.”
Matthews, who was an executive with the Marriott International hotel chain when she contributed to Blunt, said Raskin has yanked the donation out of context.
“I have given thousands of dollars to try to elect Democrats across this country,” she said. “In my entire career I’ve given one donation to one Republican who worked as a bipartisan colleague on a piece of legislation that created thousands of jobs in this country. I think we need to build bridges and need to work together.”
At Marriott Matthews oversaw the company’s political action committee, which contributed more than $1.4 million to candidates between 2008 and 2014, including nearly $700,000 to Republicans, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Matthews said in an interview last week that Marriott employees were free to designate which party they wanted to receive their money. She also said decisions about specific contributions were made by lobbyists who reported to her.
An edge of anger crept into Raskin’s voice as he described the success of the Maryland legislature in advancing a progressive agenda in recent years, and addressed contentions that such an effort would be far more difficult in the Republican-led Congress.
“Annapolis isn’t Washington and I’m glad of it! In Annapolis we can get things done. We make things happen,” he said, referring to legislation establishing same-sex marriage and abolishing the death penalty.
In a poke at candidates Will Jawando, a former Senate aide, and former State Department official Joel Rubin, he added: “The people who pride themselves on the fact that they were staffers in a deadlocked, paralyzed Washington? I urge them, before they try to go to Congress, to come out to Annapolis to see how to get things done.”
Raskin, a three-term state senator and American University law professor, also questioned the qualifications for office of Matthews and Trone, both of whom are wealthy, first-time candidates. (Trone is self-funding his race.)
“Public office isn’t something that you buy, it’s something that you earn through your devotion to the public good and your service to the community,” Raskin said. “I would put my record of public service up against anybody running for Congress in America right now.”
He concluded by responding to Trone’s request for respect.
“I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to. I know riding up here we saw lots of illegal Trone signs placed all over the roads,” he said. “I know you’re stuffing our mailboxes, the TV airwaves and the radio airwaves with your ads. At least give us [the public right of way]. That’s what the law says.”
Residents in several 8th District communities have complained about Trone yard signs on roadsides. They are required to be placed on private property.
Trone acknowledged that inexperienced campaign workers were not familiar with the rules.
“We’re working on that.” he said. “But thank you for your help, Jamie, in pointing that out.”