Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive on Monday painted a dire picture of the county’s economy and finances. At a forum ahead of the June 26 Democratic primary, the six candidates differed little on their vision to lead one of the wealthiest and most diverse counties in the country.
None of the candidates supported tax hikes and the consensus was that county government had to do more with less. But they offered few specifics about where they would cut the budget to pay for a growing county debt.
The proposed belt tightening didn’t extent to spending for security for religious institutions. The candidates pledged to fully fund police and work with houses of worship to develop comprehensive security plans.
The forum, held at Kol Shalom in Rockville, was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Following are highlights from the candidates:
On a night that featured unanimous opposition to tax increases, council member Roger Berliner, 67, defended a property tax hike the council passed in 2016, arguing that it was necessary to fully fund the county’s school system. But, he said, that was enough. “We’re done with tax increases. … Our schools needed it, but we’ve hit the wall with tax increases.”
Berliner painted himself as a major proponent of the county’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. “I’m all in for Amazon. What’s the ROI [return on investment] for us? The ROI here is overwhelming. We’re talking about $17 billion a year. And the state has pledged $2 billion in transportation improvements.”
The forum came just two days after Blair — who formerly ran a prescription drug benefits company — was endorsed by the Washington Post. Blair argued that his private-sector experience was what the county needed in a time of relative fiscal distress.
“Today, we have a $5.6 billion budget, which is similar to what my company had,” he said. “And every year, you’re going through the budget and finding redundancies, finding new technologies.”
Blair, 48, repeatedly pledged to fully fund the police and make religious security a top priority. “We love that we’re the most welcoming community in the country,” he said, vowing to keep it that way.
Another council member in the race, Erlich, 68, said he would be an eager partner to religious institutions looking to beef up security in the face of threats. “We need to listen before we act. Listen to what you need to make this place safer,” he said. “I don’t walk in your shoes … but my door will always be open.”
Elrich painted himself as an unwavering progressive, touting endorsements from social action groups Jews United for Justice and Maryland Working Families. He highlighted his past of Vietnam War protest and fighting for better campus integration at the University of Maryland. He also praised the council’s work on criminal justice reform, saying the county’s jail has an admirable focus on rehabilitating inmates. “We need to adapt a restorative approach to criminal justice,” he said. “We need to move away from punishment.”
Despite being Presbyterian, the Maryland House majority leader, 43, called himself a “proud product of the Montomery County Jewish community. … I think I was probably a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before I really came to understand that I wasn’t Jewish.”
Frick said the county needs to embrace regionalism, walkable development, mass transit and the restaurant industry to attract a younger workforce. “The future of our county is millennials,” he said. “And right now they don’t want to live in Montgomery County. They want to live in the District.”
The former Rockville mayor, 66, was adamant about not raising taxes or cutting the county’s budget, saying she would explore letting nonprofits work in the county as a replacement for some county services. “I would like to see us expand [nonprofits’] role in the community and reduce, in some ways, our role through [the Department of Health and Human Services],” Krasnow said. “We can’t fund everything at all times.”
As the only woman in the race, she said, “If I were to use three words to describe me, I would say, common sense, perseverance and accomplishment. And I say perseverance in part because I’m a woman. I am not running because I am a woman, but I am running because I think women bring a different perspective to what they do. I’m running because we’ve had a real lack of women in leadership positions in this county.”
In responding to a rise in reported hate crimes in the county, the Montgomery County council member, 55, said he would follow his would-be successor, County Executive Ike Leggett. “Setting the tone of kindness, courtesy, dignity for all people,” Leventhal said. “Making it clear that no matter where you were born, no matter what faith tradition you worship in, no matter what language you speak at home,you are welcome here. You belong here.”
Leventhal spoke at length about the county’s international makeup, saying it should be marketed as an asset to businesses looking to come to the county. “Thirty percent of our population is foreign born; that’s a great strength,” Leventhal said. “We can communicate globally.” He also said he would reduce the local energy tax, arguing that it made the county uncompetitive when competing for jobs in the energy industry.
Early voting for the primary runs from June 14 to 21. Election Day is June 26.