The first traditional county executive debate between the two men who have run Montgomery County for the past 20 years and a longtime council member brought a few jabs and some new campaign fodder on Friday.
County Executive Isiah Leggett, former County Executive Doug Duncan and County Councilmember Phil Andrews took part in a 90-minute debate presented by the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine in a banquet room of the Hyatt Regency.
Duncan, county executive from 1994-2006, issued sharp critiques of Leggett, county executive since Duncan left the job, on the Silver Spring Transit Center, economic competitiveness and state school construction funding.
Leggett stayed on the offensive, using Duncan’s own words from his time as county executive to illustrate the Silver Spring Transit Center also stalled on Duncan’s watch. He also cited a Duncan speech in 1995 to show the Travillah Road dump fire — an episode Duncan has used as an example of his ability to get things done — wasn’t put out as quickly as Duncan indicated.
Andrews continued to paint himself as a “tough leader” with a new approach that would curb tax increases, limit spending on government pensions and get more money for the county from Annapolis.
One contentious moment came in a discussion of transit and transportation priorities. Leggett said his early support for raising the state’s gas tax — passed last year — was essential to funding projects such as the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway and a bus rapid transit system.
“On paper they looked good. But we needed to move them from paper to reality,” Leggett said. ”In reality, until we received the resources that we fought for from the gasoline tax and others, it was not possible. I led that fight.
“When the governor and others stood before you right downstairs this past summer to talk about the financial support that we had, they called out one person: ‘Ike Leggett’s the person that led this charge and advocated for this for years and years and he was right,’” Leggett said.
Duncan countered by saying Leggett was taken advantage of by state leaders in last year’s General Assembly, pointing to the $600 million Baltimore City got for school construction and the $200 million Prince George’s County got for a new medical center and hospital.
“That’s not leadership. That’s wrong. Montgomery County got played in Annapolis that session,” Duncan said. “No wonder they were so eager to praise you because they got away with not giving Montgomery County a lot of money for our schools.”
School construction funding was a prominent issue throughout. Duncan, Leggett and Andrews sparred in a teacher’s union forum last month about who would be the most effective at getting additional capital funding for school capacity projects from Annapolis.
Duncan pushed it again Friday, this time criticizing Leggett for supporting the $600 million package to Baltimore City last session without getting a guarantee that Montgomery County would get similar funding.
“It’s like clockwork. Every few years there is a package of aid targeted to Baltimore City. And what you do is you say, ‘Yeah, Baltimore City’s got needs and we understand that. But every jurisdiction in the state has got needs, so we need a statewide package,’” Duncan said. “That’s what we didn’t do. He was there fighting for the children of Baltimore and not fighting for the children of Montgomery County. That’s a real problem when the county executive of Montgomery County isn’t looking out for the interests of Montgomery County.”
Leggett said pushing for a package of aid to Montgomery County before Baltimore City is an unrealistic political goal.
“I find that very interesting, that if I’m standing up for poor kids of the city of Baltimore there’s something wrong with that,” Leggett responded. “That’s the right thing to do. I’ve stood up long for the children of Montgomery County and to assume that I might not do so, I find offensive.
“To make the argument that our schools are the same to the members of the delegations in Annapolis, they would find that laughable,” Leggett said. “You would be laughed out of the room if you were to say that our conditions are similar to Baltimore. They are not. They are not and that argument would not fly.”
Andrews talked about his opposition to labor union raises negotiated by both Duncan and Leggett, suggesting the two were more similar than they were making out.
“I’ve consistently worked to keep the cost of salaries and benefits reasonable. I mentioned in 2005, Mr. Duncan proposed 20-year retirement for career firefighters. I was the only one who stood up and said, ‘No, we shouldn’t do that. Firefighters can retire before the age of 40 if we do that,’” Andrews said. “In 2009, Mr. Leggett sent over a provision to pay pensions as if we hadn’t canceled a pay raise. How can we afford to pay pensions if we can’t afford the pay raise they’re based on? I stood up, led the effort to repeal that in 2010. That saved us $280 million over four years.
“I have the record of making those tough decisions when no one else is,” Andrews said. “I don’t take any campaign funds from the people the county executive negotiates with. My opponents do.”
Duncan, drawing on a campaign event on Thursday at the Silver Spring Metro, asked three times for Leggett or Andrews to explain the status of the still unopened Transit Center. Leggett responded by detailing the delays the center had when Duncan was still in charge and saying the station is built to 95 percent completion despite the construction controversy with contractor Foulger-Pratt.
“This is Doug Duncan in 2014. When’s it going to open? What’s it going to cost? What’s the detailed plan to fix it and is it going to be safe? Simple questions that they should be able to answer right away that he didn’t touch at all because he doesn’t have the answers because he’s been studying the issue for a year,” Duncan said. “You need another year to study it Ike? How much longer are you going to take studying this? They’re frozen by indecision and people in Silver Spring are greatly inconvenienced and it has really hurt the revitalization of Silver Spring.”
Andrews took that opportunity to get in one dig of his own.
“Well Mr. Duncan and Mr. Leggett are arguing about who didn’t finish it. Neither one finished it,” Andrews said. “And I don’t know why you’d elect one of them to finish it.”