The moderator prefaced Wednesday’s debate between incumbent District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner and challenger Duchy Trachtenberg by comparing the evening to a heavyweight boxing title bout.
Sticking to that metaphor, it was Trachtenberg — the former at-large member of Council — who came out swinging. Not every punch connected.
In the middle of the roughly 75-minute debate in the Town of Chevy Chase Town Hall, Trachtenberg’s campaign staff handed out a sheet to spectators listing all developer donations to Berliner’s campaign fund since 2006.
She claimed a rise in robbery and aggravated assault statistics in Bethesda is linked to lower morale among police officers unhappy with the Council and county executive’s decision to remove effects bargaining rights. Trachtenberg also questioned how Berliner — an energy lawyer who has criticized Pepco for its performance — could accept campaign donations from the electric utility and still claim to be a consumer advocate.
“I know from being on the Council and from talking to people in the community that you’ve publicly joked that Pepco is your political ATM,” Trachtenberg said, when given a chance to ask Berliner a question. “You’ve taken money from Pepco, thousands of dollars. How do you separate that from being a watchdog?”
“If Pepco wants to give me some money, I will take their money and you can judge whether it has influenced my actions with respect to Pepco,” Berliner said. “Because no one in our county, no one in our state has fought harder and longer against Pepco than me.”
Trachtenberg again alleged Berliner bragged about getting financial contributions from the electric utility.
“Oh, it’s so tempting,” Berliner said. “It’s just simply not true. I regret this kind of conversation. We can fight about the substance, we can talk about the issues. These kinds of conversations are so unseemly and simply not true. I’m sorry to say it.”
“Well, I think they speak to people’s character and integrity,” Trachtenberg said. “I don’t think we can get around the fact that in politics, sometimes decisions are politically-laden and the best decisions are not made because of political expediency. And I’m the poster girl for making decisions that are not necessarily politically expedient.”
At one point, Berliner acknowledged the feeling many observers have that his race against former ally Trachtenberg — who announced her intention for the District 1 seat on the filing deadline day — will be a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier-type prizefight, as moderator Charles Duffy joked beforehand.
“I appreciate the desire to have the sort of Thrilla in Manila kind of conversation and this heavyweight fight,” Berliner said. “Let me just make clear, I’m running for this office on my record.”
Berliner did attempt to draw a difference with Trachtenberg on support of union causes — especially Trachtenberg’s view that the county was wrong to repeal police effects bargaining rights in 2011. That stance — and her pledge to reinstate those rights if elected — earned Trachtenberg the county police union’s endorsement and likely had much to do with her earning the support of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, the county’s main employee union.
County police commanders said effects bargaining rights were hindering their ability to make swift and necessary changes regarding everyday activities such as the use of email, equipment turn-in, rules for raids and video systems in police cars.
It was a ballot question in 2012. After a bitter campaign waged by both the county government and police union, 58 percent of voters chose to uphold the 2011 repeal. A court has since ruled that Montgomery County acted illegally by using public funds to campaign to uphold the repeal.
“When our police chief says to us, ‘This makes it harder to provide public safety to our community,’ I listen. I have the greatest respect for the men and women who are on the street protecting us. This is not about them. This is about a singular grant of authority to a single union that got in the way of actually providing public safety,” Berliner said. “Which is why everybody in our county, elected leadership was unanimous. It’s not like we’re Republicans. It’s not like we’re Wisconsin.”
Trachtenberg reiterated her stance that the County Council should not legislate labor rights and that any issues should instead be hammered out at the collective bargaining table.
“I think that’s something we should think about, given the fact that we have different elements of crime increasing right here in District 1,” Trachtenberg said. “In fact, in Bethesda, there are significant increases in the data from 2012 around aggregated assault and robbery.”
Trachtenberg was referring to increases in the rates of those crimes in 2012 compared to 2011. The rates for both those crimes dropped by double-digits in 2013 compared to 2012 in the 2nd Police District that covers Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac and parts of North Bethesda.
Both candidates said they support the Purple Line, the completion of a new Capital Crescent Trail with the Purple Line, transit-oriented development and razing the Apex Building. Neither would commit to providing the full funding request of the Montgomery County school system this budget season — though Trachtenberg said it was hard for her to answer what was in her case a hypothetical question.
Trachtenberg said she decided to run because people complained to her that Berliner “told one thing and something else happened,” in regards to minimum wage indexing, Brickyard Farm and even Berliner’s tree canopy protection bill.
But the clear difference between Berliner and Trachtenberg came on labor issues. Both candidates played up their positions.
Trachtenberg, who the same public employee unions happily claimed to oust in her 2010 reelection bid, remarked that “the tables have turned,” as to labor support.
“I am proud of my endorsements,” Trachtenberg said.
“Now those disappointed special interests are preparing, in the words of the Washington Post, to ‘oust’ me,” Berliner said. “Well, that is a fight I’m willing to take on too.”