Rating The Leisure World Debate

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Both Bill Turque of the Post and Lou Peck of Bethesda Magazine assessed the candidates’ performance at the Leisure World debate Sunday afternoon. First, Turque’s thoughts:

Democrats running for office in Montgomery County know they have to bring their A-game to Leisure World. The Silver Spring senior community of 8,000 is packed with active, knowledgeable voters who faithfully turn out for elections. It is a tough crowd, even for a seasoned politician.

Former news anchor Kathleen Matthews and wine retailer David Trone, two first-time candidates in the contest for Maryland’s 8th District Democratic congressional nomination, found out just how tough at a Valentine’s Day reception Sunday afternoon. Matthews and Trone, two of the three leading contenders in the April 26 primary, fielded two hours of often-blunt questions about their qualifications for office.

On Trone’s maiden voyage into the race:

Trone, making his first appearance at a candidate forum since entering the race Jan. 27 with a vow to self-fund his campaign, is one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers at the national level. He explained that the money to the GOP was simply the cost of doing business in many of the red states where his company, Total Wine & More, operates.

“My business interests are different than my personal interests,” Trone said, adding that he had “no connection whatsoever on a personal basis” with the Republican candidates. His only objective, he said, was to expand markets for his stores.

“If you want to get anything accomplished, you want anything done in the state of Texas or South Carolina or North Carolina — and all the things you’ve gotten done are very pro-customer and narrow focus — you have to work with Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

On the absence of prior legislative experience of both Trone and Matthews:

Others asked Matthews and Trone how, in the absence of legislative records, their merits as candidates could be assessed. And why, questioners wondered, hadn’t they paid their dues by starting political careers at the board of education or county council?

“We might not all have legislative records, but we have records,” said Matthews, a former WJLA anchor and Marriott executive. “Twenty-five years on television night after night covering your stories and gaining your trust.” She also spoke of her decade as a top communications and government relations executive at Marriott, during which, she said, she moved a good but conservative company toward more enlightened approaches to the environment and treatment of LGBT employees and customers.

Trone delivered probably his strongest response of the day, asking Leisure World residents, in essence: How have career politicians been working out for you?

“So maybe we might argue that it’s a good thing to be coming from outside the process and bringing some fresh ideas, some willingness to have change,” Trone said. “Change can be a really good thing. But if you just keep having the same old, same old, we’re going to get the same old results, which are deplorable.”

Peck’s assessment was very similar.

Describing himself as “the new guy in town,” David Trone Sunday participated in his first debate since jumping into the contest for the District 8 Democratic congressional nomination two weeks ago—and quickly found himself the object of pointed audience questions, as well as some direct and indirect barbs from rival candidates.

Barely had the eight candidates on stage at a gathering of the Leisure World Democratic Club in Silver Spring finished their opening statements when Trone faced a question about recent disclosures that he contributed more than $160,000 to Republican candidates around the country over a 15-year period.

“I have a question…and it’s a painful one, but it’s one that must be addressed,” Paul Bardack, a local Democratic activist and candidate for delegate in 2014, told Trone. “In recent years nationally, you have given a lot of money not only to Republicans, but to right-wing Republicans—and, indeed, you’ve done so in races, where there were competitive Democratic candidates. How does your nationwide support for right-wing Republicans translate to your desire to get the Democratic nomination for Congress here in Maryland?”

The co-owner of the Total Wine & More retail chain—which currently has more than 130 stores in 18 states—clearly was ready for the question, replying in measured tones, “My business interests are different than my personal interests.” That prompted scattered hisses from a packed auditorium that appeared to contain a significant contingent of supporters of one of Trone’s leading rivals, state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park.

“So, with those candidates, I have no connection with them whatsoever on a personal basis,” Trone, a Potomac resident, continued, referring to the Republicans to whom he had contributed. “But on a business basis, if you want to work to get anything done in the state of Texas, or South Carolina or North Carolina—and all the things we have gotten done are very pro-consumer—you have to work with Republicans and Democrats.”

Trone also noted that he had “given millions” to the Democratic National Committee over the years, adding, “I was the largest DNC contributor in America last year.” Federal Election Commission reports show a $334,000 contribution last November from Trone to the Democratic Hope Fund, a joint enterprise of the DNC and President Obama’s campaign organization.

Both journalists noted the sharp response to Trone from fellow candidate Joel Rubin.

Trone’s response triggered an attack by another candidate, former State Department official Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase. 

“With all due respect to Mr. Trone, what he described…is exactly what’s wrong with Washington. You do not need to be buying legislatures in order to get results,” Rubin declared. “You can make change in Washington if you fight for it. You don’t have to buy it, you have to work for it.”

Trone wasn’t backing down. In one of his best moments in the debate, Trone responded to yet another question about his lack of legislative experience.

“I don’t think having been part of the political process means you’re made to do a great job in the political process,” Trone said. “The approval rating [of Congress] is 14 percent. We might argue it’s a good thing to be coming from outside of the process, and bringing some fresh ideas. If we just keep having the same old, same old, we’re going to get the same old results—which are deplorable.”

A few comments from me. The line of people asking questions, and the crowd, were clearly slanted in favor of Jamie Raskin. That’s fine, but asking the same question over and over again got monotonous and repetitive. Some of the questions were borderline rude. And the assumption that the only appropriate background for a congressional candidate is as a state legislator is both skewed to Raskin and factually unsupported. No, neither Trone nor Matthews have legislative experience, but then again, neither do 212 current member of the US House and 56 US Senators, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. And the range of prior experience of representatives is very broad, as this report details.

 There are good arguments for any number of candidates in this race. But Raskin supporters would do well to abandon the oft-stated belief that the candidacies of Matthews and Trone are illegitimate because they didn’t take the same path as their preferred candidate. It does their candidate no favors and it flies in the face of the actual membership of the current Congress. Both journalists and business executives are represented in the above list. That’s not to say that either Matthews or Trone should be elected - but simply to say that it’s not some bizarre and unprecedented idea if one or the other of them does win.

4 thoughts on “Rating The Leisure World Debate

  1. slk

    that was far from being a “debate” - it was merely a candidates opportunity to self promote while giving stock answers about subjects of which they have no experience.

  2. Keith Berner

    Sorry Jonathan, it is completely inappropriate for candidates whose only rationale (and only potential path to victory) is their millions of dollars to try and purchase one of the most progressive districts in the country. Raskin supports (and those of the other, more legitimate candidates) should hammer on this every single day. I’ll be doing that on my blog.

    1. Jonathan Shurberg Post author

      Keith: I think your specific point is totally valid about Trone (estimates are that he’s already spent $2.1 million of his own money just on ads) but it doesn’t apply at all to Matthews, who hasn’t put any of her own money into this race at all. It’s not self-funding and it’s not dark money. She’s gone out and raised money the same way Jamie Raskin has, getting on the phone and asking for donations. The fact that she’s raised more than he has does not make the manner in which she’s raised it illegitimate.

      My point is more general, and your point is a subset of mine. My opinion is that too many Raskin supporters try to define his opponents as illegitimate when (to cite one example that came up prominently on Sunday) both business and journalism are not at all uncommon backgrounds for members of Congress. The palpable disdain with which some of the questioners on Sunday literally demanded that Matthews and Trone “run for something else first” may feel good, but it does nothing at all to persuade anyone to vote for Raskin.

      While I personally don’t think David Trone has the qualifications to represent me in Congress, (1) he has the right to run, which you and others would deny him, and (2) self-funding candidates have had the right to spend on their own campaigns since 1976, when the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo. Self-funding has NOTHING to do with Citizens United, which is all about corporate funded dark money. And ironically or otherwise, the only dark money spent thus far in CD8 has been spent by Mayday, which supports - drumroll please - Jamie Raskin (Joel Rubin also has a super PAC, which to my knowledge hasn’t spent anything yet).

      Re Matthews, she’s doing it the legal and aboveboard way, as is Raskin. Why is one OK and the other not? Because she’s doing better and raising more money?

      Almost half the members of Congress have no prior legislative experience, including 90 Democrats. Are they all illegitimate too?

      I’ve said this from the beginning. It’s not persuasive to tear down the other candidates. Make the case FOR your preferred candidate. Too many Raskin supporters, in particular, spend too much time ripping on other candidates instead of advocating for Jamie. I highly doubt that even one voter was persuaded on Sunday by the righteousness demonstrated by the indignant questions to Matthews and Trone at Leisure World. Jamie Raskin deserves better advocacy than that.

  3. Pingback: 02.18.16 Is it fair to call out Matthews and Trone? (MD-8 congressional race) | Left-Hand View

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