SILVER SPRING — In what has become a weekly ritual as the June primary draws closer, five of the Democratic candidates running for County Executive gathered at the Silver Spring Civic Center for yet another candidate forum.
The Latino Democratic Club of Montgomery County hosted the forum, which was moderated by WAMU reporter Armando Trull. Appropriately enough, the discussion revolved mostly around issues important to the County’s largest Latino population. Candidates in attendance included Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal, former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow and businessman David Blair. Delegate Bill Frick was the lone candidate to not attend, as he was in Annapolis fulfilling his duties as a state delegate.
With a large percentage of Montgomery County residents having been born abroad, immigration has become a top issue locally in the year since Donald J. Trump was sworn in as President after running on a platform of building a wall on the US-Mexico border and deporting a large percentage of the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
“Our policy in Montgomery County is one that I’m quite proud of,” said Berliner. “Our police, do not – do not – act as immigration officials and they will never do so in Montgomery County; that is who we are and that is who we will always be.”
Trull asked each candidate about what they would do to protect immigrants, and in response each made a similar pledge, vowing that if elected, they would continue distancing Montgomery County from federal immigration policy as much as possible.
“[W]hat Trump is doing in Washington is horrible…we need to do everything we can locally to stop his antics,” Blair said.
Blair also pledged that he would support using County funds to provide legal representation for County residents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, to give them the best chance to fight charges stemming from immigration law violations.
Elrich also agreed the County needs to fund legal assistance for immigrants facing deportation, adding that the Council would place funding for such a program in this year’s budget
“We need to communicate with the community that Montgomery County is not Washington D.C.,” Elrich said.
As was the case with similar questions at forums throughout the election season, all the candidates were in agreement that County resources should not be used to help enforce federal immigration law. The issue is personal for Krasnow, she said, because her daughter recently married someone who’d been brought to the United States illegally, adding that she has empathy for many of the County’s residents in immigration legal limbo.
On jobs and the economy, the candidates each either touted aspects of their records they said helped Latinos, such as support for the Purple Line light rail project, which will run from New Carrolton to Bethesda, as well as their efforts to formulate County policies meant to help minority-owned businesses.
Leventhal talked about the hundreds of millions of dollars Montgomery County awards each year through contracts to local businesses, and said that he would like to ensure Latino-owned businesses get a fair chance to compete for those lucrative local contracts. Leventhal touted his work in launching the Local Small Business Reserve program, which spent much of its $94 million on Latino-owned small businesses, and if elected Leventhal said he would strengthen programs for minority-owned businesses in the County.
“The best way we can help small business to keep those hundreds of millions of dollars as much as feasible here in the County and provide opportunities for fair contracting and for companies to have a reasonable chance to compete for those contracts and to build wealth,” Leventhal said.
Krasnow, who has been critical of what she called an anti-business atmosphere in the County, said that if elected County Executive, she would continue to support development in the East County area, which holds a large percentage of the County’s Latino population. She also criticized the County’s economic development corporation, which she said overly focuses its efforts on attracting large businesses rather than focusing on the needs of local small ones.
“The small companies and certainly Latino companies are really this county’s future,” Krasnow said. “We must make sure we are providing the resources.”
Schools were another major issue during the forum, with Trull asking about the County’s large immigrant and Latino population in Montgomery County Public Schools. Each candidate agreed that they school system needs to be more culturally sensitive to the needs of Latino students and can accomplish this in part by hiring more Spanish-speaking teachers.
“When you have a third of your population identifying as Latino, you better have a third of your infrastructure that can relate to them and make sure that they are reaching the kids,” Berliner said in response to a question about how the County can help Latino students.
Krasnow said it was important for the County to fund prekindergarten education, provide more funding for programs and increased vocational classes as solutions to help serve the County’s underserved Latino population.
“We need more wraparound programs in our schools,” Krasnow said.
Elrich echoed the sentiments to provide universal pre-K, and expanding affordable housing as a way to give more security to students who may struggle when they are economically instable.
“Economic instability that destabilizes families has a profound effect on children in school. So we need to make sure that people are making money, have a roof over their head and are meeting the basic needs of their families,” Elrich said.
Blair said the County needs to focus on really young kids, saying the return on investment on pre-K was great, but said it was expensive, adding that the County should utilize nonprofits and faith based organization to help fill the pre-K gap.
“The return on investment on pre-K is staggering, for every dollar we invest we get five to $10 back. It’s also expensive…I don’t know if we could get there out of the gate, but we could certainly make the best use of faith-based private organizations,” Blair said.