The Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive is a showdown between two seasoned politicians: Councilmember Steven Silverman (D-at large) of Silver Spring, and former Councilmember and state Democratic Party chair Isiah "Ike" Leggett (D) of Burtonsville. Robert Fustero of Silver Spring, who worked as a grocery clerk at Giant for 30 years, brings a different perspective to the race.
Frontrunners Silverman and Leggett are similar candidates across many issues, with both pledging support for affordable housing, smaller school classroom sizes and environmental conservation. Both also advocate for better-managed growth, but Leggett believes that the shades of gray between their positions may determine the election.
"When talking to Democrats who run for office in Montgomery County, you find they're similar on 95 percent of the issues, but the issue of distinction is growth and development," said Leggett, who would be the first African-American county executive in the history of Montgomery County. "It's one issue, but it's huge and affects everything else, including the environment, transportation and overcrowded schools."
Silverman stresses new transportation projects as the solution to the problems created by growth.
"I think the election is going to be defined by who's got the record for fighting for traffic congestion relief," he said.
Leggett accused Silverman of receiving 70 percent of his campaign contributions from developers.
"I don't know what the percentage is since we don't track it," said Silverman. "When Leggett ran for Council in '98, he got 60 percent of his contributions from development interests, so I’m not sure he’s in a place to criticize me. He’s currently receiving and soliciting contributions from developers in this campaign."
Leggett said that about 15 percent of the money raised in his current campaign for county executive is from developers. He said Silverman's total fundraising drastically exceeds his own.
"The amount of money we got is grossly different. In [Silverman's] case it's probably close to $2 million," said Leggett. "We have collected less than one third of that."
According to records through Jan. 11 filed with the Montgomery County Board of Elections, Citizens for Steve Silverman and Friends of Steve Silverman have spent $1,464,629.28. Friends of Isiah "Ike" Leggett have spent about 8 percent of that. Fustero filed no expenditures before January. The campaign finance data will be updated in August.
Both Silverman and Leggett have hired high-profile campaign workers. The consultants who helped Democrat Timothy Kaine win Virginia's gubernatorial race are working for Silverman. Leggett has hired Harrison Hickman of the Chevy Chase firm Global Strategy Group. Hickman has polled for former vice president Al Gore and former North Carolina senator John Edwards.
Silverman has close ties to outgoing county executive Doug Duncan (D), who led the county for 12 years. Duncan ran with Silverman and the other at-large councilmembers as the "End Gridlock Slate" in 2002. The group's main platform was increased transportation funding and construction of the Inter-County Connector. They are under some scrutiny now since many believe that traffic has worsened since the last election.
"I think we’ve made great progress in the last 12 years in education, parks and recreation, and health care for the uninsured," said Silverman. "We need to do more to limit and manage growth and invest in traffic congestion relief."
Leggett praised Duncan's record on education, culture and the arts but offered pointed criticism in the area of growth.
"I think there are some serious issues that need to be addressed related to development in the county," he said. "We are growing at a pace that our infrastructure, our roads and schools, have not been able to keep up with. I want to make certain that we do a better job of balancing that… [in order] to maintain the quality of life that we want and expect in Montgomery County."
Silverman supported a $300 million increase in transportation dollars over the previous council. He is a strong supporter of the Inter-County Connector (ICC). Plans for the ICC have received a lukewarm reception in Potomac because some believe it would increase pressure for a "Techway" or second crossing from northern Virginia into Potomac to connect with the ICC.
Silverman said he is strongly opposed to a "Techway" or second crossing from northern Virginia into Potomac.
"If there's going to be second bridge crossing over the Potomac, it should be in Frederick County," he said.
Silverman said that Leggett had changed his position on the ICC for the upcoming election.
"I support the ICC," said Leggett. Initially "I did not support and participate [in legislation] because I owned property adjacent [to the ICC]. But when I announced I was going to run two years ago I indicated I would support it."
Silverman has made the Purple Line, a proposed east-west mass transit link between Bethesda, Silver Spring and Prince George's County, a major focus of his campaign. He says the east-west link will reduce traffic congestion and provide economic revitalization to the communities it connects.
"I’ve been a lifetime supporter of first the Georgetown Branch Trolley and now the Purple Line," said Silverman. "Ike voted against the Purple Line twice and was a strong opponent of the Georgetown Branch Trolley his entire political career. Now in election year he’s supporting [the Purple Line]."
Leggett said he would support the Purple Line if the sections in Bethesda and Chevy Chase are built underground. Silverman says that the increased expense of this would doom the project.
"I think we should provide as much protection as possible within reason [to Bethesda and Chevy Chase neighborhoods]," said Leggett. "[The Purple Line] would run in their backyards and adjacent to their communities."
Leggett said it would be five or six years before construction would begin on the proposed Purple Line.
"This is an attempt [by Silverman] to generate [publicity] for his campaign with positions that are meaningless and don't stand up to scrutiny. There's no major debate about [the Purple Line]. It's a debate he's having with himself."
Organizations endorsing Silverman include the Services Employees International Union Local 500 and the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.
Organizations endorsing Leggett include the Sierra Club, Montgomery County Career Firefighters and Progressive Montgomery.
Politicians endorsing Silverman include County Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-at large), State Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16), State Del. Brian Feldman (D-15), former State Del. Cheryl Kagan (D-17), and Board of Education members Patricia O'Neill and Gabe Romero.
Politicians endorsing Leggett include Councilmembers Mike Subin (D-at large), Phil Andrews (D-3), Tom Perez (D-5), Marilyn Praisner (D-4), and former county executives Neal Potter (D) and Sid Kramer (D).
The candidacy of Robert Fustero, a retired supermarket clerk, provides an alternative to the two mainstream Democrats.
"I worked at Giant Food for 30 years," he said. "When you work in this business you run into all sorts of people from different economic groups and you understand the problems that are going on.
"30 years ago when I first started working for Giant, I made $5.50 an hr, and that paid for college, a two-bedroom apartment and a new car," he added. "Now [the minimum wage] is $6.15 an hour. Try to go to American University like I did or buy a car on $6.15 an hour. We need a living wage in this county."
Fustero was a surprisingly popular protest vote in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002. He garnered about 20 percent of the vote against former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who went on to lose narrowly against Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R). At the time of the primary, Townsend had spent $2.3 million in campaign funds compared to just $600 by Fustero.
Fustero continues his low-cost campaigning style in his bid for county executive. He has spent $80 so far and he plans to stay under $250. Fustero says that his refusal to fundraise keeps him independent from interest groups.
"You can’t blame me for what’s been going on for the last 12 years," he said. "I'm probably the only candidate that’s actually offering solutions instead of bragging about my record. I think it's time for a non-politican to take over."
Fustero is opposed to the Inter-County Connector and the Purple Line.
"I think they're overpriced, environmentally unsound and impractical," he said. "After rush hour, who's going to drive on the ICC? You're not going to pay $7 in tolls to go to Prince George's County."
Some of Fustero's transportation views could alienate conservationist voters in Potomac. He is open to considering the Techway, and he believes River Road should be widened.
"[The Techway] is an idea that is due to be looked at and perhaps seriously considered," he said.
"I know [widening River Road] might not be a popular idea," added Fustero. "But I’ve seen it in daytime during rush hour. It’s going to have to be widened, because there's going to be development eventually toward that area."
Affordable housing is a central tenet of all three candidates' campaigns.
Silverman sponsored a workforce housing bill that was unanimously approved by the Council. It will create 10 percent more affordable units in most new developments near county metro stops. About 2,500 units are expected over the next 20 years.
"I'm also interested in identifying publicly owned land like surface parking lots where we can do public-private partnerships to create affordable and middle class housing as part of a project, such as in Bethesda across from the Barnes & Noble," said Silverman. "And I want to continue our efforts to increase our housing intiaitve fund. I passed a budget initiative this year with [County Council president George Leventhal [(D-at large)] to expand housing for the formerly homeless in partnership with Coalition for the Homeless … for people who are coming out of homelessness and back into society."
Leggett offered a three-tiered plan to address affordable housing that included slowing down the number of apartment-to-condo conversions, tripling funding to the county's housing initiative fund, and increasing the number of moderately-priced dwelling units in new developments from 12.5 percent to 20 percent.
Fustero's plan involves adjusting mortgage rates for certain income brackets.
"We can really put a stop to the tall buildings and big office buildings and concentrate more on affordable housing growth," he said. "My proposal is … in effect to offer 4 percent mortgages in certain income groups to try to keep that American dream of owning a home. $300,000 homes are not affordable if you're earning $60,000 a year and paying 7 percent interest."
Democrats typically win in at large elections in Montgomery County, so the primary election is likely to determine the winner.
After the primary, the Democratic nominee will run against Republican Charles "Chuck" Floyd of Kensington for the general election. He is a retired Army major who ran against U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen (D-4) in 2004. Floyd has worked with the Minutemen and has a platform that includes tougher measures for undocumented immigrants.
Former Republican state delegate Robin Ficker of Bethesda will also compete in the Nov. 7 election as an independent.
Robert Raymond Fustero
Experience: Worked 30 years as a supermarket clerk at Giant Food. Has served on the board of directors for his homeowner's association for seven years and is currently treasurer.
Education: Bachelor's degree from American University
Family: Sister Debbie, who works for the public school system; brother Jim Fustero, who works for the county; brother Steve Fustero, who works in the publishing business.
Residence: Silver Spring
Web site: http://hometown.aol.com/rfustero/myhomepage/index.html
Phone number: 301-588-8054
Isiah "Ike" Leggett
Experience: Former County Councilmember, who served16 years and was president three times. Has worked as assistant dean and law professor at the Howard University School of Law. Former chair of the county's Human Rights Commission. Former chair of the state Democratic Party. A decorated Army Captain who served in Vietnam, and a former White House Fellow.
Education: Bachelor's from Southern University; Master of Arts and Juris Doctorate from Howard University; master of Laws from George Washington University
Family: Wife Catherine, who is vice president for human resources at a non-profit that assists retired public service employees; daughter Yaminah, who is a bio-medical researcher
Phone number: 301-217-7955
Experience: Current County Councilmember of eight years. Chairs the Planning and Economic Development Committee and serves on the Health and Human Services Committee for Montgomery County. Appointed by current County Executive Doug Duncan to co-chair the Silver Spring Revitalization Committee.
Education: Bachelor's at American University; law degree at George Washington University
Family: Wife Stefanie Weiss, who is communications director for Experience Corps; son Jordan, who attends Key Middle School
Residence: Silver Spring
Web site: www.stevesilverman.org
Phone number: 301-984-0044