As a Republican running in a Democratic district, county and state, it’s prudent for Bill Askinazi to talk about overcoming partisanship.
“There’s really no room for partisanship. That’s just the way it is. The candidates who speak to the issues, who have the most experience and really communicate what their ideas and goals are — are the ones that are going to be elected,” said Askinazi, 48, who is running for the state senate seat in Maryland’s 15th legislative district, which covers most of Potomac. “That’s whether they’re Republican or Democrat.”
THE 15TH is home to the only Montgomery County Republican in the state legislature — Del. Jean Cryor — but five years ago, three out of the district’s four representatives there were Republicans.
So Askinazi knows he can win. But he has lost twice running for the House of Delegates in 1998 and 2002. He’s spent the last three years as Assistant Secretary of Business and Economic Development under Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.
“Ehrlich’s done a lot of good things. He’s going to run on his record, and he’s already shown that he’s going to be very fair to Montgomery County,” said Askinazi. “But I’m running my election on my record, and I have a record. I’m not running as Gov. Ehrlich’s guy. I’m running as a Montgomery County citizen who’s lived and worked here for many years and can bring a lot of my experiences in public service. … I’m not running as a partisan.”
Askinazi says his three years in state government make him a different candidate from the one who ran in 1998 and 2002, but he’s also talking about something else that he didn’t mention in those elections.
“In 1995, I was pronounced dead. My heart stopped,” he said, eating breakfast at the Potomac Village Deli. He had had a ventricular arrhythmia, which landed him in cardiac intensive care in Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. While there, he had a second episode, in which his heart stopped for more than 30 seconds. Doctors were able to treat the irregular heart pattern, and Askinazi recovered within a year. But he was changed.
“I BECAME more of a humanistic person. I traveled. I swore that I would do public service. I gave up a very lucrative job to work with people, communities, charities. … We turned our lives around. We reconnected. We threw out all the phones,” Askinazi said. “We want to give back. That’s what I want to do now. I want to give back. I’m 48 years old. I’ve been on the other side.”
For him, that means putting aside the past elections and moving forward with a campaign that he says isn’t about him.
“When I first ran, a lot of it was about knocking on doors, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Askinazi’ … People don’t [care] who I am. Let me hear about you. Who are you? Tell me about you, your story. That’s been a big change in me,” he said.
Askinazi talked with the Almanac about his brush with death, small business development, and protecting the upcounty Agricultural Reserve.
Q: Why are you running?
A: Perhaps the most important, significant thing that happened to me in my life that addresses … my world view. In 1995, I was pronounced dead. My heart stopped. I had a ventricular arrhythmia. It happened when I was a trial lawyer and I was stressed out a lot of the time. … In my bedroom, my wife was holding me as I was dying. My kids were in the doorway, they were all little and they were watching their father die. I was blue in the face and thrashing and knocked out a window, knocked plants over, I couldn’t breathe. I was rushed to Shady Grove Hospital. A nurse held my hand the entire night to comfort me because I was obviously freaking out as to whether I would live or die or what would happen to my kids. … My father was at my side. I was in emergency cardiac care. And in the hospital I just had this feeling come over me that something was going to happen, really bad. This was after my heat had stopped in the house — I was now in the hospital. I remember looking up and I said to my dad, and I started to cry, ‘Dad, if anything happens to me, please take care of the kids.’ … My heart was flipping. It was going in fits and starts. It wouldn’t beat right. My dad started to cry, and said, ‘Everything’s going to be fine.’ That minute, boom, flatline. They rushed in with paddles, they zapped me up. I was out for a good amount of time, more than 30 seconds, which when you flatline is an eternity. You know the whole white light thing, I went through all that. … Long story short, I had a quick recovery. I had an arrhythmia and they zapped it out. A year later they found it with a laser. But the experience. I gave up my trial lawyer experience. I became more of a humanistic person. I traveled. I swore that I would do public service. I gave up a very lucrative job to work with people, communities, charities. … We turned our lives around. We reconnected. We threw out all the phones. For six months, I stayed in the back yard. I took up bird watching. I traveled. I collected seashells. I read books that I never read before — Dostoevsky, Frost. … It was a Renaissance for me. I learned to learn again. … We want to give back. That’s what I want to do now. I want to give back. I’m 48 years old. I’ve been on the other side. And I want this to be public, because people don’t know this about me.”
Q: But all that preceded your previous campaigns. What’s different?
A: I didn’t have that public service experience. That’s why I’m a different candidate today. … This is why I’m running again: I just finished three years of public service. Public service really opens your eyes to how government works and how you can get resources from the state to your community. If you can navigate that maze, you become a much more effective legislator.
[In previous races] I was painted as sort of a one-dimensional guy. … It was my fault for not being able to convey my different types of experiences. … I’m not an elitist. I’m not on an ivory tower saying, ‘Vote for me, I’m a businessman.’
Q: What is an issue you’re concerned about in the district?
A: Clarksburg was a real crisis in confidence in local government. It’s a mess that’s still unfolding and you have to look at why it’s happening. It was a real problem in the Planning Board and the County Executive dropping the ball in overseeing a very important agency. Whenever you have a failure in due process … it chills investment in the community. Not only just with developers.
Clarksburg is the gateway to Frederick which basically has $6 billion in new federal investment. That was supposed to be our big area where we have housing and fire stations right off the I-270 corridor. Now it’s a bad word, and builders all over the country — very talented folks, scientists, are skeptical when they start reading a national story about Clarksburg. So it hurt us. We’re going to have to do a lot. My question is, ‘Who was minding the store?’
Q: You’ve stated strong support for the Agricultural Reserve. As someone interested in business development, why don’t you want to build there?
A: No time soon is the agricultural reserve going to be released for builders. … It’s not going to happen. It shouldn’t happen. I’m against building in the reserve and I applaud the County Council when they cut off churches and others from [expanding there].
People come here for the quality of life. When you talk to CEOs as I have, they want quality of life for their kids and their family, just like you and I do. You travel 12 miles up Route 28 and you’re in a different world. … It’s a joy and it just cannot be ruined. … For me, it’s off the table. That’s why I’m against the second bridge crossing going through the reserve.
Q: But you’re pro-ICC?
A: ICC in my mind is not equal to second bridge crossing. … A lot of folks who want to believe that there is a plan to create a puzzle piece don’t recognize that it takes decades to plan a bridge crossing, it takes decades to get another state to cooperate with that bridge crossing and to fund it. We just funded the ICC. The reality of government is that money is not going to be there for another bridge crossing at least for a decade or two.
Q: You have talked about the emphasis your parents placed on education. What is the state of education in Maryland and Montgomery County?
A: You can’t give kids an opportunity unless you fund the opportunities. So when we talk about teachers — it’s essential that we have quality teachers. We won’t have quality teachers when their pensions are 38 percent, lowest in the country. It can’t be. … It’s shameful — shameful — that our teachers don’t have a quality pension and better compensation.
Kids cannot be in portables anymore. You hear this all the time. In 1998, they said these were temporary portables. Temporary? Look at the kids still in the portables. Why are the kids still in portables? It’s not the money. There’s been record monies allocated to the legislators. Where is the money going?
There’s been a failure in getting the message across that Montgomery County is not the rich, white county that it was perceived to be. We’re not the step-sister of the state anymore. Politics now is very geopolitical. It’s Baltimore versus Montgomery County. Really that’s the way it is, so you need an advocate who understands that.
I’ve heard Martin O’Malley talk publicly that if he is elected governor, monies will be given to a geographic area … much to the detriment of Montgomery County. Legislators know that. 67 cents of every dollar that we pay in taxes as Montgomery county citizens goes to Baltimore. It goes elsewhere.