State Del. Will Smith responds to a question at a candidates’ forum Nov. 17. The other candidates are (left to right) Darian Unger, Del. David Moon and Scott Brown. Photo by Mike Diegel.

An overflow crowd packed a room at the Silver Spring Civic Center Nov. 17 to hear four candidates explain why they are the best choice to replace Congressman-elect Jamie Raskin as state senator for District 20.

Longtime political organizer and state Del. David Moon, Del. Will Smith, a civil rights attorney, small business owner Scott Brown and Darian Unger, Howard University professor, firefighter and local activist all took part in a forum held three weeks before the county’s Democratic Central Committee will choose a candidate to recommend to Gov. Larry Hogan, who will make the final decision.

In opening remarks, Raskin said, “It’s a great honor to serve in this position and a great responsibility.”

“It’s our job is to find the moral center the best we can and bring the political center to us,” he said, referring to his own philosophy in office.

“We have high expectations of the people we send into government,” Raskin added, thanking the candidates for coming forward. “It does take a lot of courage to put yourself in this position.”

During the hour and half in which they each answered a series of questions, there was little to distinguish to the candidates’ positions from one another.

“I think you’ll see very little daylight in progressivism, at least between myself and the other worthy candidates,” said Unger, a former chair of Progressive Neighbors.

The best example of the general agreement among the candidates came in response to a question about the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system on Route 29.

Once each of the other candidates had expressed their support for the BRT and explained why, Brown said, “You’re making it easy on me. Ditto, ditto, ditto.”

The first question, from a representative of Progressive Neighbors, asked the candidates to speak to their progressive bona fides but more provocatively, asked if they be willing to work to change the system by which the vacancy will be filled.

All four candidates said they would be willing to try to change the system to one that would allow for special elections.

Unger made a particular point of this, drawing one clear distinction between himself and the other candidates.

“I’m committing to not run for reelection because I don’t think this is the way we should be choosing our senator,” he said. “I am committing to not run for reelection in 2018 because I think that government by appointment is not healthy.”

During the Q&A, Smith and Moon relied heavily on citing their legislative experience and relative effectiveness to distinguish themselves.

“There’s a difference between being progressive and being effective and getting things done,” said Smith, noting that the legislature passed more of his bills than any other freshman.

“The one thing I would highlight going into the 2017 session is actually not related to a bill at all,” said Moon in response to a question about legislative priorities. “This is to say that effectiveness is measured in more than how many bills you passed. It goes down to whether you’re willing to spend your own political capital on things that you think are right, even when your own party is wrong.”

In this case, he cited the state tax cuts that were passed before Gov. Hogan took office and the effects of that lost revenue on education and other priorities.

For Brown, one of his legislative priorities is climate change.

“It’s one of those things that we have made a lot of progress on here in Maryland,” he said. “I don’t think we made enough progress, obviously.”

He also cited the need to work on infrastructure, jobs and the economy to put people to work.

Smith said much of his work in the legislature revolved around reforming the criminal justice system in Maryland, focusing on juvenile justice this year.

Unger said he wanted to concentrate on equal opportunity in terms of social and criminal justice, education and environmental justice, along with community priorities.

“I have been working for years on the Purple Line, getting it and improving it,” he said, “and now most locally on combatting intolerance, which just raised its head again in my kids’ own school.”

The audience asked many other questions about what each candidate would do to address issues as wide-ranging as affordable housing, safe housing for senior citizens, overcrowded schools, adults and children with special needs, police reform, hate crimes, the delegation’s gender balance and more.

The Democratic Central Committee plans to hold a public meeting Dec. 7 to hear presentations from each candidate and elect one to recommend to the governor. The location has not yet been determined.

The Greater Silver Spring Democratic Club, Progressive Neighbors, Montgomery County Young Democrats, the Muslim Democratic Club, the African-American Democratic Club, Dave Kunes of the Democratic Central Committee and the African Immigrant Caucus sponsored the candidate forum.

Mike Diegel