In Howard County’s first council district, there are nearly as many Democratic candidates for one seat as there are seats on the council itself.
“When I first decided to run for this position, I knew I had really big shoes to fill – I didn’t realize it was going to take four of us to fill them,” one candidate for the seat, Jon Weinstein, said.
When you count the two Republicans running in District 1, there’s even more – a unique set of circumstances in an election cycle that hasn’t garnered much competition for incumbent council members.
Wednesday night, District 1’s four Democratic candidates began to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents at a forum hosted by the Columbia Democratic Club at Ridgely’s Run Community Center in Jessup.
Dave Grabowski, former chair of the Planning Board and a lifelong Elkridge resident, said he had his feet firmly planted in Howard County.
“When I’m elected, I’m going to push to invest in us,” he said. “I was born and raised in Howard County and have no intentions of leaving Howard County.”
Lisa Markovitz, who owns a small financial agency in Ellicott City and is a leader of a comprehensive zoning referendum effort in the county, highlighted her citizen activism.
As former vice president of the Howard County Citizens Association, she said, her goal was “bringing citizen input into zoning and trying to get community interest and citizens involved.”
Wendy Royalty, a former spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, pointed to her experience serving on several boards and political campaigns, and said education was a priority: “All roads lead to the quality of our schools.” Royalty has two children currently attending Howard County public schools.
Weinstein, the president of Ellicott City-based Line of Sight, a strategic consulting firm, talked about his experience as the only candidate to have run a previous campaign. Weinstein ran in District 9A in 2010, but came in last out of four candidates in the conservative region.
“I think what’s important to note here is not only what we can do in serving the county, but quite honestly, District 1 is still a fairly moderate district. It’s not a slam-dunk,” he said. “I think what I offer is my business experience, but also the strength of my campaign, having run before, that I can run all the way through November.”
The candidates shared their thoughts on the minimum wage, transportation and government transparency.
Grabowski said he thought the county should take a look at raising the minimum wage.
“We are one of the leading counties in the country,” he said. “One of my concerns is that school teachers are public employees; we need them to live in the county. And if that’s what it takes, to bring all the minimum wages up in Howard County, we need to do that.”
He said transportation went “hand in hand” with a strong minimum wage.
“Right now, we’re – I hate the term – a bedroom community,” he said. “We get in our cars and go. We need to provide opportunities to work, learn, live and play in Howard County… Transportation plays a very vital role in that.”
On the government transparency question, Grabowski pointed to his time on the Planning Board. “We always advocated for a transparent process,” he said. “We need to make sure that… everybody has an opportunity to see what we do.”
Markovitz was more moderate on raising the minimum wage.
“When I first heard about the proposed minimum wage increase, I was concerned that it was a significant increase,” she said. “I was worried about what that balance would be (between providing higher wages for workers and ensuring businesses could afford to keep them).
“So when I saw that it would be implemented over time in a way that I think businesses could absorb it better, I was more confident and happy with the plan,” she said of a state plan to raise the minimum wage.
On transportation, Markovitz called the county’s roads “pretty crowded” and said she thought “infrastructure has to be paced a little better with development to help those public service aspects to be improved a little faster along with the increased population.”
And on transparency: “I definitely stand for transparency,” she said. “I’ve very much been in favor of trying to get communities informed.”
Royalty was unequivocal in her support for raising the minimum wage.
“That was never a struggle for me,” she said. “I know people, I see people, I talk to people who work two or three jobs and are still struggling to make ends meet.
“We’re not talking about people who are lazy,” she added. “We’re talking about hardworking people, and it’s up to us to level the playing field.”
Royalty said she was inspired by a trip to Zurich to try to find more ways to make Howard County, and Route 40 in particular, more walkable.
“I’d actually like to see us reduce the amount of time we spend in our cars, but still do the things we enjoy, such as recreational activities or even going to the store,” she said. “I know that’s a big challenge, and I’m not trying to be pie-in-the-sky about it, however, I think that’s something we can work to achieve.”
As for transparency, Royalty said she wanted constituents to know “they can come and talk to me.
“People are busy in their daily lives, they don’t have time to get involved. I would like to increase accessibility to the office,” she said, highlighting her involvement with the school community, which is part of District 1.
Weinstein said his experience as a consultant set him apart when dealing with issues like the minimum wage and transportation.
“I have worked with organizations, government in particular, on strategic issues of this nature, where interrelationships are critical,” he said.
Weinstein suggested raising the minimum wage could create savings in government spending that could be used to invest small business.
“It’s really just a simple matter of math: right now people don’t make enough money to live in the county,” he said. “There’s a threshold where if people make more money, they can come off certain parts of public assistance... With the savings, we can incent small businesses to hire more people at that wage. There is a cycle that can be done.”
Weinstein said working on affordable housing should accompany a higher minimum wage, so that county teachers, police and firefighters could live in the community where they work.
He added that “there’s a lot of opportunity” for new development in the county to focus on creating communities “that reinforce areas where people can live and work in that vicinity.”
Voters will have the chance to pick one of the candidates in the primary election June 24. Ellicott City residents Kevin Schmidt and David Blake Melton are competing for the Republican vote.
Democratic County Executive candidate and current District 1 Council member Courtney Watson also spoke at the forum Wednesday, as did candidates for the Democratic Central Committee, the other council districts, state’s attorney, sheriff, clerk of court, register of wills and orphan’s court judge.