For the first time, all nine Democratic candidates running for the House of Delegates in District 12 were in one room.
Each candidate had five minutes to deliver their message to an audience of about 50 club members and area residents.
The district, which encompasses parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, including Columbia, Catonsville, Elkridge, Lansdowne and Arbutus, is wide open after all three current delegates announced they would retire at the end of their terms.
While the majority of candidates touted their support for all the big issues — quality education, a strong economy, a healthy environment — each also had a theme that emerged from their pitch and set them apart.
For Renee McGuirk-Spence and Eric Ebersole, that theme was education. Ebersole and Spence, both longtime Catonsville residents, also have experience working in the educational system.
"I believe with education, you can make everything else possible," said McGuirk-Spence, a former special education teacher and a lobbyist for the Maryland Department of Education for the past 23 years. She added that she would like to see a universal preschool program to help prepare children for success at an early age.
Ebersole, a math teacher in the Howard County Public School System for 33 years, also pointed to the benefits of a strong, and equitable, educational system.
"Education done equally promotes social equality," he said, pointing to a need to attract and retain great teachers.
Brian Bailey, of Lansdowne, shared McGuirk-Spence and Ebersole's community ties and concern for schools.
The former chairman of the Baltimore County Democratic Party and former chairman of the Southwest Area Educational Advisory Council in Baltimore County said some of the area's schools were still in need of basic amenities.
"There are still schools in southwest Baltimore County that don't have air conditioning," he said. "In my mind, ensuring that children have the right facilities and the right resources … is going to make academic achievement rise."
The three candidates from Howard County all had a focus on health care and community service.
Adam Sachs, a public relations specialist for the American Nurses Association who lives in Columbia, advocated for single-payer, universal health care. "What I'm standing for is health care for everyone, all life long," he said.
Clarence Lam and Terri Hill, both of Columbia, are both physicians.
Lam, who practices medicine at the Johns Hopkins medical campus in east Baltimore, has received the endorsement of the General Assembly's only physician, Dan Morhaim. Lam said he felt there was a lot he could do "to give back to the community beyond the walls of the hospital" — including bringing a medical and scientific background that he said was "sorely lacking" in the legislature.
Hill, a plastic surgeon who is the only candidate to be endorsed by the three current District 12 delegates and state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer of District 12, said her whole life, she has been "serving somebody, some way, something bigger than myself." Now, she said she wanted to step away from her practice and "take some of that effort to put back into the community."
Catonsville businesswoman Rebecca Dongarra shared Hill's commitment to community service. "I've been a person who is committed to the community," she said, highlighting her efforts to raise money for organizations helping the homeless and supporting same-sex marriage. She added that she would "bring a strong belief in business to the table" if sent to Annapolis.
Mike Gisriel, a veteran lobbyist and former delegate from the Towson area who served a term from 1987 to 1991, pointed to his experience in Annapolis. "Bottom line, I know Annapolis," he said. "If I win, I'll help anybody else who wins."
Nick Stewart, a lawyer and former speechwriter for then-Mayor, now Gov. Martin O'Malley, said he had the combination of public and private experience that taught him that "to get things done you need to have a pragmatic approach," while still holding on to important principles.
Southwest Baltimore Democratic Club President Mark Weaver said he thought the forum was a good first chance for voters to hear the candidates' views side by side. He said he had a slightly better idea of whom he might vote for, "but I'm holding on to that [information] for now." The club will endorse candidates early next year.
Prospective candidates still have until the end of February 2014 to file.
No Republicans have yet filed in the district.