Howard County executive candidates talk business at Chamber of Commerce debate

The focus was supposed to be on business, but at Thursday's Chamber of Commerce Howard County executive debate, Republican candidate Allan Kittleman came out swinging about mailers. 

"OK, folks, let's clear the air," Kittleman announced to a Turf Valley reception hall filled with members of the local business community. "You've been receiving a lot of trash in your mailboxes in the past couple of weeks." 

Kittleman was referring to a series of mailers sent by local Democrats highlighting what they consider to be evidence that Kittleman, who is running as a "proven independent," is more conservative than he has presented himself in this race. But the group, which calls itself the Team Howard Slate and includes Democratic County Council member Courtney Watson, County Council chair Calvin Ball and County Executive Ken Ulman, recently has had to retract two of those assertions after the online sources where they were found proved to be inaccurate.  

Thursday, the senator from West Friendship called the flyers, and an accompanying website, KittlemanFacts.com, "Washington-style politics at its worst," while his opponent, Watson, maintained that the mailers, which focus on Kittleman's votes on education, reproductive issues and gun control, are "relevant issues to Howard County." 

"His record matters, and I believe that calling out an opponent's record is fair in an election," she responded in her own introductory remarks to the Chamber. 

The exchange was one of the more contentious back-and-forths the race has seen, with a little more than seven weeks to go until election day, Nov. 4. 

Introductions aside, the debate quickly got down to business. 

Both county executive candidates promised they would be "hands-on" supporters of local business if elected to the county's top seat. 

"When you, as a business person, come into my office, you're not going to have to sell me on being pro-business, you're going to have me at hello," Kittleman said, pointing out his 93 percent lifetime rating by Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a pro-business group.

"For the past 25 years, I’ve interacted with business on a daily basis. I understand the challenges," Watson said. 

Watson, a council member from Ellicott City, is also the vice president of regional insurance firm Rossmann-Hurt-Hoffman and has a master's degree in business from Loyola University of Maryland. 

Kittleman highlighted his connections in Annapolis as a state senator from the western county, and said his work managing clients as an attorney at Ellicott City-based law firm Godwin, Erlandson, Vernon & Daney was similar to running a business. 

Though focused on a business perspective, the debate touched on popular topics, including education, downtown Columbia redevelopment and the so-called rain tax.

Watson and Kittleman identified the achievement gap in Howard County schools as one of the biggest challenges facing the county. 

"I believe that Howard County's success is really built upon the school system’s success," Watson said. "We have to protect our school system; we have to make sure it gets the dollars it deserves at the state level and the county level."

Kittleman said Howard needs an executive "who realizes that kids are in their homes and communities more than they're in schools. If you can make the communities around those schools stronger, you’ll make schools stronger." 

The candidates differed over the friendliness of Howard's business environment.

Watson called Howard "the economic engine in the state in creating jobs" and said the county is "very well positioned" to attract more, with its Economic Development Authority, business incubator and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab. She pointed to the county's AAA bond rating and said she didn't see the need to raise taxes "in the next four to eight to 10 to 12 years." 

Kittleman lauded the work of the HCEDA and other economic development organizations but said he thought many businesses were "overburdened with taxes and regulations."

He also expressed concern about the county's commercial tax base, which he said was shrinking with the purchase of private properties -- such as the Long Reach Village Center, the Columbia Flier building and the Ascend One building -- for government use. And he decried last year's growth tiers legislation, which removed development rights from some farms in the west in response to a state law requiring counties to designate development levels in an attempt to preserve farmland and the Chesapeake Bay. 

One question from an audience member called the county's permitting process for businesses "ridiculous." 

"Perception really is reality," debate moderator Paul Skalny said before passing the question to the candidates. "Businesses need predictability to become a success. There are a number of questions before me that suggest Howard County hasn't been predictable." 

"I want to know why and how the process failed," in the audince member's particular case, Watson said, adding, "In terms of predictability, that's clearly a central tenet and will be in my administration." 

"We need to have predictability, but we also don't need a government that makes a law and [later] says we don't like that law so we're going to change it on you," Kittleman responded, noting a recent, at times contentious, update to an agreement between the county and Howard Hughes that stipulates the timeline for downtown Columbia's redevelopment and a renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion. 

The candidates also had an opportunity to ask each other questions. 

Kittleman, who has represented business owners in workers' compensation cases, asked Watson about her support for unions, saying he believes that workers have a right to unionize, but "I just don't think the county executive should be out there supporting it."

Watson's answer was succinct: "I believe that employees have the right to unionize." 

Watson's question to Kittleman -- who would he like to see win in an Orioles-Nationals World Series? -- presented a rare opportunity for the two candidates to agree. 

"I bleed orange and black," Kittleman said, and Watson concurred -- adding, to keep the question on topic, that such an event would be a great boon to local business. 

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