Several county issues came into focus as Steve Schuh and Steuart Pittman traded jabs during a debate at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
While Thursday night’s event was good for exploring issues the county faces, it also brought some to light that weren’t at the forefront of the election until now.
Here are five takeaways from the debate between the county executive candidates:
1. This isn’t the governor’s race.
Republican Schuh is not going to coast to an easy victory like the polls are predicting for Gov. Larry Hogan against Democratic challenger Ben Jealous. Pittman showed he had a lot of support at Thursday’s debate with a raucous crowd that booed Schuh and cheered their candidate. Pittman is just five points behind Schuh, according to an Anne Arundel Community College survey.
But don’t count Schuh out. That same survey showed he had strong job approval numbers, and about 75 percent of residents said they believe the economy is good or excellent. And his supporters weren’t shy at the debate, either, sometimes drowning out Pittman’s responses.
2. Immigration is a bigger deal than initially thought.
Both candidates defended their position on immigration. Typically immigration is a federal issue, but the county’s detention officers are part of the 287(g) program, which teaches them to be more proactive in notifying the federal government of undocumented criminals in the detentions center. The county also has an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold up to 130 detained immigrants while they wait immigration hearings.
Pittman has called on the county to quit the 287(g) program and end its deal with ICE. Schuh has said this would put undocumented criminals back on the street after their release. (The Capital is looking into this statement). The crowd was incredibly responsive to these comments as audience members whispered under their breaths “give me a break” for both candidates. Normally local government isn’t affected by national politics, but in this case immigration will be voting issue in this election.
3. Both candidates have a similar approach to public safety and teacher funding.
As Pittman explained how he wanted to hire more police officers, fire fighters and teachers, he said the county’s growing economy could pay for those new positions. Schuh immediately told Pittman that he supported the Republican’s strategy because that’s exactly what the county is already doing.
But Pittman stressed he felt the county could better prioritize funding to hire teachers, increase pay and restore lost step increases, but it wouldn’t happen overnight. Schuh accused Pittman of wanting to increase county spending by more than $200 million. Pittman denied that is his plan.
4. They went after each other early.
In his opening remarks Pittman immediately attacked Schuh for “reckless development” and laid at his feet resident complaints about increased traffic and growth. Schuh defended himself early, saying the county seeks a 50/50 strategy of developed land and preservation.
Later in the debate he attacked Pittman for taking $4,000 from a “pill mill” physician named in a civil lawsuit linked to over prescribing opioid medication. Pittman has not returned that money, saying previously it has not been proven the doctor over-prescribed medication. Doctors need to be part of the fight against opioids and not political bullies, Pittman has said.
5. Both candidates aren’t spinning much following the debate.
During the Hogan and Jelaous debate, both campaigns were sending out emails spinning comments and claims made during the debate. Then more emails came the next day.
But for Schuh and Pittman, both campaigns released statements after the debate, but not much since then. They both claimed victory.
Schuh’s campaign released this statement:
“Thank you to The Capital and the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts for hosting last night's debate. Voters got a good idea of whom the two candidates are and their vision for Anne Arundel County.
“Steve Schuh has a record of modernizing our county while cutting taxes by $160 million over four years and making record investments in education, public safety and the quality of life for all residents.
“The county executive stands for a balanced policy of smart investment and living within our means. His opponent continued to make promises he doesn't know how to pay for. He seemed dumbstruck when presented with the total cost to taxpayers and uninformed when it came to important policy matters facing our county.
“The results of the debate support what the voters already know — Steve Schuh has earned a second term and is the best choice to lead Anne Arundel County for the next four years."
Pittman’s campaign found a similar tone:
“Steuart just left the stage here at Maryland Hall following the Capital Gazette’s county executive candidate debate. It’s no surprise, he made us proud. On so many issues — strengthening our schools, getting rid of pay-to-play politics, and reigning in reckless development — Steuart offered a forward-looking Communities First agenda while Steve Schuh only offered more of the same.
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“Steuart understands what our communities need because he’s spent his campaign visiting every corner of the county and listening to residents. He’s earned the support of the people we trust to serve our communities, our police, firefighters and teachers. Steuart Pittman is ready to lead, and he showed it again tonight.”