The three candidates vying for Anne Arundel County executive faced off in a televised debate Tuesday night, sparring over the county's projected budget deficit, the planned slots casino at Arundel Mills mall, and misconduct and ethics issues.
Republican County Executive John R. Leopold debated Joanna L. Conti, a Democratic candidate and Annapolis business executive, and Michael Shay, an environmental activist and Green Party candidate, during the 90-minute session at Anne Arundel Community College. The event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, Capital Gazette Communications and the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.
The debate came as an independent poll of likely voters taken Obt. 11-16 by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies Inc. showed Leopold leading with 57 percent, Conti with 28 percent and Shay with 5 percent. Ten percent of the respondents were undecided, and the margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.
Leopold, who became county executive in 2006 after serving in the House of Delegates, faced questions from both the moderator — Annapolis attorney Frederick C. Sussman — and Conti about allegations that he sexually harassed a female county employee.
During a segment in which the candidates were asked to pose questions to opponents, Conti, a political newcomer who has never held office, pressed Leopold on the accusations. Since she announced her candidacy, Conti said, women have approached her with similar allegations of inappropriate behavior by Leopold.
In August, former county employee Karla M. Hamner filed a $10 million civil lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace retaliation. Leopold has denied the accusations. Last week, county lawyers sought to have the suit, which is pending in federal court and unlikely to be heard by a judge before the election, dismissed.
"When you worked in the legislature, women would avoid getting in elevators with you," Conti said, before asking Leopold why he had not defended himself before county voters. "If someone were accusing me of such horrific charges and they were untrue … I would be forcefully defending myself. "
Leopold called her question "false."
"We have vigorously defended and denied the charges," said Leopold, adding, "I believe these charges are unfounded, stale and politically timed."
Conti said voters should think about whether "they want a county government run by a county executive who has been alleged to mistreat women? This is an important issue."
"These are very serious charges," she said. "I am confident that these allegations will be proven to be true."
The moderator asked Conti about allegations that she has exaggerated her business successes and that her husband's business amounts to a "get-rich scheme."
Conti dismissed the accusations, saying her husband is "accomplished" and she stands by her resume. "This is the reason why more people don't run for office. … They get tarred and feathered."
The candidates were asked about their support for Question A, the ballot referendum that will ask county voters if zoning approved by the County Council allowing the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. to build a 4,750-machine slots parlor near Arundel Mills mall should stand.
Conti voiced support for opponents of the project, saying, "If I lived there, I wouldn't want this in my backyard either," and pointed to the Laurel Park racetrack as a better location. But Conti insisted that if Question A passes, she would "work with Cordish to get slots implemented as soon as possible."
Leopold, who supports slots at Arundel Mills, said if the referendum fails, "it's highly unlikely that we will ever see slots in Anne Arundel County." He added: "By the way, the people in Laurel don't want slots around there either."
Shay said he would vote against the measure.
Conti also attacked Leopold on spending, saying the executive had overspent county revenue by $184 million in the past three years. Conti said she would cut $90 million in spending from the next budget to avoid a deficit.
Leopold did not respond to Conti's allegation of overspending, but stressed that he had kept his campaign promise not to raise property taxes or income taxes. Leopold said finding $90 million in cuts was "not realistic" given that half of the county budget goes directly to fund the school system.
"You cannot operate in a fact-free zone," Leopold said.
Asked to say something positive about their opponents, Leopold called Conti "a very tenacious fundraiser." Conti said Leopold has "done a great deal of knocking on doors getting to know individual citizens."