Republican Baltimore County executive candidate Al Redmer and Democratic Baltimore County executive candidate Johnny Olszewski Jr. discuss universal Pre-K education during debate. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
The two men vying to become the next Baltimore County executive faced off Tuesday in their first general election debate, each touting himself as the best choice to improve an education system that has seen recent disputes over aging facilities and spending priorities.
Democrat Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former state delegate who taught in the county school system, has emphasized plans for universal preschool and expanding access to tuition-free community college. He called himself “the education candidate in this race.”
Republican Al Redmer Jr. questioned the wisdom of spending tax dollars on such programs, but said he would work to turn around the condition of some county schools.
More than 100 people attended the debate at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville.
Both candidates for the top elected office in the state’s third-largest jurisdiction said they’d improve schools, modify the county’s development approval process and offer strong leadership. But they differed on details.
Olszewski, for instance, said he supports outlawing housing discrimination against people who pay their rent with government vouchers through a program commonly called Section 8.
Redmer, Maryland’s insurance commissioner and a former state delegate, said the county needs to focus instead on making housing more affordable for young families that want to move there.
He stressed his leadership expertise, saying: “I know how to set expectations, standards, and create accountability and drive organizational results.”
Education dominated the discussion — and the questions from the audience. A parent from Dulaney High School in Cockeysville pressed the candidates on whether it should be renovated or replaced.
Though Redmer called the condition of Dulaney “pathetic,” he said replacing some of the oldest school buildings in the county — Dulaney, as well as Lansdowne and Towson high schools have been considered — would pose fiscal challenges.
He suggested that the county should explore a public-private partnership in which a developer would build a school, then lease it to the county for 40 or 50 years, essentially allowing the county to get a new building without upfront costs.
Olszewski said Dulaney and other aging schools need to be replaced sooner rather than later, saying: “It can’t just be a 10-year plan. It has to be an urgency of now.”
He suggested that more money could be freed up for education by rooting out waste and implementing efficiencies in county government. He also suggested revisiting a school system program that gives every student a laptop computer, as well as redirecting money from the central office to classrooms.
Olszewski said it’s important to find money to invest in education because it pays dividends in better-trained adults who make more money and end up paying greater income taxes and property taxes. He said he also wants to spend money on offering preschool to any child and continuing — or expanding — the county’s College Promise program that ensures that qualifying public school graduates can attend CCBC at no cost.
Redmer offered praise for preschool and community college, but reminded the audience that increasing their availability comes with price tags. He said public schools need to focus on the basics of preparing students for college or the workforce before branching out into expensive programs.
“ ‘Investments’ is a code word from Martin O’Malley, and now Ben Jealous, for tax increases,” said Redmer, referencing the past Democratic governor and the current Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
The connection between Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor came up in the debate. Redmer highlighted his relationship with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has endorsed his campaign and headlined fundraisers for him.
“If you like Larry Hogan; you like someone who is going to put aside partisan differences and look for common-sense solutions, I am your guy,” Redmer said.
Olszewski, meanwhile, was pressed to describe his support for Jealous, who trails Hogan in the polls. Moderator John Dedie, a political science professor at the college, asked each candidate to rate his support of their party’s gubernatorial nominee on a scale of 1 to 10.
Olszewski didn’t answer directly, saying, “I’m a Democrat who supports Democrats.” When Dedie pressed for a rating, Olszewski declined.
In recent days, the Maryland Democratic Party has tried to link Redmer to Republican President Donald Trump. Last week, the party publicized a Facebook message that Redmer sent to a Democratic activist this summer that said: “I voted for President Trump and am thankful for the positive results that we are seeing.”
A Redmer spokeswoman said Redmer was referring to economic growth as the “results” he appreciated.
Dedie said he organized the debate to give voters more exposure to the candidates, especially now that it’s past Labor Day and the campaigns are ramping up. He said he is concerned voters might be so immersed in statewide and national politics that they have not yet researched local candidates.
“When people think about voting, they think about higher-level offices and they don’t pay attention to county executive races,” he said. “The county executive is more likely to impact your life than a president. They deal with development, they deal with schools, they deal with a host of issues.”