For the first time, the three leading Democrats running for Baltimore County executive shared a stage during a debate Wednesday night.
It did not take long for them to level sharp criticisms at one another.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, state Sen. Jim Brochin and former state Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. each took strategic swipes at the other candidates while trying to portray themselves as the best leader for the county's future.
In a debate hosted by Towson University's College Democrats but attended mostly by older adults, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves.
Almond told her story of never attending college but rising to become a community leader and eventually chairwoman of the Baltimore County Council. Brochin emphasized his 16 years as "a voice for my community" in Annapolis and his promise to end "pay to play politics" in the county. And Olszewski said he's the "proud progressive" in the race.
Brochin and Almond had a tense exchange over how to pay for school construction projects.
Almond said the state owes the county $230 million in reimbursements for money the county has spent up-front on school projects. She suggested that the county's representatives in Annapolis haven't done enough to lobby for that money.
Brochin said the county would have enough money for schools if it weren't for decisions such as $43 million in assistance to the developers of the stalled Towson Row project.
The complex deal involves the county giving money to the developers over the next few years, with the developers agreeing to pay full property taxes later, instead of using tax credits that they would be eligible for. Almond voted for the deal.
"We don't need to be bailing out developers at Towson Row," Brochin said.
Olszewski said he'd find a way to pay for all needed school construction projects, including rebuilding multiple high schools, but did not offer details. "We have to stop coming up with excuses why we can't do big things," he said.
Brochin repeated his campaign refrain that developers have too much influence over county government. "It has to end and someone needs to stop it," he said.
Almond retorted: "Apartment developers are developers, too" — a reference to campaign donations that Brochin has received.
"We all have different people and many kinds of people giving donations," she said. "You're attacking my integrity and that's just wrong."
Brochin replied: "I'm not attacking your integrity. I'm questioning your judgment."
While Olszewski stayed quiet during that exchange, he found himself defending votes he made on gun control and stem cell research when he was in the House of Delegates.
Olszewski explained that while he voted against an assault weapons ban in 2013, months after the Sandy Hook school shooting, he now realizes that was the wrong choice.
Brochin responded that Sandy Hook was a "game changer" and the bill should have had Olszewski's support. He also dinged Olszewski for not voting for a bill that would make it easier to remove guns from alleged domestic abusers. "I think that's a core issue," he said.
Olszewski also was put on the defensive about a vote on stem cell research several years ago. Olszewski said he supports stem cell research.
Neither gun control nor stem cell research are generally issues handled by local governments.
A fourth Democrat in the race, Kevin Marron, was invited to the debate but did not attend.
The Democrats as well as the two Republicans — insurance commissioner Al Redmer Jr. and state Del. Pat McDonough — are expected to attend a debate at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Morning Star Baptist Church, 1512 Woodlawn Drive in Gwynn Oak.
The county executive position is open this year because the incumbent, Kevin Kamenetz, is prevented from running again due to term limits. Kamenetz is running in a crowded Democratic primary for governor, hoping to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November's general election.