County Councilman Tom Quirk and primary opponent Sheila Ruth agree on many issues facing Baltimore County.
Both say the county needs more mass transit to aid with east-west travel. Both highlight the importance of green space and walkable neighborhoods. Both say they support gradually increasing the minimum wage to $15, though Quirk thinks it should be handled at the state level.
At a District 1 candidates’ forum hosted by the Southwest Baltimore County Democratic Club on May 6, Quirk, 48, of Oella, said he and Ruth probably agree on 90 percent of the issues.
The next day, Ruth, 54, of Westview Park, said there’s “no question” that she and Quirk are close on some issues.
However, she said, “To me the biggest difference is one of attitude … looking deeply of the needs of people, particularly people who have been marginalized and neglected is a big focus for me.”
Ruth, who owns a publishing company and a web development business, said important issues facing the County Council post-election will be poverty and campaign finance reform; Quirk, a financial planner, says he’s focused on local issues like ensuring good public safety and high-quality schools.
The forum became heated when Quirk’s endorsement of Ed Hale Jr., a Republican running in Councilmanic District 3 against incumbent Wade Kach and primary challenger Doug Zinn in northern Baltimore County, came up.
“I just want to say, if having a Democratic majority on the County Council is so important, I don’t know why my opponent supported a Republican [publicly],” Ruth said.
Ruth said Quirk’s public support of a Republican to supplant Kach is problematic because “it basically says” Quirk doesn’t think whoever wins the Democratic primary can win in District 3.
Two Democrats, Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong and Colleen Marie Ebacher, are running in the District 3 primary.
“The fact of the matter is, Wade Kach is a really difficult person to work with,” Quirk said Thursday. “I don’t have to dignify my Democratic credentials to anyone. I’ve been working for Democrats for 30 years.”
Pete Melcavage II is the only Republican registered as a candidate for District 1, so he doesn’t have a primary opponent. The primary election is June 26.
While Quirk and Ruth also agree on responsibly redeveloping the Security Square Mall, preserving green space and attracting people to live in District 1, they offer voters a choice on legislative priorities and some specific policies. What follows is a look at what the candidates say they would prioritize if elected and what sets them apart from each other:
On the most important issues facing the next County Council:
Quirk said the two top priorities are ensuring quality schools and teachers and that residents live in an environment where they feel safe.
“My focus has always been on what the citizens of Southwest Baltimore County are really focused on and interested in, and that’s definitely a good quality of life,” which Quirk said includes neighborhoods that are walkable and have green space and robust public safety.
Ruth said the two key issues facing the council will be addressing local campaign finance reform by developing a small-donor, public-financing program in which a local government fund matches donations under a certain amount, and moving forward on the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (Home) Act, a controversial measure that would prohibit landlords in Baltimore County from blanket policies that reject federal housing vouchers, often referred to as Section 8.
“My big concerns are concerns like poverty and systemic racism … deep issues that I feel very deeply and strongly about,” Ruth said.
Quirk says his record is strong, and his time spent working and living in the district gives him an edge.
Among his accomplishments, Quirk listed being elected twice by his colleagues to chair the County Council and being endorsed by many groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police and Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
“Before I ran for County Council eight years ago, I had a real record of community involvement,” Quirk said. “When I thought about [running the first time], I had already done tons of work, not only for a political party, but for the community. I think that’s why I won my first council race.”
Ruth said she “would be a proactive leader that would have the political courage to do what is necessary” in the county.
That “political courage” would include, besides supporting the Home Act, reinstating a stormwater remediation fee on property owners in the county, she said.
The County Council voted in 2015 to phase out the stormwater remediation fee that was imposed on property tax bills in the county. Currently, Baltimore County meets federal requirements for stormwater remediation out of its general revenues.
On the Home Act:
The Home Act was introduced to the council by then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in March 2016 as part of a deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It has not passed at the council level, and attempts at the state level have failed, too. Ruth says passing the HOME Act and barring landlords from rejecting tenants using housing vouchers would be an important step in ending housing discrimination in the county.
“There was a time not that long ago when landlords could refuse to rent to black people,” Ruth said. “We have said that’s not right. This is another form of housing discrimination that is not right, either.”
Quirk voted against the Home Act when it came before the council and said he does not support its current form. Landlords in his district are concerned about being forced to accept certain kinds of payment, he said.
Data from the Baltimore County Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections show there were 22,812 rental properties in the entire county as of March 2014. Quirk said he was not sure how many rental properties existed in District 1.
“This is an investment decision,” said Quirk, himself a landlord. “If a landlord wants to accept Section 8, that’s fine. If a landlord doesn’t want to, that should be an investment decision and a choice.”
On the Board of Education:
Quirk and Ruth both said they’d support more oversight of the Baltimore County Board of Education from the county government. Ruth said she wouldn’t want the council to “micromanage,” but would like to see some independent auditing and oversight of the board.
Quirk said oversight of the school system is “obviously” the job of the school baord, but he supports the idea of an independent auditor who is “actively engaged” and who can “look at things and question things,” like contracts.
Quirk and Ruth both believe interim Superintendent Verletta White, whom the school board reconfirmed last week as interim until June 2019, should be included in a national search to permanently fill the role.
On school construction:
Both candidates have supported a new Lansdowne High School. Quirk said he would like to see it fast-tracked over the construction of a new Dulaney High School.
Ruth knocked Quirk for not supporting a new Lansdowne High from the beginning — Quirk originally supported renovation plans — and said building a new school would “cost more, but [would be] a wiser approach in the long term.”
The county has not allocated money for a new Lansdowne High School. The plans for a renovation were rejected by the school board in early May, but its vote did not actually transfer the funds to new school construction.
On another contentious construction project, Ruth said she supports a study on either constructing a new Johnnycake Elementary School or erecting an addition to the existing building.
Quirk, meanwhile, is supporting a redistricting plan in the Southwest area for elementary schools that school officials say will create an excess of around 200 seats once the new Chadwick Elementary School is completed and new boundaries are drawn.
He also touted just under $1 million in the county’s capital budget for a roof replacement at Johnnycake Elementary, and said he was working to get more money to renovate the bathrooms at the school.
On facing criticism:
When Ruth ramped up her campaign for County Council, she went to a Westview Park community association meeting in May and was initially rebuffed: Why, some asked, should they support her now for County Council when they had never even seen her at a single community association meeting.
Ruth said she thinks much of the criticism of her campaign comes from that fact.
“My focus has been on the bigger issues and has gradually gotten more and more local, as I’ve seen how important these local issues are,” she said. “I’m absolutely committed to the local concerns.”
Quirk, meanwhile, has been criticized for taking donations from business entities, including developers. In a Facebook post, Ruth said there would be “no question” she serves constituents if elected, because she has not taken donations from developers and was financed in large part by small, individual donors.
The most recent campaign finance filings showed Quirk had $62,116.44 in his campaign account from 27 individual donors and 35 businesses, organizations or groups. Ruth’s filings showed $7,024.68, raised from 141 individual contributions from 99 different people.
But Quirk said he’s proud of his support and that the next campaign finance report would show more individual donors.
When asked if he was worried that some might perceive him as the “entrenched incumbent,” he said, “I think being an ‘entrenched incumbent,’ if the incumbent is delivering results that people can count on, they deserve re-election.”