A debate Friday night between candidates running for seats in Towson’s 42nd legislative district drew a crowd, heated discussions on education and housing policies, and promises to work toward new area high schools.
A crowd of about 150 people packed into Towson University’s Minnegan Room for the debate, organized jointly by the Knollwood Association, a local community organization, and Towson University.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood moderated the debate. The panel of four was comprised of attorney Neil Dubovsky, of Knollwood; Luis Sierra, Towson University’s assistant director for civic engagement; and the heads of the university’s student Democratic and Republican clubs, Josh Lash and Matthew Pipkin, respectively.
The two-part debate began with District 42 Senate seat candidates Republican Chris West and Democrat Robbie Leonard, and ended with District 42A House candidates Republican Steve McIntire and Democratic incumbent Stephen Lafferty. District 42 stretches from the city line at Towson into Hereford, Sparks and the Prettyboy Reservoir. District 42A is contained between Loch Raven Boulevard and Charles Street.
The debate revealed commonalities across party lines: all four pledged that a top priority if elected, would be to work for new area high schools. Conversely, the debate clarified stark differences between candidates about subsidized housing.
All four candidates agreed that the area needs new facilities to replace the aging and overcrowded Towson and Dulaney high schools.
“My number one priority is to get a new Towson [High School] and a new Dulaney High School,” West said. If Towson High’s overcrowding is not addressed modular classrooms will “populate that lawn like so many dandelions in the springtime, if we’re not careful,” West said. And with brown water and and deteriorating finishes, Dulaney High, he said, is worse.
Leonard agreed, but said funding for new schools won’t sufficiently be paid for by cutting the corporate tax rate, as West has pushed for in recent years. West retorted that Maryland’s high corporate tax rate keeps businesses from settling in Maryland.
Lafferty and McIntire agreed that their top priority within their district would be building a new Towson High School. Lafferty pointed to his record in the House voting for legislation recommending an increase in school construction funds. McIntire suggested the state use its end-of-year $504-million surplus to fund capital investment in schools.
The candidates were also asked about how they would restore confidence in Baltimore County Public Schools, which has been plagued with distrust and controversy after ex-Superintendent Dallas Dance pled guilty to perjury for failing to disclose consulting income, including from a company he helped win a contract with the school system.
Lafferty pointed out that it was his bill that initiated creating a hybrid Baltimore County Board of Educaton of seven elected and four appointed members. The first election for Baltimore County school board will take place on Election Day, Nov. 6.
He said he urged interim Superintendent Verletta White to conduct an independent audit of the system’s contracts, but that the state should leave it up to the school system to determine whether it needs an inspector general. Gov. Larry Hogan created an Office of Educational Accountability by executive order in September, and vowed to reintroduce a bill creating an investigator general in the state’s Department of Education.
McIntire disagreed, saying “you don’t have accountability if you have somebody audit themselves.” He said he would support an independent auditor to look at spending on programs like the county’s STAT technology initiative.
Both Leonard and West expressed support for an independent audit of the county school system.
Leonard also said he wants to reinvigorate the county’s school system with adequate funding and universal pre-K. He suggested adding money to education using tax revenue from legalizing marijuana, something West is against.
The HOME Act
Both sets of candidates sparred over the HOME Act, a bill introduced multiple times at the state level by Lafferty that would have prevented county landlords from discriminating against tenants using government housing vouchers. The bill passed the House in 2017 but never went to a vote in the Senate. A similar bill failed in the County Council.
Panelists asked both sets of candidates about the HOME Act, and both sets differed by party – Democrats were for it, Republicans against.
Lafferty, a Democrat, defended his bill saying it would help people living in concentrated poverty reach better opportunities.
“If we’re looking at how we’re going to change the dynamics in communities and give people opportunities to live in safe, sound neighborhoods with good schools, we have to find another way to allow them to live where they want to live,” Lafferty said.
McIntire replied that he opposes the bill “adamantly,” saying “a voucher is not income, it’s a government program.”
The Republican described a bill that would force landlords in Towson to rent to the program that “ran Baltimore City’s housing program in the ‘60s and ’70s.”
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Similarly, West said in the Senate debate that he opposed the HOME Act because it would mean “Baltimore County landlords and Baltimore County tenants will have to deal with the Baltimore City housing authority.”
A program called the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which McIntire mentioned at the debate, does give city residents vouchers they can use in “high opportunity communities” in neighboring counties. The program, administered by the nonprofit, Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, was created in settling a housing desegregation lawsuit filed in 1995, Thompson v HUD.
Leonard expressed support of the bill by referencing Baltimore County’s difficult history of segregation.
“This county used to prevent African-American people from living in certain neighborhoods. It used to prevent Jewish people from living in certain neighborhoods,” Leonard said. “We have to do better.”
Leonard continued: “Delegate West, by opposing the HOME Act, and anybody who does — I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican – you are against low-income people living in our neighborhoods, and it disgusts me.”
With only 30 seconds to respond, West said that he attended recent high school graduations in the Towson area and “the amount of diversity shocks me.”
As the clock ran out, Leonard retorted, to applause: “Diversity should not be shocking.”