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Dean Minnich: Empty chairs and the elephant in the room

Commissioner Doug Howard's closing remarks at the nonprofits forum April 30 provided the headline for the evening, and perhaps for the entire primary election campaign.

He didn't do any of the things that campaign experts tell you to do; he was candid, didn't tap-dance around the two questions they had time to answer, and he even let everyone know that he'd be happiest if he could do a second term with new colleagues on the board.

Three of the incumbent commissioners seeking re-election showed up; Robin Frazier didn't bother.

Her constituency probably won't hold it against her. The evening was hosted, after all, by 11 agencies whose 5,000 clients and their families remain almost invisible to most citizens of Fortress Carroll.

There are those who think such agencies should rely on bake sales for funding.

The nonprofits run group homes, create job centers for people who have disabilities that make it hard for them to get hired elsewhere, train and mentor and just plain cheer on the runners of some of life's hardest races.

Professionals who seek funding for these agencies work their tails off for low pay, and depend on clients' families, who are already sacrificing and volunteering and donating in addition to paying their fair share of county taxes.

Most politicians look to such agencies when cutting costs. A few have more vision than that; Howard, for one, and Barbara Biller, challenging in District 4, for another.

"We're going to balance the budget on the backs of people who need us most?" She didn't seem to think that was good leadership.

Nor would Dick Weaver in District 2, a farmer who has also taught in public schools for years, or Steve Wantz, who is challenging Frazier in District 1, and who has years of working as and with firefighters and emergency services people, another valuable group that serves all residents with a combination of self-sufficiency and county funding.

The traditions of self-sufficiency gave rise to creating volunteer fire companies supported with profits from bingo games and carnivals.

But realities of the modern day, including the stresses created by growing numbers of citizens, require more government funding to help.

In other jurisdictions, paid emergency services have all but replaced dwindling numbers of volunteers.

At the end of the evening, with the final word, Howard gave those challengers a plug. He would like to work with them. He did not mention the name of current District 3 commissioner, Dave Roush.

Howard has been targeted by the rowdier reaches of the Right. But he's not just a warm and fuzzy liberal. He's conservative, but moderately so, and knows the special arrangement that the county has with these agencies is a good deal for the county taxpayers.

If we don't fund these services, those state and federal mandates could cost us even more money.

In other jurisdictions in Maryland, and other states, most of the funding for such services are already run by government agencies.

Roush pointed that out. Citizens like things the way they are, he said, because the proper role of government is to support, but not to provide everything agencies ask for.

Incumbent Uber-Conservative Richard Rothschild used his mic time to point out how many prominent tea party conservatives across the state and nation say nice things about him.

His comments and Frazier's empty seat were the most candid expressions of the priorities of the conservative core of the Republican Party, whose constituency was the proverbial elephant in the room.

Their message is that you have to be a liberal - or worse - to believe this special needs population might deserve a little more government funding, if there's any left in the pot, than, say, the parents who have seen fit to enroll their students in private schools rather than settle for public education.

Jackie Jones and Maria Warburton, as the only two Democrats running, obviously know their odds, but they were there, standing up for their ideals.

Most Republican candidates found themselves attempting to assure any and all attending that on the one hand, they agreed with the idea of a little help; on the other hand, they believed it should be as little as possible.

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