Put a Democratic congressman, a Republican opponent and a Libertarian challenger at the same candidates' forum table and what do you get? Agreement that some children of illegal immigrants should be afforded a way to become citizens and stay in the only country they've ever known.
That was one highlight at Tuesday night's six-hour televised candidates' forum at Howard Community College sponsored by the Association of Community Services and the League of Women Voters. The show started at 4 p.m. with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Trent Kittleman, and ran through all five County Council districts, the three General Assembly districts and Howard's two congressional districts before ending at 10 p.m. The results will be broadcast on Comcast and Verizon government cable channels through October.
The rare consensus between Rep. John Sarbanes, a District 3 Democrat who represents parts of the eastern county, GOP challenger Jim Wilhelm and Libertarian Jerry McKinley, was on the "Dream Act" now awaiting Senate action, which would allow those brought into the country illegally as small children who are now grown to stay and eventually become citizens, some through military service. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents District 7 covering western Howard and Ellicott City, also supported the Dream Act, though Frank Mirable Jr., his Republican opponent, did not.
Ulman, who has been hearing Kittleman point out for months that the Howard budget has nearly quadrupled in 15 years while the county's population is up about 30 percent, hit back in his closing. He said that while Kittleman ran the Maryland Transportation Authority under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., "your administrative budget was up 65 percent" in spending and the cost of outside contractors was up 45 percent. Ulman later added that tolls at the tunnels, the Maryland portion of Interstate 95 and on several bridges doubled in November 2003, though Kittleman was deputy secretary of transportation then and had not yet taken over the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Kittleman said later that as administrator, she did not have final say over the size of the agency's budget. The higher spending was largely because of construction of the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which is to be a toll road, she said. Overall, the agency budget rose 15 percent from 2004 to 2007, she added.
Perhaps the sharpest exchanges came in the District 1 council race between Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat, and Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican. Flanagan said he has no quarrel with the complex plan for Doughoregan Manor, the historic Carroll family estate in Ellicott City, but he is "concerned about the process." The county zoning board rezoned 221 acres to allow development, while another 600 acres were preserved and 36 acres donated to the county for a park. Several parts of the plan were also approved in County Council votes. Watson sits on both bodies.
"There seemed to be an orchestrated plan before the process ever started" that the public was excluded from, Flanagan said. Watson responded that the process was open, with numerous public meetings held by the County Council and the zoning board. Since she hadn't seen Flanagan at any of those sessions, Watson said, "maybe he doesn't understand. It's easy to criticize when you haven't been present."
He quickly shot back: "I'm not concerned about public meetings. I'm concerned about meetings the public didn't attend."
Later, Flanagan raised questions about an audit of county custodial expenses, saying it showed $2 million budgeted last year but only $1 million spent, suggesting the other $1 million was unaccounted for. Watson and Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said later that the remaining money was used to plug budget holes because of declining revenue, which was confirmed by the county auditor's office.
Flanagan also said he'd want audits done of Ulman's use of staff, including his use of a police officer as a bodyguard/chauffeur, and said the county began his four-year term with a $30 million surplus and now faces a "$16 million deficit."
"We are living beyond our means," Flanagan said, noting that the county owes huge amounts for future retirees' medical benefits and pensions.
Watson quickly replied that there is no deficit, and that the budget is balanced and the county is "fiscally managed very well. His idea of fiscal responsibility is to vote against Howard County education." Watson pointed to Flanagan's record as a legislator voting against annual state budgets that she said contained $400 million for county schools. Her campaigning has shown that maintaining good schools is the top issue with voters, she said.
The county budget director, Raymond S. Wacks, said conservative budget forecasts made public in May projected a $17.1 million shortfall in fiscal 2012, but he added "that is not the budget. We lowball the revenues and project high on expenses," he said. "We always make the tough decisions to bring the budget into balance."
There were also candidates trying to stand out with bold proposals.
Republican Dennis R. Schrader, who is trying to unseat North Laurel-Savage Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat, said he'd propose charter changes that would make the council an earlier and more equal partner with the county executive in crafting the annual budget. The executive now has too much power, he said, though he made no specific proposal.
Terrasa said the council is involved early in the budget process, working closely with Ulman long before he presents his proposal each April. "People are happy with Howard County. They love Howard County," she said her campaigning has shown.
Joe Hooe, a Republican in his third try for a District 12a seat in the House of Delegates, said he thinks the outlawing of "spice," a substance likened to marijuana, is one of the three most critical issues facing the General Assembly. Hooe also proposed fining illegal immigrants $1,000 each while allowing them to continue working, something he said could raise lots of revenue.
Albert Nalley, another Republican in the District 12a House race against Democrats James Malone and Steve DeBoy, said the devotion of most candidates to Maryland's top-rated school system may be misplaced after three years of recession.
"At what cost is being No. 1? What would we save to be No. 2?" Nalley asked.
Malone injected a bit of humor to try to deflect the gloomy fiscal talk from Republicans. Cybersecurity will bring thousands of new jobs to the area, he said, but that fact isn't discussed much because of the hush-hush nature of the work. "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you," he said.
Most of the discussions stuck to well-worn rhetorical paths, with Republicans trying to unseat incumbent Democrats talking about job losses, too much government spending and potential revenue shortfalls, while those in office were upbeat about Howard County's schools and Maryland's relative prosperity and living conditions, even in the recession. The U.S. Census issued figures Tuesday showing Howard County with a slightly lower but still the highest household median income in Maryland at $101,940 and a declining poverty rate.
The western county is different, however, since there are Democrats trying to unseat Republican incumbents, with Greg Fox holding the District 5 County Council seat, and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman leading Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller in legislative District 9a. Democrat Jim Adams is running for Senate there, with Jon Weinstein and Maryann Maher for the House of Delegates. Zaneb Beams is opposing Fox for the council seat.
There the Democrats were on the attack, criticizing Republicans for opposing environmental bills, and Republicans firing back that they are powerless unless more GOP candidates are elected. Kittleman also countered Weinstein's criticism that Republicans are wedded to "tea party values and are out of step with the people of our district."
"Holy cow!" Kittleman exclaimed. "Here are people standing up for their rights," he said of grass-roots groups.
The newest candidate, Republican Reginald T. Avery, made his first public appearance at the event as the party's newly chosen opponent for East Columbia County Councilman Calvin Ball in District 2.
Avery, who like Ball lives in Oakland Mills, said he wants more security at the village center to combat fear of crime there, despite a police substation in the parking lot. The mobile home housing the police should be turned around to face the lot, he said
"There is a great groundswell of anger out there" among voters, Avery said, after contending that Ball and the county have "totally ignored Route 1" despite a decade of county and state efforts to redevelop the corridor.
Ball stressed his five years of county budget experience and his record as Oakland Mills' former community organizer and village board member before becoming a councilman. "You need experienced, responsible and accountable leadership," he said.