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With forum season in full swing, Howard County voters of all stripes have an opportunity to see candidates close to their communities or at debates tailored to their interests.

With about a month to go until election day, there have so far been forums focusing on mental health, LGBTQ concerns and business issues.

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Last weekend and Monday, Howard Countians heard from candidates in two new settings, at forums hosted by the African American Coalition of Howard County and the Howard County chapter of the League of Women Voters.

The AACHC forum, held on Sept. 27, offered Howard County voters a rare chance to see two lieutenant governor candidates side by side on their home turf: Ken Ulman, the current Howard County executive and Democratic nominee, and Boyd Rutherford, a former Ehrlich administration cabinet secretary, Columbia resident and the Republicans' choice. .

Both acknowledged Howard County's success relative to other Maryland counties, but while Ulman said the "reliably progressive county with a competitive business climate" could be a model for the state to become "the most competitive business climate in the country," Rutherford said Howard was the exception to the rule.

"Yes, Howard County has done well compared to some of the other counties," he said," but "we have to get the spending under control and get this economy moving."

Some of the AACHC's questions brought fresh perspectives to a debate that has typically focused on the economy, health care and early childhood education.

One question, toward the end of the debate, raised the topic of minority-owned businesses.

Rutherford said there was more work to be done to support them.

"Some of our programs are not as flexible as they could be," he said, suggesting the state "could be more creative in working with financial institutions."

Ulman touted a recent report that showed that 31 percent of Howard County purchasing contracts were awarded to enterprises owned by women, minorities and people with disabilities in fiscal year 2014.

"It matters how you structure the contracts, how you bundle them," he said, adding that investing in minority-owned businesses was part of creating a competitive business environment in the state, which also requires investment in education.

Another question referenced a recent incident in Columbia, S.C., where an African-American man was shot by a police officer while reaching for his license during a routine traffic stop. The officer's dash cam recorded the exchange, which led to his arrest for assault and battery of a highly aggravated nature.

Both candidates said they would consider placing cameras in police cars or on officers.

"We would support putting cameras in cars and on bodies, [but] it would have to be a rollout," Rutherford said, citing privacy issues that need to be ironed out.

"We're open to it," Ulman said. "I know D.C. is moving forward; I know Baltimore is looking at it. I've asked our chief of police [in Howard County] to look at what that would look like."

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"I think we need to create a framework from the state level" to pass down to the counties, he added.

League of Women Voters

Questions at the Howard County chapter of the League of Women Voters' second forum this election season ran the usual gamut of issues, from fracking to transportation, but the final question reflected a distinct priority for the league, which is committed to voter education and transparency: "What would be your position on reforming campaign financing?"

Many candidates said they felt finance rules, which require reports to be posted in an online system at several intervals throughout the campaign season, were adequate.

Others, including District 9B candidate Tom Coale and District 13 Del. Shane Pendergrass, both Democrats, said they thought the system could be improved to make reporting more frequent.

"One thing I've publicly come out for is to the extent we can make [reporting] more real-time," Coale said. "I think we need to leverage the tools of the 21st century so that transparency also means clarity."

Several Republican candidates, including District 9A Del. Warren Miller and candidate Trent Kittleman, as well as District 13 House candidate Jimmy Williams, said they saw union donations as a problem.

"Campaign donations should be a matter of public record; we have a huge issue with 'dark money' [and] transparency really needs to be brought up on that," Williams said. "On the flipside, [court cases such as] Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC help level the playing field. Unions have been pouring thousands and thousands of dollars into politics for years."

League of Women Voters co-president Alice Giles said the group's forum, which was televised, was an opportunity for voters to get "unbiased information."

"Other organizations are great, but they're issue-focused," she said. "All the candidates are [at the league's forum], and it's your best opportunity to see how they want to present themselves to the whole community."

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