It was billed as a simple lunch to benefit the local Red Cross at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen. It turned into an awkward political matinee, with the two candidates for Harford County executive slinging insults across the Formica.
Neither Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, the Democratic incumbent, nor Ronald M. Szczybor, her Republican challenger, thought the hourlong confrontation Wednesday accomplished much.
But this first face-to-face debate between the two candidates was lively nonetheless -- and a sample of what is likely to come during the election campaign.
Within minutes, polite small talk over crab cakes and salads degenerated.
When it came down to real issues -- spending, taxation, schools and the like -- the corner booth at the New Ideal, a decidedly Democratic hangout on U.S. 40, was no place for constructive political discourse.
"You're so full of misinformation," Mrs. Rehrmann barked across the table at one point. "Were you an actor? You are the master of twists and turns."
Mr. Szczybor shot back: "You are going to have entertainment during the next four months that you won't believe. Just sit back and enjoy it, Eileen."
At another point, the challenger set Mrs. Rehrmann off by suggesting that two former Harford County executives had been "indicted" by the county sheriff. Local sheriffs do not have indictment powers.
That issue arose during a discussion of the merits of an elected sheriff vs. an appointed county police chief.
George Englesson, a former Aberdeen mayor and the owner of the diner, tried to calm growing tensions at the lunch table.
"Hey," he said, as the insults grew more personal. It didn't help.
Mr. Szczybor, a 36-year-old businessman and well-known local conservative, successfully bid on a lunch with Mrs. Rehrmann, 49, during a recent auction to benefit the Red Cross. He paid $60.
He came to challenge the incumbent to a series of debates, but Mrs. Rehrmann dismissed the idea, saying she would participate in a League of Women Voters forum this year.
Mrs. Rehrmann's strategy is to approach her challenger as if he were a heckler.
"He doesn't have any substance," she said.
In turn, Mr. Szczybor is trying to paint Mrs. Rehrmann, who served eight years in the House of Delegates before she became county executive in 1990, as an "arrogant" professional politician.
"Obviously, Eileen Rehrmann doesn't take me seriously," Mr. Szczybor said after the lunch. "Obviously, I don't have a lot of respect for her. . . . She just feels she's the queen of Harford County."
Neither strategy is new.
The challenge for Mr. Szczybor is clear: He must somehow convince voters that four years of Eileen Rehrmann is enough, even though the county seems to have fared reasonably well in tough budgetary times. Even he acknowledges that "Harford County is sound."
With his background as a financial consultant and co-owner of the Maryland Sports Arena, an indoor soccer facility, Mr. Szczybor is trying to portray the Rehrmann administration as unfriendly to business and development because of the adoption of too many fees and transfer taxes, even though property and income tax rates have remained steady.
Mr. Szczybor also claims that the Rehrmann administration has strayed too far from the conservative borrowing policies of her predecessor, Habern W. Freeman, now a state senator.
Mrs. Rehrmann says she has ably balanced the need to build more schools and supply basic services while remaining fiscally conservative. Harford is growing rapidly, and state aid has decreased significantly, she says.
She also contends that despite difficult times, she has been an effective county executive. She says she has, among other things, provided increasing support for the school budget, pushed through legislation to ensure that growth does not outstrip county services, initiated a countywide recycling program and developed a plan to preserve farmland.
"We have a record," she said.
Mr. Szczybor also intends to make hay out of the Rehrmann administration's handling of the highly publicized death of county jail inmate William Ford, which resulted in a $400,000 settlement of a threatened civil rights lawsuit.
The Ford family and a former assistant state medical examiner claimed the inmate was killed, probably by one or more jail guards. A grand jury concluded this year that Mr. Ford killed himself.
Mrs. Rehrmann said the death and other problems in the jail resulted from gross mismanagement by the county sheriff's office, which runs the jail.
Mr. Szczybor contends that the settlement was premature, but Mrs. Rehrmann and her legal advisers say it was proper under federal civil rights laws, even if Mr. Ford killed himself.
The issues surrounding Mr. Ford's death resulted in attempts by Mrs. Rehrmann to strip the elected sheriff of most police powers. Those attempts led to the question that will be on the ballot in November concerning creating a new county police force under the executive's administration.