Over and over, they said the same thing: "The voters will decide the issue and I will abide by their decision." "It's not my issue, I'm not talking about it," they repeated.
We're talking about Harford County's passel of political hopefuls who are running for county and state legislative office.
And we're talking about the public issue that we figure has to be most prominent in this year's election in Harford County: the charter question of whether to create a county police force under the county executive's office, or leave law enforcement responsibilities with the sheriff's office. (Sorry, the debate over the number of county employees who occasionally lunch at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen just doesn't measure up to this one.)
Since politicians, or at least the successful ones, are well known for dodging the tough issues, passing the buck and temporizing on difficult decisions, this pattern of avoidance should come as no surprise. It just seems as if they could stake out a position and show the voters that they were courageous and not afraid of making decisions.
But political pusillanimity runs deep and wide. Clearly, County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and Sheriff Robert Comes have taken their positions on the question. So, for the most part, have their rivals for those two elected offices.
It's the candidates for the other offices -- including those that will pass on the county law enforcement agency's budget, legal liabilities and performance -- who don't wish to be pinned down on the issue.
To be fair, a few of these candidates expressed a preference. When pushed, a few others did too, although they said they didn't want to publicize the matter. Others weaseled and hemmed and hawed. A few even said they had not made up their minds, or that the question deserved further full debate.
Since the police force issue has been discussed at council meetings, public hearings, political debates and in the media for well over a year now, with dueling cost analyses offered by both sides, the claim by experienced politicians that further extended debate is needed strains even our generous credulity.
True, the hostilities between the sheriff and executive have somewhat abated, with the appointment of a new, experienced Detention Center warden and public disclosure of the administration's rationale for paying $400,000 to settle claims by the family of the inmate who died in the center.
But both have a lot at stake in the outcome of the charter question.
Sheriff Comes, or his successor, could lose the major part of the sheriff's job (and payroll) if voters opt for a county police force.
Mrs. Rehrmann, meanwhile, could lose considerable political face if voters choose to leave law enforcement with the sheriff's office, since she personally pushed for the transfer of authority.
Candidates for other office won't be as directly affected, so they may well feel they can avoid the issue.
Frankly, voters should be more interested in their views on this subject than on the other subjects about which they have no inhibitions in taking a stand.
In the dozens of letters and campaign brochures we received at The Sun over the past few weeks, candidates had no trouble telling us how they felt about legalized gambling, abortion laws, gun control and school board selection. None of these supposedly sensitive issues provoked the cautious defensiveness they exhibited on the county police force question.
The candidate responses came mostly in response to letters we mailed seeking their views on various issues and information about their campaigns. In all, The Sun sent letters to more than 750 candidates throughout the state.
The purpose is to help the 16-member editorial board in making decisions on endorsements by the newspaper for the Sept. 13 primary (and for the Nov. 8 general) election. The county endorsement editorials will appear toward the end of August and the first week of September, on the regular editorial page (not in the Harford section of the Sunday paper).
A strong majority of candidates favor legalized gambling for fraternal organizations, as long as proceeds are used for charitiable purposes. That reflects the Harford legislative delegation's annual appeal to the General Assembly for that permission, an appeal that is with good reason rejected by the legislature. Although there is widespread dissatisfaction with the spread of sanctioned gambling, the general belief is that Harford should get its share, too, as long as the state and other counties are raking in gaming profits.
We won't be grading these questionnaires or position papers like a school teacher, toting up the "correct" answers or assigning different weights to various issues.
Rather, we'll use them as part of an overall assessment of a candidate and try to make our best educated judgment. (For those candidates who said they didn't know enough about certain important public issues to respond, we're not promising bonus points for candor, however.)
The voters will certainly decide at the polls and we will abide by their verdicts. But be assured that we will talk about the issues and make known our positions on candidates to readers before then.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.