Debate on Debates Has Voters in Dark


This summer's "diner debate" between the candidates for Harford County executive hardly provided much food for thought, and didn't set any new standards for table manners, either. There's no danger it will be confused by political historians with the "kitchen debate" of Nixon and Khrushchev.

Now there will be the "league debate" Wednesday night in the County Council chambers between Democrat County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and Ron Szczybor, the Republican challenger.

With a quarter-million dollars in her campaign coffers and the advantages of incumbency, career politician Rehrmann has virtually ignored the neophyte office-seeker, who claims to have raised $45,000, half of it from his own pocket.

So Mr. Szczybor has been trying for months to force her into a series of public debates and to capture as much free publicity as he can. It's not very pretty at times, this maneuvering for public exposure, but the local businessman is pursuing the tactic with a vengeance to be able to reach the masses.

He bid $60 at a Red Cross charity auction for the right to have lunch with Mrs. Rehrmann in July, a low-cost tab that bought a lot of publicity even if their debate at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen produced only empty calories on issues and a lot of overcooked rhetoric.

After that counter-top contretemps, Mrs. Rehrmann declared she would only debate Mr. Szczybor under auspices of the League of Women Voters, which had sponsored these events in previous elections.

That seemed like a reasoned stand. Except that the organization wouldn't sponsor more than a single forum, while Mr. Szczybor wanted a series of them. And except that Eileen Rehrmann was former president and longtime member of the county League of Women Voters.

When the league finally agreed to organize a forum for the county executive candidates, with co-sponsorship of other groups, Mr. Szczybor wanted the event televised live on the county cable channel, Harford Cable Network or Channel 3.

Problem is that the channel doesn't have the equipment, microwave satellites and all that, to do live remote telecasts of anything. So HCN would have to tape the event and schedule it for broadcast later.

But HCN said it had no money in its budget to pay the $375 taping cost. The league also said it didn't have the money. When Mr. Szczybor offered to write a check for $375, the league demurred and got some outside support.

So the forum will be taped and, at last report, will be broadcast at 6 p.m. each Friday in October.

And that has Mr. Szczybor worried, not just because he feels he was deceived by the league but because of an earlier experience with the Harford Cable Network channel.

Last January, Mr. Szczybor attended a public speak-out, one in a series of public meetings held by the county executive to elicit comment and questions from residents. He made some critical remarks about the administration. The taped meeting was scheduled for broadcast on the public cable channel. But Mrs. Rehrmann's staff cut out the critical remarks before broadcast, then made off with the tape after it aired once.

When the public cable program committee considered Mr. Szczybor's complaint of this manipulation, it came down in support of the county executive. The committee refused to rebroadcast the unedited tape. The tape was not clearly a public document, it decided, although broadcast on the public channel and taped with public funds. Even if it were a public document, the tape's quality was too poor to permit broadcast more than once, the panel ruled.

The incident made Mr. Szczybor understandably skeptical of the tape editing and mysterious quality deterioration that could occur at HCN. That's why he maintains that he insisted on a live broadcast. (Local radio station WAMD is said to be considering live coverage, which may be some consolation.)

In another of his battles over public media access, the GOP hopeful fared better than he had expected. After seeing an appearance by Mrs. Rehrmann in an campaign interview on the cable headline news channel (not the HCN channel), Mr. Szczybor asked Comcast Cablevision, the cable franchise operator, for equal time.

That's when he hit paydirt. The cable operator said that Mrs. Rehrmann's five-minute spot had appeared 38 times, by a programming error, and offered Mr. Szczybor 38 additional spots on the channel to make up for the oversight.

The Republican hasn't yet done his interview for the channel, so the make-up appearances haven't started running. And he hasn't decided which plan of running the extra spots will be used.

He was especially surprised at the candor of the offer by Comcast because of his earlier charges that the the operator had exceeded state campaign contribution limits in donations to Mrs. Rehrmann's cause.

After his complaint, Comcast admitted that it gave more than $4,000 to the county executive's campaign, because of problems in tracking the four-year cycle covered by law and because of a change in Harford office management. The excess $650 was refunded by the Rehrmann camp without sanctions.

As a radio commentator and newspaper columnist, Mr. Szczybor knows the value of media exposure. But he still has to prove that the medium is the message in this race for county executive.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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