Joanne Parrott, the Republican candidate for Harford County Council president, charged last week in letters to local ministers that Theresa Pierno, her Democratic opponent, wants to distribute condoms in public schools.
Mrs. Pierno sharply countered the letters by accusing Mrs. Parrott of "pulling totally irrelevant issues out of the air in a desperate attempt to get votes" as Election Day nears.
The condom issue arose during a debate before students at Fallston High School when the two were asked their opinions on whether condoms should be available at public high schools.
Mrs. Parrott's subsequent letter-writing campaign, combined with other claims that she has fashioned in recent weeks, suggests that she is focusing more on political convenience than candidness in her battle to win the election.
Mrs. Parrott has claimed the title of environmentalist -- the issue that Mrs. Pierno rode to victory four years ago and has continued to lead work on in the council -- and has declined to voice her stances on specific issues, instead honing in on details tangential to larger countywide concerns.
When the two women debated before 95 students at Fallston High on Monday, the first question asked by a student was whether the candidates approved of dispensing condoms in the public schools.
"I said that abstinence is the best way to avoid AIDS, but that in certain circumstances, with counseling, I would not oppose a nurse being able to give a student a condom," said Mrs. Pierno.
"Mrs. Pierno answered the question, and Mrs. Parrott was very noncommittal and went on to talk about AIDS discrimination," said Susan Varipatis, the government teacher who moderated the debate. "Unfortunately, the students weren't going to stand for that."
"My answer was that the board of education has come up with a sex-ed curriculum and that if parents are uncomfortable with it, their children do not have to participate," Mrs. Parrott said later.
Michelle Losh, a senior who attended the debate, saw it differently: "She just said that it was a board of education decision and then told us about a friend who died of AIDS. She didn't even say whether she supported that decision."
Ms. Losh said some of her classmates vocally objected to Mrs. Parrott's political dodge and her refusal to budge even after she was reminded on rebuttal that she hadn't answered the question.
"That just set the tone for the rest of the debate," said Mrs. Varipatis.
The vote in an exit poll of students after the debate was 70-16 in favor of Mrs. Pierno, the teacher said. "That was the first time Mrs. Parrott got a negative reception from the kids here."
While Mrs. Parrott may not have fared well before students too young to vote, the two-term District B councilwoman spent the rest of the week sending letters to 75 ministers in the county and distributing copies, with "Family Values" hand-written across the top, to audiences at candidates' nights.
"I wanted to bring this to your attention immediately, as I think that this is the kind of information that you and the members of your congregation need to have prior to reaching a decision on who to support for the office of Harford County Council president," she wrote.
Upon hearing of the letters, Mrs. Pierno expressed incredulity and said she had no intention of responding to them.
"This is not a County Council issue," Mrs. Pierno said. "The County Council does not make decisions about sex education in the schools. The kids wanted our personal opinions; they have a right to that. I gave mine, but [Mrs. Parrott] evaded the question and is now turning it around to attack me.
"These are signs of a desperate candidate. She can't point to one significant piece of legislation she has initiated in the last eight years, so she's resorted to attacking me with issues of no substance."
"It may not be a County Council issue, but it is a people issue in this county," Mrs. Parrott said later. "And people should know the background of someone running for office."
Whether voters will choose their council president on the basis of her opinion on condom availability is debatable. But Mrs. Parrott's fixation on it is similar to her attachment to notes she has plucked from her memory that, under scrutiny, do not entirely support her claims.
She has repeatedly referred to the Mitchell property in Perryman as an economic development site rejected by Mrs. Pierno and other council members. The 400-acre industrial-zoned site was included on a list of properties whose owners were seeking to move up on the waiting list for public water and sewerage. The council voted 4-3 against the move in the spring of 1993.
Six months later, when the property was resubmitted for acceleration on the list, the Rehrmann administration joined hesitant council members in recommending against the upgrade, noting that the land parcel did not meet necessary criteria. Then the entire council, including Mrs. Parrott, voted against upgrading the property.
Despite her vote, Mrs. Parrott has continued to cite that property as a potential industrial opportunity that her opponent foiled.
"She keeps bringing up these red herrings," said Mrs. Pierno.
In the League of Women Voters debate two weeks ago, Mrs. Parrott again invited scrutiny by calling herself an "environmentalist" who "voted for all the major environmental and growth management bills."
It was a surprising label, considering that the councilwoman openly called herself the "candidate for business" in the presence of business organization meetings and has unabashedly hung king-size campaign signs over developers' mammoth sales signs along the Route 24-924 corridor.
With her ties to the development industry so visible, she still chooses to cite adequate public facilities legislation and the tree bill -- Mrs. Pierno's "baby" -- among her accomplishments.
Mrs. Parrott last year voted against the portion of the adequate public facilities legislation that would require adequate water and sewerage before approval of further residential development in the county.
She also voted against the county transfer tax, the sole source of financing for the county's farmland preservation program. It's a vote she proudly announces during public discussions of taxes, when she promises she will approve no new ones. But it leaves the voters, who approved the transfer tax on referendum 3-1, wondering how she could claim credit for being a preservationist and tax opponent at the same time.
"I felt there was enough surplus in the budget to pay for farm preservation and schools," she said Friday, when she was asked how she justified a vote against the transfer tax, which also funds new school construction.
At a candidates' forum at Riverside Community Center last Monday, the moderator asked all 13 council and county executive candidates who attended how they would vote on Question A, the proposal to take law enforcement responsibilities away from the sheriff and give them to an appointed county police chief.
Mrs. Parrott did not directly answer the question, but talked instead of the pressure deputies are under to support a sheriff's candidate running for office.
Asked later if she cared to clarify her response and register an opinion on the question, Mrs. Parrott responded, "I'll know when I go into the voting booth."
Eleven other candidates at the Riverside meeting said clearly that they either supported or opposed Question A.