Republican county executive candidate Charles C. Feaga drew sharp criticism from leaders of a black political group for failing to show up at the group's candidates forum yesterday, causing an angry Feaga to defend his record of support for issues of concern to minorities.
Two GOP candidates for County Council, District 5 contenders Allan Kittleman and Gail H. Bates, also chose not to participate in the African Americans in Howard County Political Action
Committee forum. All three candidates attended an event in their conservative western Howard district, prompting complaints that some Republicans overlook the black community.
"It always seems to end up involving Republicans, historically -- that kind of inattention," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the political action committee, which uses information and impressions from the candidates forum to make endorsements for county executive, County Council and school board races. "So we're not shocked, and I guess in a sense we've come to expect it."
Feaga lashed back yesterdayafternoon, saying he was told of the forum only last week and made it clear he couldn't attend the morning event.
"They would have to be very, very dishonest to do a thing like [criticize me]," Feaga said. "There was no way I could have been there, and they knew that. There was no reason why they could not have given us a month's notice."
Feaga said he was committed to attend the Warfields Pond Community Park dedication ceremony, which honored Christopher Kelly, a 13-year-old who died in 1990 after he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle near the pond. After that accident, Feaga helped pass a bicycle helmet law for riders under 16.
"I don't feel bad about not being [at the African-American forum] because I go where I'm invited first, and that's what my parents taught me," Feaga said.
Kittleman and Bates also were at the park. Kittleman, who appeared at the forum but did not participate, said he meant no disrespect by leaving. He added that he cares about minority issues and concerns.
Bates expressed the same concern as Feaga about not being notified early enough.
Howell said he did not send out invitations for the forum until June 19, but he and the group's president, the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, said they had promoted the event for more than a month.
"Our response [to the candidates] was that everybody had some kind of conflict, but they had to make a choice about their priorities," Turner said. "We cannot be supportive of a candidate that does not think the African-American community is important."
Feaga, Kittleman and Bates all hail from the county's most pTC conservative region, western Howard, which has elected Feaga to the council for the past 12 years. Kittleman and Bates are battling to win a primary race that could determine the winner in their district, and Feaga is in a primary fight with fellow Republican council member Dennis R. Schrader.
Feaga said his absence from the forum had nothing to do with conservative politics. He reiterated his support for affordable housing -- a key issue to the PAC -- and said he will seek a meeting with the group soon. "If they can do this after my support for them, then I don't know what they could want," Feaga said.
Another council candidate, Democrat James G. Fitzgerald, also didn't show up at the forum. Fitzgerald, running against four-term incumbent Democrat C. Vernon Gray, said he wasn't there because, unlike the other candidates, he has not begun his campaign.
All other candidates for the County Council and for county executive came to the forum yesterday morning to address questions about affordable housing, school funding, minority representation in county government and county contracting, public employee unions and welfare reform.
The issue that sparked the most disagreement among the candidates was education, the focus of a budget battle this spring resulting in a nearly 8 percent increase in school funding that disappointed educators.
Council and executive candidates generally split along party lines on whether this year's council should have allocated more money for schools. To come up with more money, Democrats had said, they would consider repealing an income-tax cut approved by Republicans this year.
The piggyback tax cut, which will cost $2.1 million next year and $5.5 million the following year, was savaged by Democrats and educators as unnecessary at a time when schools were asking for millions of dollars. Republicans defended the tax cut and reduced other areas of the budget, such as legal services for the poor, to find money for schools.
"It looks like we're more concerned about the appearances of tax cuts at the expense of human services organizations and the board of education," said former police chief James N. Robey, a Democratic candidate for county executive.
Schrader, sitting beside an empty chair bearing Feaga's name tag, said the tax cut would help the county attract business and create tax revenues, which he called a better long-term strategy for schools.
Pub Date: 6/28/98