With the general election just six weeks off, sparks began flying yesterday at an African-American-sponsored forum for Howard County candidates in Guilford.
In addition to the occasional sparring between hopefuls for county executive and County Council, event organizer Sherman Howell got in a few jabs, too - irritated at the absence of state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader.
The forum was sponsored by African-Americans in Howard County at the First Baptist Church of Guilford for those running for county executive, County Council and state senator.
Another forum is scheduled for Oct. 19 for other offices, including Congress and Maryland House of Delegates.
Joan Lancos, a Republican seeking the west Columbia County Council seat held by Mary C. Lorsung, asked Democratic opponent Ken Ulman why, if he is as committed to living the Columbia dream as he advertises, "did you choose to live in the least diverse area of District 4?"
Ulman shot back, accusing Lancos of "trying to belittle my neighborhood," and asking why, if she was planning board chairwoman for so many years, "did you have a role in making sure [River Hill] schools are overcrowded?"
The exchange was followed by a plea for peace from David Rakes, a Democrat running for the east Columbia council seat held by C. Vernon Gray.
"We do want to keep this campaign on a high road. We're trying to build a countywide community here," Rakes said.
But with the competitive juices starting to flow, County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, and Republican executive nominee Steven H. Adler also clashed - over money and taxes, an increasingly important issue as state politicians struggle with a projected $1.7 billion state budget deficit over the next two years.
"What's your commitment to not raising taxes?" Adler asked Robey.
The executive refused to promise anything, and did his best to put Adler on the spot instead. "I will never sit up here and tell you 'never,'" he said. "Anyone who says 'never' is just using political rhetoric. I will do my best" to deliver the services county residents want without raising taxes, he said.
Adler has said he will not raise taxes if elected.
Robey then wanted to know how Adler would honor a statement that he will slice 5 percent to 7 percent of the county budget, about $30 million, and still increase teachers' salaries and enhance other services. "How in heck can you do that?" Robey demanded.
"If we eliminate the Fire Department we could do that, or cut three-fourths of the police department," Robey said, getting slightly red-faced.
Adler said he would free money by looking for waste and cutting administrative costs.
"I did not say 5 to 7 percent writ in stone. I would cut bureaucracy," he said.
Later, Robey was pressed by Sam Brown, 38, of Simpsonville, a spectator who said he favors Adler, about how the executive could offer increased services without raising taxes.
Robey responded: "Are you trying to trick me into saying I'm going to raise taxes? What services do you want to give up? Less teachers? Let 50 police officers go?"
Howell, vice president of the sponsoring group, complained publicly that Schrader, a Republican trying to keep her Legislative District 13 state Senate seat despite opposition from Gray, a Democrat, was absent.
"She has missed three opportunities" to address black groups, he said, including the July 27 forum his group sponsored and a forum last week by a Muslim-American group. "We feel it's a planned strategy" to avoid black audiences, he said. "It's unfortunate."
Schrader said later that Howell's charge "couldn't be farther from the truth." She was on a family vacation in July and didn't know about the first forum, she said.
She is a life member of the NAACP and had a months-old commitment yesterday to appear at an all-morning Early Care and Education Leadership Institute summit at the Ellicott City senior center.
She produced a letter she sent Howell on Sept. 13, regretting her inability to attend and listing her positions on five major issues.
"I feel terrible," she said about Howell's spotlighting her absence. "Why single me out?" she asked, when other candidates, including council hopefuls Lynne Bergling, a Democrat; Diane Wilson, a Republican; and Republican District 12 state Senate candidate Mike Sneeringer also were absent. State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican, did attend, although he has no opponent.