Steuart Pittman and Jessica Haire sparred over crime, development and how best to spend taxpayer money Tuesday night in the lone Anne Arundel County executive debate of the race.
Over 90 minutes at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Pittman, the Democratic incumbent, and Haire, a Republican County Council member from Edgewater, each made their case why they would be responsible stewards of a $2 billion annual budget and around 40 departments while trying to paint their opponent as the wrong choice to the lead the county over the next four years.
“I promise logic, I promise thoughtfulness, I promise to bring accountability to the local government and more than anything I promise that every individual, every resident, every family every small business will know that I’m invested in our shared success as a community,” Haire said.
Meanwhile, Pittman encouraged voters to trust the government he’s built over the past four years and their proven capacity to learn and adapt as the county changes.
“The team that you put together and surround yourself with is really what makes or breaks you,” he said. “We know what we need to do to make government function more efficiently to reform our permitting processes, to reform our personnel processes so we can keep up with the private sector and fill our vacant positions.”
Throughout the night, Pittman touted his record of leadership. In response to a question on deterring crime and making residents feel safe, he said many crime statistics have gone down since he took office and discussed his multifaceted approach to combating the issue, including implementing a gun violence task force and funding a body cameras program while addressing social determinants of health that can lead to crime.
“Crime is not only a policing issue,” Pittman said. “Crime is the health and human service agencies. It’s the quality of life. There are social determinants of health that are associated with crime and if we fail to address those with major cuts to county governments then crime will go up. If we continue doing the work that we’re doing, I think we’ll continue to push the numbers down.”
Haire, meanwhile, said not enough has been done to address crime in the county and said hiring more officers was the best way forward to make the county safer. She countered Pittman saying that instances of gun violence have increased in the past four years, and accused Pittman of “ignoring the problem.”
“We have a problem. Mr. Pittman agrees we have a problem with crime in the county,” Haire said. “Ignoring the problem doesn’t fix it.”
Pittman also touted the county’s joint 911 call center project, aimed at making emergency response more efficient. The project has been discussed for a long time but finally made it into the budget this year, he said.
“The joint 911 center should have been in the first budget, not an election year budget,” Haire retorted.
[ VOTER GUIDE 2022: Read the candidates' positions on the issues ]
In back-and-forth on future development, Haire promised to help struggling county employees and young families afford the homes that already exist with property tax credits for first-time homebuyers, teachers, firefighters and police officers. Pittman defended his record of focusing development on affordable housing in transit-oriented areas and said he wanted to amend the county’s zoning code to allow for denser housing communities. He took a swipe at Haire’s opposition to housing density reforms by calling it “a dog whistle.”
“To say, as my opponent has, that density is bad automatically is really to say that we don’t like the people who live in the high-density housing,” Pittman said.
In response, Haire said: ”It’s not a dog whistle. I am blowing the whistle on your hypocrisy.” She went on to say that she would support new development that included provisions for the upgrading infrastructure and school capacity.
Pittman also criticized Haire for taking tens of thousands of dollars from a Silver Spring developer that has sought for decades to build a rubble landfill in Odenton. Haire said she opposes the landfill project and the money the company and its employees donated to her does not mean she will do them any favors.
During her opening statement, Haire attacked Pittman for raising taxes — he did so in his first year in office — while ballooning the county’s operating budget. Pittman defended those decisions and said the 2019 tax increases were necessary to pay public servants such as teachers and firefighters a livable wage and expand government to provide more services.
“This November you can elect someone who has been relentlessly focused on local issues and solving community problems, revitalizing aging infrastructure, cutting red tape for our small businesses, or you can choose the status quo — higher taxes, inefficient government and a lot of excuses for why things aren’t getting done,” Haire said.
Haire said there are strategic ways to do more with less taxpayer money such as cutting vacant county positions and being judicious about tax cuts for affordable housing developers and creating new programs.
“We are the final fiscal authority for your tax dollars. You work hard for your money,” she said.
Maryland Policy & Politics
One topic on which the candidates agreed was the redevelopment of Crownsville Hospital Center, where mentally ill Black Marylanders were forced to be farmers and laborers as a method of treatment. Both agreed the project should pay homage to the evils that took place there as it is renovated and remediated over the coming years. The property was transferred from the state to the county this past summer as part of a larger project by Pittman to turn it into a nonprofit and health center. The Maryland Board of Public Works approved $25 million for the project last week.
While Haire didn’t have as clear a vision yet for the property, she said she’s interested in making part of it an agricultural center.
In their closing remarks, each candidate argued their experience outside politics makes them suitable for the office. As an engineer Haire has spent much of her career solving problems in the most efficient ways possible while Pittman, a business owner, has spent much of his work life balancing budgets, meeting payroll, hiring qualified staff and providing quality goods and services.
The event, co-hosted by The Capital and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, came on the heels of the release of Anne Arundel Community College’s biannual political survey released earlier this month, which showed Haire and Pittman neck and neck in the race.
In the debate, the candidates answered questions from a panel and others that were submitted to The Capital’s website. The panelists included Dan Nataf, a professor of political science at Anne Arundel Community College; Charlestine Fairley, CEO of the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency; and Brooks DuBose, assistant editor of The Capital. Capital Editor Jay Judge moderated the proceedings.
Early voting begins Oct. 27 and lasts through Nov. 3. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Nov. 1, and Election Day is Nov. 8. Due to a recent decision by the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections, ballots will not begin to be counted until Nov. 10.
The entire debate can be viewed at capitalgazette.com/debate.