With the Republican primary election for Anne Arundel County executive a little more than a month away, Jessica Haire, one of five GOP candidates vying to face Democratic incumbent Steuart Pittman, is calling into question new county health department masking guidance.
Last week, county Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman suggested schools with a COVID-19 positivity rate of 5% or higher ask students and staff to wear masks indoors for 10 days after the threshold is reached. Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto supported the recommendation.
The school system stressed this was not a mandate, simply a recommendation, but last week Haire sent a text message blast to her campaign followers saying, “Can you believe it – Steuart Pittman wants to force masks on kids again.”
The message was accompanied by a graphic that read: “no more mandates.”
[ VOTER GUIDE 2022: Read candidates' positions on the issues ]
Haire, who announced her run for county executive last June, argued that simply not using the word mandate doesn’t make it so, reasoning that the alternative to masking and letting the virus spread may mean a return of virtual classes — something Haire views as a punishment.
“Pittman and Dr. Kalyanaraman, they’re coming to the Board [of Education] and saying you should mask or you might have to switch to virtual learning or the school will be shut down,” said Haire, who has represented Edgewater in the County Council since 2018. “Pittman may not like what I had to say, but there was nothing untruthful about it.”
The Pittman campaign responded with a campaign newsletter Thursday clarifying that the mask recommendation was not a mandate and criticized Haire’s campaign for spreading false information.
“What’s notable about the paid Haire text alert is that she knows it’s false. She knows that I have no authority on this topic at schools, and that I have made no such threats,” Pittman’s newsletter read. “We must defend our county by putting out the facts when politicians attempt to divide us with misinformation.”
Haire’s skirmish with Pittman marks the first of what likely will be many tense moments in the campaign before the July 19 primary.
Haire taking a swing at Pittman on masking may have been a political calculus to establish her identity among voters in the county and mobilize parents to go to the polls, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College.
“I think there’s probably a lot of people who are not really familiar with her,” Nataf said. “She still needs themes to campaign on.”
Haire’s Republican primary opponents are local businessman Chris Jahn, former state delegate Herb McMillan, former County Council member John Grasso and Fernando Berra, a Pasadena engineer.
Jahn said masking in schools is something for the school board to decide without influence from the county executive. He said if elected, however, he would work with the health officer on recommendations, just not mandates.
“I’m not seeking to replace anyone when I take office,” Jahn said. “That said, I do have certain things I want to accomplish, and if these folks can’t work with my agenda then we’ll have to part ways.”
McMillan, who since the pandemic began has been critical of Pittman, Kalyanaraman and the school system, said masking in schools should be an individualized decision, left to the parents of each child.
“I think Jessica is, candidly, a little bit late to the party on this issue and that’s one reason why she’s probably doing it,” McMillan said. “I think most of the time when a teacher recommends something, a kid is going to think it’s something that they have to do. That’s a decision parents need to make, not the school board.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
If the health officer has a suggestion for parents, the school board should be left out of it, McMillan said, and the health officer should confer directly with parents through some other means, like writing an editorial in the newspaper.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Pittman in the Nov. 8 general election.
School closures, masking and other issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic are sensitive issues for voters, and especially those are who are parents, Nataf said. Many Republican candidates around the country are focusing their efforts on those voters who feel silenced in matters of their kids’ education and health.
“This will be something that wins over parents that are maybe suburban swing voters, but who are hesitant to see a mandate or a return to compulsory masking in the schools,” he said.
This aligns with the findings from Nataf’s biannual political survey of Anne Arundel County, which foundhe virus has faded into a lower priority for voters since last fall, while education and the school environment have become larger issues.
Haire’s attack and Pittman’s response set the tone for the upcoming election, in which candidates will need to acknowledge the pandemic and the issues it’s created, while not dwelling on it too much and turning voters away who may be tired of talking about it, Nataf said.