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Democrat and Republican Baltimore County executive hopefuls square off in Pikesville

Democrat and Republican Baltimore County executive hopefuls square off in Pikesville
The five leading candidates for Baltimore County executive debate at Beth El Congregation Wednesday night, from left: Del. Pat McDonough, former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr., County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, state Sen. Jim Brochin and state insurance commissioner Al Redmer Jr. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

The five leading candidates for Baltimore County executive shared a stage Wednesday night, as the Baltimore Jewish Council hosted a debate at a Pikesville synagogue.

Though billed as a debate, the candidates had few back-and-forth exchanges, with the candidates sticking mostly to touting their own credentials and ideas.

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The participants included the three leading Democrats in the race — County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, state Sen. Jim Brochin and former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. — and the two Republicans, Del. Pat McDonough and the state’s insurance commissioner Al Redmer Jr.

Here are some highlights.

The questions reflected the unique interests of the Jewish community.

The candidates were asked two questions that don’t often come up in the debates and forums they’ve attended.

One question related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, or BDS, which is an international campaign led by Palestinians to boycott Israel and urge companies not to do business there. Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order that requires all companies seeking state contracts to promise they will not boycott Israel.

The candidates who answered the question all took great pains to show how supportive they are of Israel, with some promising to pass their own executive order or work with the County Council to pass legislation.

When Almond answered, she made sure to note that she went to Israel a few years ago, and Brochin mentioned that he’s Jewish.

“We always have to have Israel’s back,” he said.

McDonough said he’s “an aggressive supporter of Israel.”

The candidates also were asked about using taxpayer dollars to support private institutions, such as security grants for houses of worship and support for private schools. This time, the candidates were less accommodating to their audience.

Olszewski said that when he was a state delegate, he supported technology grants for private schools, but not tuition assistance for private school students. He offered to investigate partnering with private schools to help them with transportation.

Almond also said there could be partnerships between the county and private schools on transportation and security, but she called herself “a strong advocate for public education.”

Brochin was more direct: “I believe that public dollars should go to public education, and I think that we have a lot of work to do with our public schools.”

Talking about the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is tricky.

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The candidates were asked to assess Kamenetz’s term and say what he did well and what policies they would change. Kamenetz, a Democrat who was in his final year as executive, died of sudden cardiac arrest on May 10.

“I think we can all agree we would rather be answering this question with the county executive still with us,” Olszewski said. He praised Kamenetz’s work on upgrading infrastructure and said he’s continuing his work on ending housing discrimination.

Almond said Kamenetz cared deeply about his family and improving the county. She praised his investments in the school system and said the revitalization of downtown Towson may be his legacy. “Every decision he made, he made because he thought it was the right one for Baltimore County,” she said.

McDonough spent most of his time praising Kamenetz for disagreeing with him without being disagreeable. He said every year at the Maryland State Fair, Kamenetz would announce the elected officials in attendance.

“He would fake that he forgot me and would say: ‘Yes, there’s one more. Valerie McDonough’s husband is here,’” McDonough said.

As for policies, McDonough said he would “do everything different from Kamenetz.”

It’s tough to have a day job and run a campaign at the same time.

Redmer arrived more than an hour after the debate started and only got a chance to answer two questions.

That’s because he was in Ellicott City earlier in the evening in his role as the state’s insurance commissioner, helping people affected by the weekend’s devastating flooding on Main Street.

Redmer apologized and made the best out of his couple of answers and his closing statements, squeezing in comments on needing to address “deplorable conditions” and discipline problems in schools, advocating for a “long-term plan” for the county, and listing off his experience in the insurance industry and as insurance commissioner.

The forum at the Beth El Congregation in Pikesville was moderated by Andrew A. Green, the editor of the editorial and opinion section of The Baltimore Sun.

The Republican and Democratic primary elections are scheduled for June 26, with early voting beginning on June 14.

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