State Candidates’ Forum: ‘Who’s on First’ and Other Routines

September 29, 2010

  Like the old Abbott and Costello comedy routine (” Who’s on First?”) or the vintage comic strip of Alphonse and Gaston (“After you,sir”  and “No, After You”), the candidates forum for Cecil County’s District 36 Senate and House of Delegates seats Tuesday night was an entertaining sideshow in an otherwise routine  evening of multiple candidates’ recitation of their resumes and “vote for me” appeals.

  The forum, hosted by the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce at Cecil College, let candidates have four minutes to speak to an audience of about 200 people, without any questions from a panel or moderator, and it was not set up for back and forth debate among candidates. The groundrules scheduled incumbents to speak first, followed by their election opponents. That was fine with all the other candidates for state-level office –but not Cecil County’s District 36 leadership.

   When incumbent Republican Sen. E.J. Pipkin’s name was called, he was not present in the auditorium. (In fact, he was seen waving from his truck, about a half-mile down the road from the college shortly before the forum began at 6:30 p.m.)  So his Democratic rival Steve Mumford, of Kent County, went first. Pipkin then arrived in the hall at about 7:05 p.m., after the forum had moved on to other contests.  Pipkin was seen getting a briefing from one of  his GOP colleagues, and when he finally got up to speak indicated he knew exactly what Mumford had said.

    Then in the District 36 Delegate contest, incumbent Republican Michael Smigiel angrily demanded that he should not have to go first in the lineup. His opponent, Democrat William Manlove, had informed Chamber officials that he could not attend because his wife, Mary, was undergoing major surgery on Tuesday and he needed to be with her. Manlove had asked that a brief statement from him be read at the event.

    Smigiel protested that no statement should be allowed and that at the least he should be permitted to speak after any statement from his opponent was  read because he thought it would be “antagonistic” to him. (He also attacked the editor of the Cecil Times as “an antagonist of mine.”)  The crowd began to boo him, and the Chamber moderator suggested that the audience decide the batting order. The boos intensified and Smigiel then relented and went to bat first.

    “Yes, I have a reputation,” Smigiel began angrily.  “I don’t only vote right, I fight.” He went on to list his many lawsuits against the state, the Governor, the Comptroller and others. One of his lawsuits challenged the referendum that allowed slots, including the Hollywood casino that opened this week in Cecil County to much media attention on the over 300 local jobs it has created.

   “Slots are OK,” he said, “but they don’t belong in our Constitution.”  He went on to list his endorsements, including business groups, Maryland Right to Life and the National Rifle Association and the local FOP Lodge. He said his top priorities were to “fight to keep the taxes down, cut spending and create private sector jobs.”

   And the Manlove statement that so worried Smigiel? It consisted largely of a long recitation of his resume, including four terms as a County Commissioner and membership on numerous regional agency boards.  There were also the controversial statements that he has a dog, Max, obtained from an animal rescue group and he is proud that his grandson will become the sixth generation of his family to operate the family farm.  Manlove also disclosed that “our prayers were answered and the doctors tell us that [Mary] will make a full recovery” from her surgery.

    The audience politely applauded the statement and Smigiel, with his head bowed, joined in.

   In the Senate contest, Mumford stepped up to the plate and swung hard, saying District 36  “deserves better leadership” in Annapolis and a delegation that will “listen to our leaders back home and not hold our leaders hostage.”  He directly challenged Pipkin on a volunteer firefighters’ retirement bill, which he said his opponent tried to block, and a fight with Cecil County leaders on a special taxing district bill that was passed by the General Assembly despite Pipkin’s determined efforts to block it.

   Mumford said he would be more resonsive to constituents, with a “visitor’s chair” always available for constituents to meet with him, and would not simply “wave” at people driving by on the road. “I’m a  local boy and I’ll be there” for citizens and local government leaders, he said.

   Pipkin said he learned that he had “missed a great ripping” from Mumford during his absence from the auditorium. He defended his practice of sign-waving on roadsides, saying that in rural areas the side of the road “becomes like an office” and constituents stop to talk to him and express their concerns. He summed up his platform as “jobs, lower government spending, lower taxes.”

    The incumbent said he had already helped bring jobs to the District with the opening of an emergency medical facility in Queen Anne’s County and worked to expand health education programs at Chesapeake community college to train future healthcare workers.

  In other contests, incumbent Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R), who represents western Cecil and part of Harford county, touted her record as a fiscal conservative, saying “I have voed against all of [Gov.] O’Malley’s tax hikes” and said she had put in the first bill seeking to repeal a one percentage point increase in the state sales tax that was enacted under O’Malley. She said the state had fallen from 24th to 45th place on national lists of business-friendly states under the O’Malley administration.

   Her Democratic opponent, Art Helton, who served in the state Senate many years ago, emphasized his campaigning in the Cecil County portion of the district.  (Both Helton and Jacobs live in Harford County.) He pledged to help Cecil County get state aid to build needed infrastructure in the I-94/Rt. 40 growth corridor. Helton also said he would be more inclusive than his opponent and would “not just represent a narrow viewpont” on issues.

  In the other contested Delegate’s race in Dist. 36, for the Kent County seat formerly held by the retiring Mary Roe Walkup, Republican Jay Jacobs presented a down-home self- portrait: “I’m a blue collar public servant,” he said. “I’m not there for the pictures, I’m down in the ditch.” Jacobs is the mayor of Rock Hall and operates a kitchen contracting business.

    His Democratic opponent, Arthur Hock, whose family has run the antiques and furniture auction facility in Crumpton for many years, said he would be “a voice of conservative independence” and would be “a voice in Annapolis that will be heard and respected.”  He pledged to be a “bridge builder” between local governments and the state.

   Incumbent Democrat David Rudolph (Dist. 34B) cited his efforts on behalf of all residents of Cecil County, not just those who live in his district. He said the state delegation should work together “as a team and make sure we get our fair share” of state aid for the county. His Republican rival, Theodore Patterson, did not show up for the forum.

   Michael Dawson (not the same person who lost a GOP primary bid for county commissioner) said he was running as a Constitution Party candidate against Rudolph as an “everyman” candidate who would “give my heart, give my soul” to represent the interests of his constituents.

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36th District Candidates’ Forum: Lots of “Me, too” and a Surprise

August 19, 2010

CENTREVILLE– Candidates for the 36th District state House of Delegates and Senate seats squared off Tuesday night in a non-partisan issues forum here, with most Republican candidates saying the same things, in the same words, while Democrats had a mixed presentation that even elicited that rare commodity at a candidates’ forum: laughter.

  The forum, sponsored jointly by the Kent and Queen Anne’s counties chapters of the non-partisan League of Women Voters, drew a small crowd of about 45 people. The format of the event placed Democrats  and Republicans in separate panels so there was no back-and-forth between potential general election rivals. In the few contested primary races, rivals were allowed to respond to each others answers. But the format, which drew all questions from people in the audience who could direct which candidate should address it, left out some candidates who were not allowed to address a question if it was not aimed at them. At times, candidates not allowed to answer a question seemed to be chafing at the bit to respond, too.

  That problem was most evident in the Democratic panel discussion.  William Manlove, of Cecil County, who is unopposed in the primary and will face incumbent Republican Del. Michael Smigiel in November, was frequently excluded from answering questions posed to the two Democrats running in the party primary for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican  Sen. E.J. Pipkin in the general election. Robert Alt, the former mayor of Elkton, is running against Steven Mumford, a political newcomer from Chestertown, in the primary for Senate.

(Missing from the panel was Arthur Hock, a Democrat who is running for the Kent County seat formerly held by Mary Roe Walkup, who is retiring.)

  Mumford, who has an eclectic background as a professional dancer and operates a historic homes tour business, drew laughter several times for his comments and demonstrated a mostly solid understanding of Kent and Queen Anne’s county issues. (He didn’t address specific issues regarding Cecil County, which he visited recently to appear at a firemen’s parade, waving a colonial tri-cornered hat.)  Perhaps because expectations were low, his performance at the forum was a surprise.

  On the state budget crisis, Mumford quipped, “Maybe Sen. Pipkin can help us out– he’s a multi-millionaire”  and on whether an additional Bay Bridge crossing is needed to ease traffic congestion, he joked that as a swimming instructor he would provide lessons to anyone willing to make the crossing by water, before discussing the issues seriously.

   Mumford was knowledgable on a key local issue: the “FASTC” project that would have brought a federal State Department security training center to a large Queen Anne’s County farm. The project was initially welcomed by local officials but they backpedaled after pressure brought by local anti-growth groups and the federal government withdrew the proposal.   Mumford said that while the 400 or so jobs the facility would have brought to Queen Anne’s were “lost” to that county, the project might still be salvaged and located in Kent or Caroline counties in the 36th District. He said he had talked with local economic development officials who were working with some local farmers interested in offering their property for the facility. “It’s not a dead issue yet,” he said.

  Alt, his primary opponent, admitted he was not up to speed on the issue and said, “I don’t know much about this issue but I’ll try to learn more.” (In comments posted on our short Tuesday night bulletin on the forum, Alt said he has researched the issue further and said it was a tough issue to address at the state level and was best decided by the county government.)

  Manlove said he had “mixed emotions” about weighing the “property rights” of the farmer to sell his land and the jobs the project would create against his concerns that a large farm would be taken out of production, when he has fought for years to preserve agriculture.

  Several questions posed to the Democrats focused on environmental issues, with Manlove outlining his efforts while President of the Cecil County Commissioners to promote “smart growth” policies to limit development in rural areas, keep farms in business and improve water quality through modernization of sewage systems. At one point, the former dairy farmer took exception to a suggestion that farmers were at fault for water pollution: “I resent blaming farmers for all the runoff,” Manlove said, listing other causes such as pavement run-off and failing sewage and septic systems.

  Alt cited his experience working to upgrade municipal wastewater treatment systems. He said a key issue for the state to address is the growing problem of  “saltwater infiltration into drinking water wells” in rural areas on the Shore.

  Alt also offered a suggestion for easing the chronic traffic congestion on Kent Island and Route 50: eliminate the eastbound tolls during peak travel times to end bottlenecks caused by backups at the toll plaza.

   On job creation, Alt said he had “knocked on doors” to bring business to Elkton and would do the same as a state Senator, working with town and county governments in a coordinated effort.  He emphasized his campaign platform to improve communication between local government and the state delegation. (Smigiel and Pipkin have had particularly strained relations with the Cecil County government in recent years.) Mumford, citing his membership in the Screen Actors Guild, said the state should promote the film industry and improve tax breaks to movie companies to shoot films here. Manlove was not allowed to answer the question.

   During the Republican portion of the forum, incumbents Smigiel and Pipkin were joined by incumbent Del. Richard Sossi, who represents Queen Anne’s County. Sossi is being opposed in the Republican primary by Stephen S. Hershey, Jr., who also attended the event. (No Democrats have filed for the Queen Anne’s County seat.) Pipkin is facing a GOP primary challenge from Donald Alcorn, but he did not attend the forum. Also present was Jay Jacobs, the mayor of Rock Hall who is running for the Walkup seat against Democrat Hock.

   The Republicans took pretty much the same position on the issues, often using the same words. On FASTC, most said it was a matter  of “property rights” and something to be decided by county government, with the state delegation having no role to play. But Hershey added that FASTC, and another Wye Mills project opposed by environmentalists, showed “The delegation does need to step in and push these types of projects. ”

    Pipkin offered a spirited defense of his environmental record when a questioner asked about his poor ratings on scorecards of the Maryland League of Conservation voters, which has given him marks of zero to below 40 percent in recent years. He cited his work as a private citizen to stop dumping of dredge spoil material in the Bay off Kent  Island and his work in the recent legislative session to bar dumping of rubble fill. He said he was penalized on the scorecard because he opposed a solar energy bill that “sounds nice” but in fact was “crony capitalism” that would have cost consumers millions.

   The most varied responses came to a broad question: what issue is your top priority to benefit the 36th District.

   Smigiel declared that it was to change the state Constitution. He said he wanted to allow local referendum voting on any local tax increase, and to clarify that local government condemnation of property through eminent domain could only be for public uses, like a school. (Smigiel and Pipkin have been at war this year with the Cecil County Commissioners and tried but failed to pass legislation in Annapolis to mandate what property tax levels the county could set.)

   Jacobs took a more down-to-earth approach: stem the “exodus” of small business from the Shore through lower taxes and incentives to encourage entrepeneurship in the area. Pipkin said his priority was to rein in government spending and cut property taxes and he also urged action to lower utility bills. Hershey declared that the “liberal majority in Annapolis” must be stopped and the corporate income tax should be cut.

    Sossi took a broader approach, saying “We dont have the luxury of picking just one issue” to focus on. He said job creation was crucial, through small business incentives and he said he would support a rollback of the one percentage point increase in the state sales tax enacted under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration.

    Sossi was the only candidate to address issues pertaining to seniors, who represent a growing proportion of Shore residents. He said “affordable housing” has become a serious problem in the district because seniors can’t afford to keep up their homes. He said he favors a change in state income tax law to allow a tax credit to offset income from pensions,  such as some other states provide.