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.

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ANALYSIS: PA House Race Signals Path for Kratovil

May 19, 2010

   The victory of Democrat Mark Critz in a special Congressional election in southwestern Pennsylvania’s 12th District may signal some trends that bode well for Maryland’s Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-1st, in the November general election, but only if the vulnerable Eastern Shore incumbent takes a few pages from Critz’ playbook.

   The key lesson? Run your own race based on your district’s needs and resist the temptation, or the pressure from your party and donors, to nationalize what is essentially a local contest based on local issues. And say the word “jobs” in every speech and plaster the word, and the issue, on your website and campaign flyers.

  Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns by a comfortable 53-44 margin, with a Libertarian candidate taking 2 percent of the vote in the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. John (Jack) Murtha, D, who held the seat for nearly 36 years with a steely mix of conservative and populist positions on issues. The district includes Johnstown and spreads west to the outskirts of Pittsburgh in a region that has faced chronic economic problems. (Read the local report on the outcome of Tuesday’s special election here: http://www.ourtownonline.biz/articles/2010/05/18/somerset_news/news/local/news097.txt

  In our previous life, we traveled the Murtha district in presidential political campaigns in the past, meeting with a coffee klatch of retirees at a local fast food restaurant, veterans at the VFW hall and working moms at the grocery store. It is a district that in many ways is similar to the Eastern Shore of Maryland (minus the Bay and crabs) with many small towns, rural areas and a feeling of being forgotten and/or betrayed by the economy and the promises of government.  A Volkswagen assembly plant that provided good manufacturing jobs fled to Mexico, small businesses closed down and were replaced by rows of fast food restaurants.

   Murtha dominated the district for years, although he had a close call in his last contest, with a mix of hawkish views on defense and attention to bringing home the bacon, as in jobs, to the economically depressed district. Even a small ball bearings plant had a military contract to keep the machines and employees working. Critz, the winner of Tuesday’s special election, worked for Murtha for many years as  district director and director of economic development.

   The district, while nominally Democratic in registration, voted for Republican John McCain in the last presidential election, as did Maryland’s 1st District. But the PA district narrowly supported Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush in 2004, while Maryland’s 1st overwhelmingly supported Bush.

   The national Democratic and Republican parties invested heavily in the special election, with each side sending in heavy hitters to campaign in the district and pouring money into TV ads. Republicans tried to make it a referendum on Washington and voter anger while Critz and the Democrats played it more locally: “It’s about jobs, it’s about the economy,” he said in his victory speech. Jobs and the economy dominated his campaign and website.

   His Republican opponent, a wealthy businessman, promoted a platform that sounded like the national GOP playbook with some cribbing from the Tea Party folks, pledging to “take back the country” and “reduce government spending,” balance the federal budget and end “corruption in Congress.”

   In the Maryland 1st, Andy Harris, the expected Republican nominee, is so far running a more balanced campaign than his failed run against Kratovil two years ago. Most of that campaign focused on attack ads dubbing Kratovil a ‘liberal’ while this time Harris is talking about tax cuts, repealing the new federal healthcare law, cutting government spending and mandatory term limits for members of Congress.

  But Kratovil, at least on his website, seems to be running a national rather than local campaign– with the exception of Chesapeake Bay issues. On his list of issues, his priorities are “balancing the budget,” touting his opposition to the Obama healthcare bill, a get-tough on immigration stand, support of gun rights and, in last place, protecting the Bay. Jobs didn’t make the cut!

[UPDATE: Kratovil recently updated his campaign website to put “jobs and the economy” at the top of his issues list. Guess he reads The Cecil Times? Here is the link: http://kratovil.com/p/wfc/web/candidate/issue/public/ ]

   In appearances around the district and press releases, Kratovil has indeed highlighted steps he has taken to bring jobs to the district and help small business, including his sponsorship of a bill to protect local car dealerships from being forced out of business by financially strapped manufacturers. But for the most part, Kratovil– a prime target of the Tea Party people– has been playing defense and playing it on the Republican end of the field.

   The PA special election indicates that voters with a similar profile to the MD 1st can be won with a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy and other local bread and butter issues.

  Kratovil had an early fundraising lead and is expected to continue to receive campaign assistance from the national Democratic party. However, Harris has made inroads in fundraising in recent months and is pulling closer to Kratovil’s warchest. But so far the deep pockets of the conservative Club for Growth that fueled Harris’ last race have not materialized. Indeed, the Club’s PAC has not even endorsed Harris yet and the group is expected to be devoting much of its resources to the Pennsylvania Senate race, in which Pat Toomey, the former president of the Club, is the Republican nominee.

   As the Maryland campaign cranks up in the next few months, the candidates would be smart to take a look at the PA special election and some lessons learned.