WESTMINSTER -- Senate District 5 candidates went on the attack last week, with Democrat Jeff Griffith insisting that his opponent clearly explain his stance on abortion and Republican Larry E. Haines painting his rival as a "liberal" big spender.
The candidates took opportunities during opening and closing statements and a head-to-head questioning segment of Tuesday's debate to jab aggressively at each other, while politely responding in the interim to panelists' questions concerning such issues as taxes, the environment and crime.
The debate was organized by the League of Women Voters of Carroll County.
Haines wasted no time in proclaiming himself the "mainstream conservative," telling the audience of about 250 at Westminster's William Winchester Elementary that Griffith "is out of step with us and has his own liberal agenda to pursue."
Haines characterized Griffith as a supporter of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who the Republican says has pursued costly projects such as light rail at the expense of more essential needs.
Griffith responded to the characterization with a charge he would repeat later in the debate: "Larry loves labels."
Haines, a former dairy farmer, described himself as a lifelong hard worker who wouldn't try to solve all problems through increasing taxes and spending.
Griffith countered by saying that few in Carroll can match his record of service to the community, especially the social programs he helped develop during his two terms as county commissioner.
The election for the open seat serving most of Carroll and parts of Baltimore County is not about liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, but "preservation, problem-solving and preparation for public office," Griffith said.
Referring to Haines' anti-abortion stance and ties to the fundamentalist Church of the Open Door, Griffith said the election is about preserving "freedom of conscience, thought and religion."
Both candidates' opening remarks set the tone for their questioning later in the session.
Haines, who has emphasized his sense of "civic duty," opened by quizzing Griffith about some critical remarks he had made concerning the commissioner form of government and commissioners' salaries. He asked his opponent if he would advocate a pay raise in Annapolis if elected, to which Griffith replied he would not.
Haines, 52, a Westminster real estate business owner, followed up with a question about Griffith's support as commissioner of Baltimore cultural institutions, suggesting it was unnecessary. Griffith answered that the money is well spent because Baltimore's cultural assets are important to Carroll's economic development and tourism.
Griffith, an abortion-rights advocate, made certain the abortion issue took center stage, asking his two allotted questions and both follow-ups on the subject.
Choice PAC, an abortion-rights group, is supporting Griffith's campaign.
Haines has been endorsed by the Right to Life of Maryland committee.
Griffith asked Haines if he supported the full agenda of Right to Life, which, he said, would outlaw many forms of contraception, including the "morning-after pill" used by rape victims to prevent pregnancy; would require state's attorney's offices to produce an affidavit showing probable cause of rape to be accepted for an abortion; and would mandate other severe restrictions.
Haines responded that he'd accept legislation allowing abortions only in cases of rape and incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
"My position represents the common-sense beliefs of people in this region," he said.
Unsatisfied, Griffith pushed for a more definitive answer.
Haines eventually said he could not support some specifics of the Right to Life agenda and did not know the group's entire platform. He said that "a lot" of people in the anti-abortion movement "don't agree totally with my position" and that he has advocated some exceptions.
"I'm sure (Right to Life) sees me as a credible candidate who's willing to protect the unborn," he said.