Throwing political jabs

3 county executive candidates criticize one another strongly during forum


With more than three months to go before the July 7 filing deadline, the three announced candidates for Howard County executive already are aiming political jabs at each other.

During a two-hour forum Saturday at St. John Baptist Church, sponsored by the African-Americans in Howard County Political Action Committee, the predictable answers to policy questions were sprinkled with sharp criticisms, with County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a two-term Republican, taking the offense against Democrat Ken Ulman, who fired back. Harry M. Dunbar, a Democrat running a slow-growth campaign, criticized the County Council and the Robey administration for allowing what he calls "uncontrolled growth."

Merdon, who quoted former South African President Nelson Mandela on education, talked about Jesus' leadership qualities and said he wants to "reach out to the African-American Coalition to sit at the table with me" on housing.

He is seeking support from a group normally aligned with Democrats. The coalition's president, the Rev. Robert A.F. Turner, delivered a ringing endorsement at Ulman's campaign kick-off.

To help counter that, Merdon noted that he was elected to the council from a majority-Democrat district and was chosen chairman with bipartisan support.

Ulman tried to highlight his positions on issues such as involving the community in planing for downtown Columbia's redevelopment, while highlighting Merdon's votes on key issues, including taxes, building a public safety training center and smoking in public.

Merdon, 35, criticized Ulman, 31, a one-term councilman, for inexperience, contrasted with Merdon's two council terms and his job in private industry, which he said involves supervising 100 people.

"What was the largest number of people who report directly to you?" he asked Ulman. Merdon, a vice president at Affiliated Computer Services, said Ulman, an elder-law attorney in Columbia, supervises one person.

Ulman shot back at Merdon that "in fact, you're a lobbyist."

A question from a Republican in the audience about government failures after Hurricane Katrina and other disasters prompted another biting exchange about experienced leadership.

"You don't want someone fresh out of law school, with very little experience," in charge of public safety, Merdon said of Ulman -- especially with a new County Council and executive taking office in December.

Ulman pointed out that Merdon voted against funding the county's first public safety training facility for police and firefighters, which is under construction at Alpha Ridge.

"The government needs tools to keep us safe," Ulman said, adding that active planning for emergencies is under way and "we are ahead of the curve."

Earlier, Merdon told the African-American group that Democrats have not appointed blacks to high-ranking jobs in the Robey administration.

"Have they done it? No," he said, accusing County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, of promising to appoint blacks but not following through, except for special assistant Herman Charity, who was in the audience.

"If you want to be tricked again, believe them," Merdon said. "My administration will be a lot more diverse than what we have today."

Ulman said that as county executive his Cabinet and staff "will reflect the diversity of this county. Diversity is our strength," he said.

Dunbar said, "In my administration, I will not tolerate discrimination, or an administration not representative of the county."

Later, Charity said Robey has several African-Americans in high appointed positions, including the county's housing director, a deputy administrative officer, and the assistant budget administrator. The local social services director, chosen by state and county officials, is also African-American.

Ulman criticized Merdon on taxes in response to questions about whether the candidates favor funding pre-kindergarten classes and will back efforts to close racial and ethnic performance gaps in schools.

"Education is the most powerful tool," Merdon said, quoting Mandela. But the quality of that education doesn't necessarily depend on "some line item in the budget," he added.

Ulman countered, "You've got to have the funding, as well," arguing that when shortfalls threatened the county budget, the Democrats pushed through a local income tax increase.

Merdon's backing of a bill to reduce the county's property assessment cap from 5 percent to 4 percent would hurt the budget in the long term, Ulman said.

But the council chairman said taxes are not the only source of help, recounting how he arranged for private donations to equip an after-school program with new computers and high-speed Internet connections for children in public housing in Ellicott City .

When the candidates got a chance to ask each other a question, Ulman asked Merdon if he has changed his mind about a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Merdon opposed a bill sponsored by Robey and Ulman calling for a total ban in two years. He later favored a ban with a four-year enforcement delay that Ulman opposed and Robey vetoed.

Merdon said he has not changed his mind, but he accused Ulman of voting to sustain Robey's veto purely to exploit the issue for political purposes.

Dunbar said he "looks forward to a smoke-free Howard County."

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