(Oct. 24, 2014) Eleven candidates for state and county office participated in a massive forum sponsored by the Coastal Association of Realtors at the Ocean Pines Library on Wednesday.
Md. Senate District 38 candidates Sen. Jim Mathias (D) and Del. Mike McDermott (R), District 38C House of Delegates candidates Judy Davis (D) and Mary Beth Carozza (R), District 38A House of Delegates candidates Percy Purnell (D) and Del. Charles Otto (R), Worcester County Commissioners District 2 candidate Diana Purnell (D), District 3 President Bud Church (R), District 4 Commissioner Virgil Shockley (D) and District 5 candidates Tom Wilson (D) and Chip Bertino (R) answered questions during the nearly three-hour forum.
Ocean City Today staff writer Zack Hoopes moderated the forum.
State Senate: Mathias vs. McDermott
The night opened with Jim Mathias responding to a question about state income taxes, and Mathias responded by pointing to his record of voting for decreases in sales, gas, alcohol, income and corporate taxes.
“What I did as well was to vote for the budgets to bring opportunities and create jobs,” he said.
Mathias touted his role in building the new James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury, a new library in Crisfield and new facilities at UMES, Salisbury University and Wor-Wic Community College.
“What it means is new opportunities,” he said. “Those monies were leveraged in creating jobs and a vibrant economy. I fought for lower taxes, I voted for lower taxes and I worked to make certain that the opportunities exist here on the lower Eastern Shore,” Mathias continued.
McDermott countered that Mathias actually voted for half of the state’s proposed tax increases.
“I’m not sure where he’s getting his numbers from,” McDermott said. “He votes for a lot of our fee increases and it creates a lot of our problems.”
McDermott said he introduced a bill eliminating the first $50,000 of retirement income from the tax base.
“You have to die in Maryland to get a tax break. That’s not the way it should be,” McDermott said, “As a family we’re paying about $5,000 more in taxes right now than we were eight years ago. You don’t change that, nothing gets any better for us.”
On health insurance, McDermott came out against the Maryland Health Exchange, calling it “a boondoggle.”
“This is the kind of crazy spending, when you’re talking about a state that’s $405 million in the hole and you’re talking about money that we just threw away for about $300 million. There’s got to be some accountability.”
McDermott said small businesses are being crushed under the weight of government regulation.
“The Obamacare package that goes into effect this December is going to literally bring a lot of our businesses to a grinding halt,” he said. “How is it that something that is supposed to be so good for us ends up being something that we absolutely abhor?”
Mathias said he would make Maryland a place where business continues to come to invest.
“My priority continues to be making sure that Maryland is a place that’s competitive with Delaware and Virginia and other states in the Mid-Atlantic,” he said.
Four new hotels, said Mathias, are under construction in the county.
“I’d say those folks want to be here,” he said, highlighting an additional $40 million project at Court Plaza in Salisbury as well as the prospect of offshore wind in Ocean City.
“By expanding our healthcare here in Maryland you will have a bigger base to take that pressure off your premiums for people who are already paying for those who don’t have it,” Mathias said.
House of Delegates: 38A and 38C
All four delegate candidates were asked if they felt the Eastern Shore delegation was being “drowned out” by their metropolitan counterparts in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, D.C.
“Everybody in Maryland has some tie to the Eastern Shore,” said Mary Beth Carozza, “Either they came down for senior week, they spent a summer working here, they have a second home here, they were planning to retire here, their kids go to Salisbury University or Wor-Wic.”
Working with delegations across the bridge, Carozza suggested, benefits the entire state.
“What is good for the Shore as far as policies go really benefits all Marylanders,” she said. “I’m very excited about the opportunity of selling the Shore to all of Maryland.”
Judy Davis said she would use her four decades of experience as an area resident to “build a common understanding with the folks across the bridge … through respectful dialogue.”
“We do have a lot of needs,” she said, “in 38C we have the agriculture and farming industry, we have small business, we have families. Thirty-two percent of our population in Worcester County are 65 and older. We have the working poor … Those experiences will be a strength as I respectfully engage in dialogue with folks across the shore.”
Percy Purnell stressed hometown connections and coalition-building to accomplish tasks in Annapolis.
“When you go to Annapolis … you probably go through 20 names before you hit someone from the Eastern Shore,” said Percy Purnell. “The only way that you’re going to accomplish anything on the Eastern Shore is you’ve got to form coalitions – you’ve got to form delegations on the other side. They outnumber you ten-to-one.”
Purnell said the Eastern Shore is a unique place.
“The Eastern Shore … is the place to live – right now it’s not the place to work,” he said. “We have to find issues we can share and we have to form coalitions.”
Purnell said “dual taxation” and unfair environmental regulations hurt job growth on the Eastern Shore.
“It’s a combination of working with the state, reducing your enforcement and reducing your laws in the environmental area,” he said. “The laws have to be reduced. You have to get things back to reality.”
Charles Otto blames state highway projects for crippling the state and burdening everyone with higher taxes.
“We can’t afford to operate them after we build them,” he said. “And all of this goes back to get votes for social issues that have passed: the death penalty repealed, legalized marijuana, gay marriage, transgender discrimination. That’s why we end up with the gas tax.”
Otto labeled himself as a “voice for property rights.”
“Maryland is one of the worst states for mortgage foreclosure,” he said. “The administration’s answer was to freeze mortgage and foreclosure, and that just created another problem.”
Otto called the state “irresponsible.”
“I brought common sense to the Environmental Matters Committee,” he said. “I’d like to name some of the bills that were proposed that didn’t get out of the committee – but we’d be here all night.”
Judy Davis said business growth in Worcester County, based on her data, was strong.
“I’m one that advocates using the programs that are in place and not reinventing the wheel to help with job expansion,” she said.
Strengthening ties to high-tech institutions like Wallops Island and Worcester Technical High School, countered Mary Beth Carozza, are keys to a strong economy.
“I really believe that that’s going to be the key so we actually keep our young people here,” she said. “I think we do a great job in this community of educating our young people, but we need to make sure that economic opportunities are here so they feel like they don’t have to leave to seek out those economic opportunities.”
Carozza said she asked Worcester County Economic Development Director Bill Badger what he needed to help grow the economy.
“He said, ‘Mary Beth, we need help at the state level. Too many taxes, too many regulations,’” she said. “I kind of know what my focus would be, and I want you all to know that I’m committed to strengthening our local economy so that my seven nieces and nephews and your children and grandchildren – should they want to stay here on the Shore – will have the opportunities to do so.”
Worcester County Commissioners: Districts 2,3,4,5
Asked about the most pressing issues facing Worcester County Commissioners, Diana Purnell cited education and economic development.
“Mary Beth spoke about one of the things that I really treasure in Worcester County,” she said. “That tech school is a gem. It cost us a lot and we’ve got to make it work for us on every level.”
Purnell said the school opens doors for area students.
“When they come out with a high school diploma they can have at least two state certifications,” she said. “I want to work within the County Commissioners – within the schools – with our education.”
The state itself, said Bud Church, was the county’s biggest obstacle.
“The state of Maryland has over-taxed and over-regulated almost everything that we do in Worcester County,” he said, singling out highway user fees and pension plans as problem areas.
“Worcester County doesn’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem,” he said. “In my mind the state doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. Until we correct what the state of Maryland is doing for Worcester County, and every county in the state, we’re going to continue to have that problem.”
Virgil Shockley believed budgeting was the biggest concern, although the county managed to cut $17 million in spending over three years without cutting education.
“We cut back on other things,” he said. “At the same time we did that Worcester County built a Vo-Tech school, they remodeled Pocomoke High School and now we’re remodeling Snow Hill High School. The people that you actually have that work for the county down at the county government center are some of the most intelligent, dedicated people you will ever see. We’ve been able to maintain the quality of life in Worcester County through that (economic) downturn.”
Chip Bertino agreed the county could face a budget crisis.
“As we look forward down the road the budget stabilization fund is only expected to be funded through 2017-2018,” he said. “If we do not see a rise in county assessments so we’re bringing more money into the county coffer … we’re going to end up in 2017 and 2018 with a deficit we’re not going to be able to close.”
Wilson wanted to focus on an issue closer to home.
“The biggest problem facing Worcester County today is very simple – jobs,” said Wilson. “Worcester County has the lowest average wage of any jurisdiction in the state. From November to April we have the highest unemployment rate.”
More than 4,800 people in the county were out of work last January, according to Wilson.
“We need good jobs – we need year-round jobs,” said Wilson. “We need to do better and we can do better. If we can bring the jobs and we can bring new the businesses to Worcester County, some of the issues with the budget will be resolved.”
Wilson said the County Commissioners needed to take leadership role, rather than expect Badger to “fix everything.”
“Worcester County has a wonderful quality of life, the taxes here are low relative to the rest of the state, and it’s beautiful. Who doesn’t want to live at the beach?”
Following the same theme, Hoopes asked the Commissioner candidates how they could improve county assets apart from the beach.
“We can’t rely on the tourist economy – an economy that goes away every winter – to help build Worcester County,” Wilson said. “Jobs are going away and moving. We need to focus on the good jobs we have here and bring better jobs to Worcester County.”
Bertino defended Badger.
“He’s been here two years and I think he’s done a really good job,” he said. “He’ll be the first one to tell you we need to do more, but if we’re going to improve the assets in our county we need the help of our state representatives. We need a better relationship with our state representatives to bring more down here.”
STEM and Step Up programs, helping students develop job skills, help “ignite passion” for learning, Bertino suggested.
“It gives them an opportunity to see what they can do – to push the boundaries,” he said. “Our students don’t even realize the opportunities that exist within our county. We need to do a better job in promoting businesses to our youth, and just as importantly exposing our kids and our county to what is available. Let that creativity between our kids and businesses come together.”
Shockley pushed broadband Internet access as a cure-all for job creation.
“You should be able to flip up a laptop anywhere in the county and get access,” he said. “It’s a very simple idea – it’s a simple idea that’s taken me 11 years and it’s still not done – but I haven’t given up on that idea.”
Church also defended Badger, and echoed Shockley’s sentiment that technology – including broadband – is the key to creating new jobs.
“There’s a plan to launch men – people – from Wallops,” he said. “We need to get our children in tune with high tech. That’s where the jobs are going to come from. They are expanding Wallops beyond anything you could ever imagine,” Church said.
Diana Purnell called for increased citizen participation in government, comparing the voting populace to parents attending PTA meetings.
“You elect us, you want us to do these jobs, you want us to ask these questions like we’ve got the answers – we don’t have the answers,” she said. “We have an idea of what the answer should be, but you out there have to be a part of every bit of this.
“You put all this on the Commissioners … but you have to be a part of it also,” Purnell continued. “Work outside the box to bring jobs in here. Be a part of that. That will make it whole lot easier for Bill (Badger), and a whole lot easier for all of us.”
Opening up the debate to public questions, the candidates were asked about their impressions of the drug court.
“We have to have drug court because we have drug addiction, so I think the very first thing we need to do is make sure we can eradicate … addiction,” said Mathias.
The senator voted for a prescription drug monitoring program to that end and appropriated money for mental health and counseling.
“Let’s work from a preventative nature,” he said. “We’re all in this together. I ask you to be the trustee in your own neighborhood, to be the trustee in your own home, to make certain that the answer is not alcoholism, that the answer is not drug addiction.
“I’m asking you to help identify the genesis of this issue and where we are heading as a community before we wind up in drug court,” Mathias continued.
McDermott said the program was both innovative and money saving.
“If you intercept a kid at that level and you’re able to get the family and get the counseling it’s a holistic approach, and that’s what makes it work.”
A former police officer, McDermott called for innovative law enforcement and “more cops on the street” – as well as smaller overall government.
“You’re going to have to ask your government to do more with less,” he said. “That’s the principal of good government – ask the government what they can do with less money.”
Davis, a former public school teacher, has seen the effects of the drug epidemic firsthand.
“I’ve had to watch two of my students being buried, both because of drug abuse, so I certainly have a heart for our young people who make stupid mistakes, who make bad choices, who fall off into the wrong crowd,” she said. “We need to make sure we continue to work hard to save our young people in our community from substance abuse addiction and from heroin addiction.”
Parent and community involvement, said Percy Purnell, is the best way to prevent drug use.
“We’re losing the war and drug court seems to be the closest thing to a solution we’ve been able to come up with,” he said. “It has paid real attention to the kids, what they’ve done, what their future is and how they can get themselves out of that situation. We all support drug court.”
Mathias called for voters to fact check each candidate’s declarations and record, while touting his own.
“Look at what we’ve accomplished together,” he said, “look at effective results and effective leadership. When you look at where we were and where we are today certainly we can do better, and I ask you to allow me to continue that opportunity. From our schools, our universities, our roads – we have been able to deliver what you have asked for.”
McDermott said other states were rebounding from the recession while others, like Maryland, had stalled.
“You are the voters and you get to decide whether or not we have a problem, and if we have a problem you’re the ones that get to decide where the solution is,” he said. “Who is the leadership that is going to move us in a direction that is positive and more beneficial – not only to us right now – but to our children and our children’s children. Elections are about your future, but the only thing you need to do is look and see what these guys have done in the last eight years and you will understand the direction they will take us in the next four.”
Carozza said she would lead on policy issues and turn around the economy, while Davis accused her opponent of carpet bagging and overspending on political ads.
“I have lived here for four decades raising my family and teaching our children,” she said. “Mary Beth has served our community in Washington, D.C. – she has not been here in the trenches as we have every day.
“You won’t see my ads pop up on your Facebook page and you won’t see my commercials or ads in the paper because I believe that money spent on our people and our community is more satisfying than money spent on a campaign.”
Diana Purnell said she would use the lessons her father taught her as a County Commissioner.
“You believe in what you believe in and you go for it,” she said. “You work for it and you treat everybody fair and you treat everybody right – it doesn’t matter who they are. If you take a job you earn your keep, and you do it well. That’s what I intend to do as a County Commissioner.”
Shockley called the County Commissioner role, “the best job you can ever have – most days.”
“We have a group of commissioners that will work hard for you,” he said. “We disagree with each other – that’s what democracy is. That’s a good thing. I’ve enjoyed it for 16 years. I stand here tonight – there’s a couple things I’d like to finish.
“I want to be able to flip up my laptop and get access to the Internet,” Shockley continued. “And I hope to see that done. I’d like to live long enough to see 113 dualized all the way. But no matter what you do – no matter who you vote for – please take the time to vote. Please take that time.”