From the east, I rolled into the parking lot adjacent to the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, just ahead of what looked like a derecho tumbling in from the west. The skies, like the two McDonald’s cheeseburgers I ruefully scarfed down for my dinner-in-a-Honda, added to a sense of foreboding. Would the power go out at my destination, the aforementioned Center that, at that very evening, was hosting the PFLAG-sponsored Howard County Executive Candidate Forum? Was my last-minute gastronomical choice something I would regret? Too many questions, too many onions.
Once safely inside the building, I chatted with some friends, old and new, and after hearing about the transcendence of basil ice cream at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen (note: must return there soon), I took my seat. The Forum, featuring Democratic County Council Member Courtney Watson and Republican State Senator Allan Kittleman, was about to begin.
Let’s skip to the key take-away for a moment. Fundamentally, I think both candidates had good nights. Technically, they both performed at a high level. But this is America and we like winners and losers, victors and vanquished. Ties are for the World Cup.
So, I thought, if I was a candidate for County Executive, whose evening would I have rather had. If ties go to the runner, in Howard County, they go to the Democrat. And I think Watson beat Kittleman by half-a-step, so she would be the winner. Here is why:
But first, before I get into any specific hits or misses, it is noteworthy that the very first question dealt with development and the Inner Arbor and both candidates voiced support for the Inner Arbor Plan. According to my hand-written notes, Kittleman said that the Plan would be “a good thing for Howard County” while Watson indicated that she was “excited about the Inner Arbor Plan.” There you have it, bipartisan support for the Inner Arbor. Both candidates expressed hope for a productive implementation process moving forward. Let’s hope that everyone is listening on that point.
Rather than do a topic-by-topic summary/analysis, which Amanda Yeager did with her usual skill and panache (the article can be found right here), I will focus on some of the prevailing themes and other notable moments.
Watson’s responses to the moderator’s questions tended to follow a logical progression: respond directly to the query posed, lay out the facts (and figures) as well as the relevant history on the issue, shift to the future by talking about a path forward with specific programs and policy proposals. Very rational, very efficient. The message is clear: Watson has a serious command of the issues facing Howard County and the knowledge to work out practical solutions to these challenges.
Kittleman’s replies tended to be broader, with more of an emphasis on a combination of general principles (including “predictability for businesses,” “we need people to have a seat at the table,” and we must “live within our means”) with anecdotal information/mini-vignettes to illustrate/support a larger narrative. He would frequently pivot to his experience working at both the county and state levels and talk about working across party lines. Overall, it made for an effective, more story-driven, presentation.
But now we come to the central dilemma facing the Kittleman campaign, in stressing his independence, he is highlighting that from which he is running away – an increasingly conservative Republican Party, a party to which he still belongs, a party that is out-of-touch with the values of many Howard County voters. To listen to him speak is to hear a voice from the past…a reminder that once-upon-a-time there was a Ford/Rockefeller wing of the GOP. He states he is running to reclaim the party, but why should the electorate get involved in his realignment efforts? Voters already have a progressive choice in Courtney Watson and the Democratic Party. Why vote Republican in light of the GOP's platform and priorities? I don’t believe that Kittleman has a compelling answer to that query, so he triangulates, hoping that his identification with, and advocacy for, certain progressive causes will peel away just enough votes in November.
Ultimately, I believe Kittleman is asking for voters to take one leap too many, and in the wrong direction. I understand the frustration he is experiencing with today’s GOP and commend him for wanting to bring the party back from the brink. But given a choice between a candidate representing a progressive party; and a candidate from a conservative party, who is more likely to be cross-pressured by a right-wing base of supporters, I think the vast majority of Democrats, most independent-minded moderates, and even some Republicans, will choose Courtney Watson. At least this is where I believe we are headed. Kittleman has approximately 118 days to shake things up and, personally, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.
Highlights for both candidates:
I thought Watson showed some passion when talking about mental health as a public crisis in “Howard County and beyond.” The listener came away with the impression that she really wanted to work on this challenge, and that same determination carried over to her response on the next question, which focused on LGBTQ homelessness.
Apparently some in the audience came away with a different perception of Kittleman’s closing remarks. They thought he sounded too strident, too defensive, and/or talked too much about himself. I get where they are coming from, but I thought he demonstrated genuine passion (there is that word again) when he discussed equal rights and the importance of those values and his fight to defend such principles (with his support for Maryland’s Question 6 being the focus of his statement).
I believe the highlights of both candidates elevated the discourse. Kudos to both.
Question from the mailbox: “So did anyone go negative?”
Not too many elbows were thrown. Kittleman was the first to venture in what could be described as comparative campaigning. In response to a question that centered about how best to preserve the character of our communities, in light of development in certain areas, and what would the candidates do in terms of housing options, he basically said that the County’s plan regarding housing “is not working.”
Watson decided to shine the spotlight on some votes that Kittleman took; votes against funding a local public safety training center and against a police helicopter. Kittleman’s response came across as just a little defensive, just a bit shaky.
Both statements were well within the bounds of fair play. No low blows. The exchanges allowed the voters to learn a little more about the two candidates.
Overall, it was a well-organized event that covered a wide range of important issues and those in attendance heard some substantive responses. Both candidates probably walked away feeling as though they largely accomplished what they set out to achieve. It marked a strong start to the General Election Forum season.
Stay tuned, as more will follow.