State Senate, House Rivals Offer Views on Issues for Cecil County; Ghrist Attacks Rival in Dist. 36

October 10, 2014

Multiple candidates for state House and Senate seats representing Cecil County in Annapolis answered questions at a forum at Cecil College on Wednesday on a wide range of issues but a Caroline County candidate for a multi-county delegate seat went rogue with an attack on his rival.

Carl Roberts, a former superintendent of Cecil County Public Schools, served as moderator for the forum, which was sponsored by the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, and he posed the same questions to each candidate in a particular race. The format of the forum did not provide for debate or back-and-forth responses among the candidates.

“It’s critical that Cecil County be well-represented” in Annapolis, Roberts said. “It’ll be a crying shame if people don’t come out and vote,” he added at the outset of the forum.

In District 36, which covers southern Cecil County, all of Kent and Queen Anne’s counties and part of Caroline County, candidates are competing for three available seats to represent the four counties. Cecil County lost its local representative in the district when Del. Michael Smigiel was defeated for re-election in the June Republican primary. As a result, Cecil County’s interests will be represented by residents of the other counties in the district.

Jeff Ghrist, a Caroline County Commissioner, drew more votes than Smigiel district-wide in the GOP primary and is contending for what is now designated as a Caroline County seat against Robert A. Thornton, Jr., a Democrat. Thornton previously held a Delegate seat about 20 years ago before re-districting pulled the plug on a resident delegate seat for Caroline County.

As the candidates were asked how they would promote economic development in Cecil County and work with the County Council and County Executive on such issues, Ghrist cast the question aside to launch an attack on his rival.

“I don’t want to go negative,” Ghrist said, but then challenged answers he said Thornton provided to a Progressive Maryland questionnaire supporting mandated healthcare and sickleave and opposing “right to work” laws that can limit unionization of workplaces. “I will never vote for any bill that is a detriment to business,” Ghrist said and he observed that his race against Thornton was “head to head.”

“I didn’t get Progressive Maryland’s endorsement so I guess they didn’t like my answers,” Thornton responded when his turn to speak came. He said he did not support mandated health care and then went on to answer the original question, citing various business incentives in place in Cecil County such as enterprise zones and job development tax credits.

Thornton held up a box of fasteners made in Maryland and said he would promote legislation to allow Maryland-made products to be sold within the state tax-free. He also said he would support a “fixed rate of income tax” for business and steps to make Cecil County more competitive with nearby Delaware.

Irving Pinder, a Democrat running for the Queen Anne’s County delegate seat now held by Steve Arentz, a Republican, observed that “one candidate (Ghrist) just spent his whole two minutes” attacking the other candidate “but never came up with” his own answers to the original question.

Then, when the forum moved on to another question—whether the state stormwater runoff fee (“rain tax”) assessed in some areas of the western shore should be extended to Cecil County—Ghrist went back to the earlier economic development question and discussed his work as member of an economic development task force in Caroline County. He also said he would oppose extending the “rain tax” to Shore counties.

In other District 36 Delegate races, Pinder also opposed the “rain tax” and said the district’s representatives in Annapolis should “raise enough ruckus” to prevent its extension to Cecil County. Pinder said he is a former deputy secretary of the state Commission on Aging and former executive director of the Maryland Board of Physicians.

Thornton and Arentz also opposed the “rain tax,” with Arentz saying “it is just another tax” and that “the Conowingo Dam is a much bigger issue” in the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay than stormwater. Arentz is a former president of the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners and a small business owner.

Running unopposed for the Kent County seat in the district is Del. Jay Jacobs, a Republican and the former mayor of Rock Hall. He spoke of his frequent meetings with Cecil County officials and local leaders in all four counties in the district. (Indeed, Jacobs is a fixture at many local events and government meetings in Cecil County.) He said there should be an overhaul of the state Department of Business and Economic Development with attention to initiatives to “target” areas with “regional challenges,” such as Cecil County’s proximity to sales tax-free Delaware.

The only House of Delegates district confined exclusively to Cecil County is a newly redrawn District 35A, represented by 16-year Annapolis veteran Del. David Rudolph, a Democrat. He is being opposed by Republican political newcomer Kevin Hornberger, who lives in North East and works as a facility engineer at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Rudolph said he had voted against the “rain tax” in Annapolis when it was first enacted and would continue to oppose any extension of it to Cecil County. Hornberger said, “I will oppose that as well as any other taxes.”

But the candidates disagreed on whether to enact a statewide mandate to start public school classes after Labor Day—a pet project of State Comptroller Peter Franchot. Rudolph, a former school principal in the county and currently on staff at Cecil College, said the school schedules should be a local decision by local school boards. Hornberger said August starts of the school year hurt the economy and tourism to Ocean City, so he believes classes should begin “after the holiday.”

On economic development, Rudolph cited his role as vice-chairman of the Economic Matters committee and ticked off a list of projects he helped bring to the area that help create jobs. But “economic development is much more than a business,” he added, citing the need for enhanced educational opportunities such as agreements enabling Cecil and Harford students to access four-year degree programs close to home. He urged stronger ties to the developing Delaware Research Center, just over the Cecil County line.

Hornberger said he favored creation of an entrepreneurship center at Cecil College focused on younger business owners. “Young entrepreneurs—that’s the best way,” he said. He claimed that he had experience cost-cutting in his current job and that he had “effected change in Congress, saving money.” His job involves maintaining the building at the Library of Congress, which is separate from the Capitol itself and is unrelated to policy-making by the legislative body.

In other delegate races, there are two seats at stake in the re-drawn District 35B covering western Cecil County and northeastern Harford county. Republican candidates Theresa Reilly, a former legislative aide in Annapolis, and Andrew Cassilly, a former teacher and current administrative employee with Harford County schools, attended the forum and both opposed expansion of the “rain tax.” Their Democratic rivals, Jeffrey Elliott and Daniel Lewis Lamey, did not attend.

In a redistricted 35th Senate district covering western Cecil County and northeastern Harford County, Del. Wayne Norman, a Republican lawyer from Harford County, is contending for the Senate slot against Democrat Bridget Kelly, a retired school principal in Pennsylvania who lives in Cecil County.

Both candidates opposed the state’s shifting of teacher pension costs to local counties, with Norman saying the shift was done because “the state is broke” and Kelly saying she opposed “unfunded mandates” from the state because they “derail budgets and take away local control.”

On the “rain tax,” Norman said he “fought it tooth and nail” and would “continue to oppose it.” Kelly said she had been advised by lawmakers in Annapolis that there were no current plans to add Cecil County to the list of counties required to collect the fees.

In the Senate race for the 36th District seat currently held by Steve Hershey of Queen Anne’s County, the incumbent Republican—who was appointed to the seat last year to replace E.J. Pipkin, who resigned mid-term to move to Texas—is being challenged by Democrat Benjamin Tilghman, who operates his family’s farm near Queenstown. (His brother, Bill Tilghman, is running in November for the US House seat currently held by Republican Andy Harris.)

Asked about how they would help Cecil County be represented “equally and fairly” in Annapolis while covering four counties as a Senator, Hershey said he had met frequently with Cecil County officials on transportation and other issues and said he worked against toll hikes on the Hatem and Tydings bridges and was working to bring MARC commuter rail service to Elkton. Tilghman said he didn’t see the district as four separate entities and felt the counties had much in common.

Asked how they would work across party lines to address the needs of the district in a General Assembly controlled by Democrats, Hershey said Republicans “need to punch above our weight” in Annapolis but also develop working relationships on individual issues and with state agencies. Tilghman said he endorsed the concept of ‘the loyal opposition,” where members of the minority party are treated with respect and partisan differences are “set aside for the common good.”

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