The election for Anne Arundel County executive is one of the most competitive and consequential in the state this fall, and the stakes were reflected in the urgency and ferocity of some attacks the candidates hurled at each other during a debate Tuesday evening.
County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) and his Republican challenger, County Councilmember Jessica Haire, circled each other like heavyweight pugilists at the start of their 90-minute encounter at the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts in Annapolis. Both had rehearsed zingers and substantive attacks in easy supply, to the delight of hundreds of people in attendance.
But as the night wore on, the two candidates often — and sometimes to their own surprise — found themselves in agreement, and the crowd lost some of its energy and enthusiasm.
Haire described Pittman’s four-year tenure as a failure, resulting in higher crime, inferior schools, unwarranted tax increases, and government waste.
“Everywhere I go, the people in this community don’t feel safe,” she said, adding a tagline she would use again Tuesday: “We can do better than this. Together we can change this trajectory.”
Pittman cast Haire as a partisan brawler, beholden to developers and aligned with racists, and determined to strip county government of vital services.
“I’m running a campaign against a candidate who is spending a million dollars on ads saying we’re spending too much…who wants to defund community institutions,” he said.
Pittman said Anne Arundel residents want better schools and improved services, and that by endorsing him, the teachers’ union, Fraternal Order of Police and firefighters’ union have signaled that he’s the candidate to deliver them.
Although their four years in office have overlapped, the candidates’ descriptions of events and policy debates were starkly different.
Haire initially described the county’s $110 million budget surplus in the most recent fiscal year as a sign of government waste and “bloat” that should have been returned to taxpayers. Pittman said he put the money — much of which came from federal aid during the pandemic — into the county’s rainy day fund.
Pittman boasted that Moody’s, the financial ratings agency, gave Anne Arundel its first AAA bond rating during his first term because of all the money he set aside. Haire pointed out that she sponsored the bipartisan legislation that authorized the county to increase its share of revenues in the rainy day account from 5% to 6%. But Pittman quickly pounced.
“Moody’s didn’t raise our bond rating because we were authorized to put more money in our rainy day fund,” he said. “They raised our bond rating because we put more money in it.”
Haire vowed to cut taxes if elected, and argued that county services would not diminish as a result.
“There’s an assumption there that you can never cut taxes and not affect services,” she said. “I reject that premise.”
Haire and Pittman also sparred over COVID-19 mandates and whether some of the restrictions Pittman put into place at the height of the pandemic helped or hurt restaurateurs and other businesses.
“I don’t know if these were the right decisions in retrospect,” he conceded, but added that Anne Arundel’s death rate was half that of some counties “that didn’t take it seriously.”
“I can sleep at night,” he said. “I hope we never have to go through this again.”
Haire complained that many of Pittman’s most controversial decisions during the pandemic were made without consulting the County Council, and she charged that he didn’t always own them after public criticism emerged.
“Mr. Pittman spent quite a bit of time criticizing the governor and hiding behind his health officer,” she said.
Some of their harshest rhetoric about the other was over growth and development issues.
Pittman said that opposition by Haire and other County Council Republicans to affordable housing measures amounted to “a dog whistle,” suggesting they “don’t like the people who are living in density housing.”
“It’s not a dog whistle,” Haire replied. “I’m blowing the whistle on your hypocrisy.” She then described how a proposal to build a Wegman’s supermarket on Riva Road in Annapolis gave way to a luxury apartment complex instead.
And yet, the candidates also found themselves agreeing on a wide range of issues, from the need to move slowly on redeveloping the 500-acre Crownsville Hospital property, which the county recently bought; to the need to preserve hiking trails and open space at Greenbury Point, where the U.S. Naval Academy wanted to build a new golf course; to the need for more job training programs for county residents; to the importance of county police officers wearing body cameras.
Haire and Pittman also agreed that they opposed a proposed rubble landfill for the county, but not before scoring political points on it. Pittman in particular criticized the fact that the developer that wants to open the landfill has found a way to contribute $250,000 to Haire’s campaign, through different LLC’s, corporate entities and company employees.
“I do not support the project,” Haire asserted, which prompted a laugh from Pittman.
“That’s why they invested $250,000 to try to get another county executive,” he said, “with 42 $6,000 contributions.”
“I am so glad I get a chance to answer the question in front of you all,” Haire countered. “He made a whole lot of assumptions and a whole lot of attacks and he never bothered to ask me.”
It’s doubtful that many minds were changed by Tuesday night’s debate. But it’s also clear that while the candidates differed on certain policy issues and clearly have dramatically different ideologies — and are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the other seem like a monster — fundamentally, the county will be in decent hands regardless of who wins.
Both also agreed to honor the results of the election, though Pitman used the question to chide the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections for its decision to put off counting mail-in ballots until two days after Election Day, even though the states’ highest court has given election boards permission to begin the count early, provided they don’t release the results before Nov. 8.
“They wanted to go with the Dan Cox position, he said.
That may have been a not so subtle attempt by Pittman to link Haire to Cox, the GOP’s MAGA-friendly nominee for governor. Earlier, Haire had alluded to Pittman’s ads that attempt to portray her as a harsh right-winger.
“Lately he has begun calling me an extremist…It’s funny, a little ironic, that I just spent the last year in the [Republican] primary being called a RINO,” she said.