The candidates running for Baltimore County Executive debated for the first time Tuesday, and they differed over whether to provide universal prekindergarten and free community college tuition.
How they answered those questions crystallizes how they are running their campaigns.
This first debate took place on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. But only a hand full of students showed up. Peggy Moraitis, a prelaw student, came clean as to why she was there.
“Because my teacher had an extra credit thing going on if we came here, honestly," Moraitis said.
Alex Lestner, who is studying geology and astronomy, is 18, voting for the first time and he says he’s undecided.
“But I want to hear what they consider the issues to be,” Lestner said.
And it was a scatter shot of issues that Republican Al Redmer and Democrat Johnny Olszewski fielded during the debate. When asked about whether the county should offer voluntary universal prekindergarten for students, Olszewski said he’s all in.
“There’s nothing better that we can spend our resources on than giving our kids the best start possible,” Olszewski said.
Redmer countered while everyone likes the idea of universal prekindergarten, it’s a question of what the county can afford.
“I don’t believe we’ve got the money,” Redmer said. “We don’t have the borrowing capacity. We’ve got trailers now. I don’t believe we have the space to put them in.”
Redmer said the same goes for free tuition to attend community college.
“As usual, I have to be Scrooge to Santa Claus over here,” Redmer said.
The county’s college promise program provides financial help to students who qualify so their tuition and fees are covered. The county has funded the program for now and Olszewski said it should be continued. Olszewski said community college graduates remain in the county, get better jobs, buy homes, and pay more in taxes.
“It is the investment that makes us more attractive to employers and to the business community, because we have a well-educated work force,” Olszewski said. “But it’s an investment in our people that actually has a return on investment in a very quick way because those people stay here and they make more money.”
Much like universal prekindergarten, Redmer said everyone likes community colleges. But he questioned whether that was the best use of the county’s limited dollars.
Redmer said, “Before we go expanding and spending new money on new things, we should be focusing on the blocking and tackling of government.”
For instance, Redmer said the county should first make sure students in high school are getting properly prepared for college or a job.
This is a fundamental difference between the two candidates. Redmer said he wants to first put together a ten year plan, creating a laundry list of needs throughout the county.
“So that hopefully we can get our arms around where we are,” Redmer said. “We can do what we are supposed to do before we launch into the bold vision for the future.”
Olszewski, on the other hand, talked about the urgency of now.
“What you won’t get from me in this race and what you won’t get from me as county executive is ‘elect me and I’ll tell you what my plan is,’” Olszewski said. “I’m telling you right now what I will do as county executive because that’s what voters should demand.”
Lestner, the undecided student voting in his first election, said after hearing the candidates debate he believes education will be the big issue in the campaign.
“It’s going to be about probably your school budget and universal pre-k,” Lestner said.
And being that he’s a student, Lestner said he has some more research to do before he decides who gets his vote.