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Olszewski, McDonough spar in the first, and perhaps last Baltimore County Executive forum

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and former Delegate Pat McDonough debate at a public forum Tuesday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Essex. Credit: John Lee

In the race for Baltimore County Executive, Democratic incumbent Johnny Olsewski said he will build on his success while his Republican challenger, former Delegate Pat McDonough is promising a scorched earth policy of litigation and firings to counter what he says is Baltimore County’s decline.

The candidates made clear their polar opposite ideologies at a forum in Essex Tuesday night put on by the Essex Middle River Civic Council.

What to do about the Baltimore city-owned, pollution spewing, Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant serves as a microcosm of this campaign.The state for now has taken over the running of the plant, which is located in the county. McDonough said if elected, he will sue the city and Mayor Brandon Scott to give either the state or a regional authority permanent control of Back River.

“This is an administration that is polluting our water in Baltimore County,” McDonough said. “Litigation. Litigation.”

McDonough said Olszewski won’t sue because he wants to run for governor some day and doesn’t want to make enemies. But Olszewski said legal action would be counterproductive.

“Sure, we could file a lawsuit and be fighting for this for the next 20 years and nothing’s going to change,” Olszewski said. “Or we can talk about the problem, put it on the table, bring people in and actually fix what is in front of us. That’s what I propose to do in the years ahead.”

Olszewski said the way Back River is run is governed by state law and needs to be changed but he did not offer a specific way to accomplish that.

Through a litany of issues, McDonough promised major changes while Olszewski defended his record.

McDonough promised to sue to get the county out from under a legal settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in which the county agreed to build 1,000 affordable homes by 2027.

“We are going after that judicial dictate and knock it out,” McDonough said. “Housing should be under the control of the people of Baltimore County, not a judge.”

Olszewski has defended the agreement as being both a moral and legal obligation following decades of county housing policies discriminating against Black residents and people with disabilites.

According to Erica Palmisano, Olszewski’s press secretary, 444 of the 1,000 homes have been built so far. Another 100 homes have been approved for construction.

McDonough claimed Olszewski is soft on crime. He said he would fire Olszewski’s hand-picked police chief, Melissa Hyatt and attempt to overturn police reforms Olszewski and the county council approved two years ago.

That gave the incumbent an opening. Olszewski needled the Republican for being charged with a misdemeanor earlier this year for tearing down the campaign sign of one of his opponents during the GOP primary.

Olszewski said, “It’s hard to profess that you are going to keep communities safe and be a leader on law enforcement when you yourself don’t follow the law, when you have an opponent have to file criminal charges against you.”

McDonough pointed out the charge was dropped and added that Olszewski bringing it up is a sign of desperation.

Essex on Baltimore County’s east side is considered a Republican stronghold and several people who attended afterwards echoed Tom Bryner, who lives in nearby Dundalk.

“Got a lot of problems and I’m hoping Pat can clear them up,” Bryner said. “I know Johnny hasn’t. I’m willing to give everybody a chance but he’s done a bad job.”

D. Edward Vogel, a co-owner of Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River said he’s a Republican but Olszewski helped him keep his business open during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I appreciate Pat McDonough,” Vogel said. “I have supported him all of my life. Johnny O though in the last four years has done wonderful things. So this is why you don’t vote early. These are the reasons you do not vote early. You wait and make a good decision at the end.”

This may have been the only county executive public forum. McDonough declined an invitation from the League of Women Voters to debate Olszewski.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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