Although Election Day remains six months away, the two candidates for the Maryland Senate seat that represents about half of Wicomico County have begun their sparring in the center of the election ring.
At a debate hosted Thursday by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Republican challenger Mike McDermott used the forum to wield punch after punch against Democratic incumbent Jim Mathias.
Mathias, a House of Delegates member for four years and State Senate member for another four, seemed caught off guard by his challenger’s aggressive tactics. But, their exchanges did much to set the tone and frame the issues that will be discussed through the summer.
McDermott, now wrapping up his first four-year term in the House of Delegates, attacked Mathias on state spending, state taxes, Maryland low ratings in encouraging small business and Mathias’ support of wind energy.
The politicians are battling to represent the newly redrawn District 38, which includes all of Worcester and Somerset counties, as well as eastern Wicomico, eastern and northern Salisbury’s neighborhoods.
Mathias is a former Ocean City mayor who works for a disaster mitigation business based in Snow Hill. McDermott, a Worcester County deputy sheriff, is a former Pocomoke City mayor.
Mathias stressed repeatedly that his “No. 1 priority is productive results.” He offered a list of legislation he shepherded and problems he helped solve by “working humbly” with various governmental leaders.
McDermott was on the offensive from the onset.
“I believe Maryland is in trouble, and I believe many of you do as well,” the delegate told Chamber members. “I believe Maryland is on a path that is not leading us to prosperity. It’s been an eight year decline for us when it comes to our business environment, which all of you know all too well.
“Our situation is perilous,” he said. “If we don’t change the way that we think.”
Mathias countered that he fully backed a business-friendly tax environment. He said he had voted against the gas sales tax hike, the consumer sales tax hike, corporate income tax increases, and had worked to simply the personal and income tax codes.
Retorted McDermott: “Voting against taxes is one thing, taking action is another.” The delegate said Mathias had not done enough to promote new policies to aid small business.
Mathias noted that to get legislation passed in the State House, lawmakers have to first develop a consensus.
“(In the Senate) you have to get 24 votes out of 47. You have to go over to the House (of Delegates) and get the 72 you need, and then you have to get (the governor’s and executive branch) signatures.”
Countered McDermott: “Not voting for taxes is one thing, but voting for every budget that spends all of that money is another. And we spend money like it’s going out of style.”
His voice booming during each of his statements, McDermott accused Gov. Martin O’Malley of increasing state spending by 40 percent over his eight-year term. “Our taxes are terrible, among the worst in the country. Unemployment insurance we’re one of the worst in the country for that. These are the areas that attack business.”
“I haven’t seen one policy or one bill from the senator (Mathias) in the last eight years to attack those policies,” McDermott said.
When a question was asked pertaining to the Shore’s supposed lack of influence in Annapolis, Mathias took the opportunity to criticize McDermott’s classic-conservative approach.
“Across the spectrum, I work with people, and I don’t drive them out of the room,” Mathias said. “That’s how you get the job done. That’s how you get your voice heard.”
Said the senator: “We can go to work and holler. Or we can go to work and bring people together.”
When discussing economic growth opportunities, Mathias said he working to get Walmart to reconsider its decision ago not to build a massive distribution center south of Salisbury.
McDermott pointed out the state “blew it” when it refused to meet Walmart’s demands for reduced employee benefits and tax concessions.
Mathias took a conservative tone when discussing the Lower Shore’s high unemployment rate. “Our biggest problems are over-taxation and over-regulation,” he said.
When it comes to growing economically, Mathias recalled childhood advice from his mother about “taking care of what you have first.” He cited poultry, tourism, and cornerstone businesses as those to solidify.
But McDermott said taking care of current assets is not enough and expansion is needed.
“How do we grow? How do we expand? We do that by being aggressive in our tax posture,” McDermott said. “We do that by being aggressive about our regulatory environment.
He went on to lament that a bill he authored, requiring an economic impact study on all new business regulation proposals, had momentum in the House but failed in the Senate.
Mathias cited the General Assembly-initiated Augustine Commission — led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin — which will conduct a review of the state’s business climate and issue a report next year to guide lawmakers.
“You think I like sitting up here and hearing Maryland is ranking so low (in business ratings)?” asked Mathias. “If I wasn’t acting on it, I would think you’d have real cause. But we are acting and we’re acting effectively.”
In a final fusillade, McDermott said: “I’ve had enough of policies of failure that are driving us down and keeping us from being not only competitive regionally, but competitive across the entire country. We can do better.”
McDermott hinted that his aggressive campaign stance will continue. “You’ll be hearing a lot in the coming months. Nothing changes if you keep the same people sitting in the same places.”
Also on the debate panel were candidates for the 37th District Senate seat — Republicans Rich Colburn, Addie Eckardt and Democrat Chris Robinson.
Eckardt, who faces Colburn in a party primary June 24, jumped into the race after allegations of marital infidelity spilled into public through Colburn’s wife’s recent divorce filing.
Eckardt, a state delegate representing the Mid-Shore and western Wicomico County, has a long history of working in political tandem with the senior senator from Cambridge.
In Thursday’s debate, Eckardt never took any opportunity to criticize Colburn on either a personal or political level. While both candidates offered competing legislative priorities, Colburn only threw a few barbs at Robinson.
Neither Colburn nor Eckardt addressed each other directly.
The debate was held in the Hazel Center atrium at Wor-Wic Community College. About 100 people attended the debate, which will be broadcast at a later date on PAC 14.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org