Wicomico County NAACP president Mary Ashanti called Wednesday night’s forum an opportunity to meet the candidates, and nearly 100 interested citizens saw all eight hopefuls for Salisbury city office meet at First Baptist Church to square off in the first of what promises to be several candidate forums leading to Salisbury’s primary election February 26. Each of the two City Council races will be pared from three hopefuls to two; however, the mayor’s race will not need a primary as just two candidates filed.
The two mayoral hopefuls opened the show, and it was clear from the outset that incumbent Jim Ireton and challenger Joe Albero certainly aren’t the best of friends. In his 90-second introduction, mayor Jim Ireton spoke about his accomplishments, being “excited about the last four years,” and “sharing a positive vision.” Yet three questions in he slammed Albero as one “who sees color,” insinuating that Albero is racist based in part by the content on his blog. That tone, along with a number of loaded audience questions presumably aimed at the challenger, brought an admonishment from Mary Ashanti midway through the mayoral portion of the forum that “we do not permit antagonism.” She would not use the “insulting” questions presented by some audience members.
Yet as the pair sparred over questions mainly dealing with the themes of crime, race relations, and jobs, the two laid out competing visions for the city. Moderator Orville Penn did a good job keeping them (and everyone else) relatively on track.
Ireton pointed out that crime was down, which he called an “amazing feat,” the Wicomico River was getting cleaner, the city enjoyed a $16 million surplus, and tenants had a bill of rights. Indeed, Type 1 crime is statistically lower, and as Jim noted, if the crime rate was up “my opponent would lay that at my feet.” Albero, as predicted, countered with his belief the crime numbers are “being fudged,” bringing a charge from Ireton that Albero was calling the Salisbury Police Department “liars.”
But in order to continue the downward trend, Jim called for a holistic approach to reduce recidivism. On the other hand, Albero thanked Council members Debbie Campbell and Terry Cohen for introducing the “Safe Streets” program to Salisbury but believed SPD morale is down and “we need to be behind them.”
Regarding race relations, Jim proclaimed we “must celebrate” the fact that Salisbury is now 44% minority, but would not commit to diversity in hiring, nor did Albero. Yet both wanted to be job creators.
One huge difference between the Albero and Ireton approaches, though, was the function of downtown Salisbury. Joe envisioned downtown Salisbury with a “Bourbon Street” feel, with entertainment and dining venues – he didn’t believe retail could survive downtown, even if he accomplished his goal of removing the parking meters. He also promised to be 50% mayor and 50% economic development director. Conversely, Ireton saw progress coming from incentives and planning – we need to make waterfront properties useful, and not parking lots, said Jim. “We need to have retail,” he added.
Another sharp difference came on a question about annexation. When Albero asked, “don’t you think we have enough on our hands?” he hastened to add that things are “out of control” in Salisbury and we need to rebuild our infrastructure. But Jim sharply reminded Joe the city can’t just annex land because they have to have the consent of property owners to do so.
In the end, though, it was Jim Ireton who said he was “more excited” about running this time than he was in 2009. “I believe in this city (and) I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” Ireton concluded.
For his part, Joe Albero also believed a brighter, better future for Salisbury is “doable.” “I will be a full-time mayor,” promised Joe.
Compared to the mayoral debate, the three-way tussles between District 1 and District 2 opponents were drama-free. In fact, the three District 1 contenders seemed to find a lot of common ground.
Incumbent Shanie Shields ran on her record of accomplishments in District 1, but was also critical of some missed opportunities over the last four years, in particular not developing the former Linens of the Week property or the old Station 16 firehouse. She also called the removal of the city attorney from the purview of the executive branch “a travesty for the city of Salisbury.”
Meanwhile, challenger (and 2009 candidate) Cynthia Polk focused on a platform of “living wage” jobs and youth development. Polk is the only non-incumbent with previous officeseeking experience; the rest are first-time candidates.
The other challenger, April Jackson, was more outspoken. She desired to “bring out the best in Salisbury,” but was critical of Council disagreements. “We’re sending some God-awful vibes,” she said, adding that they need to “resolve their anger issues.” She also panned the juvenile justice system for the leniency in sentencing she thought was contributing to Salisbury’s crime problem, but stressed as well the aspect of rehabilitation.
In the District 2 race, incumbent Debbie Campbell seemed to be a little defensive about having to say no all the time. Debbie’s opponents didn’t question her record, but during her remarks she stated the claim that 70 out of 80 ordinances and 190 of 200 resolutions had passed. The work can be hard to understand, Campbell added, but in her tenure she had prevented a tax increase, pushed the redevelopment of the River’s Edge project – a development she promised would be “amazing” – and saved Salisbury citizens $1 million.
Campbell, though, disagreed with portions of the Ireton plan for downtown, telling the audience subsidies and giving away parking lots are not solutions.
Downtowns are Jake Day’s specialty, and many of this challenger’s remarks came back to how Salisbury could improve its inner core. Jake was running, though, because he was “tired of old politics standing in the way of progress,” contending that the list of Council issues he disagreed with was “pretty long.” On the other hand, he got to see a number of other success stories through his work and wanted to bring that experience here.
The other challenger, Jack Heath, promoted his three-pronged vision for Salisbury: jobs, education, and recreation in a safe city, a vibrant, inviting downtown, and a city government which adopts the best ideas from its citizen. Having established that as his comfort zone, Heath stuck to those tenets throughout the conversation. It seemed to suit him, for as he noted in closing, “I’ve been known to be a negotiator.”
Of the two challengers, Day was the more aggressive and quicker on his feet. After Debbie Campbell had answered a previous question on diversity by pointing out local committees and commissions were a training ground for future policymakers, Jake closed by citing his work on various local boards and announcing, “I’m done training – I’m ready to fight.”
Obviously this forum focused a lot on issues affecting minority citizens, but in looking at what was said and the individual races I drew a couple conclusions.
In both Council races, one challenger seemed more at ease than the other. It was obvious that April Jackson is much more comfortable in this setting than Cynthia Polk, who probably campaigns best door-to-door. Similarly, Jake Day was more outspoken and aggressive in courting voters than Jack Heath; it follows that Day was the first to announce his intention and already has yard signs out. Heath has some catching up to do or he’ll be the odd man out.
It also seems to me that this mayoral race will be one of the dirtiest, slimiest campaigns in city history. Things will be said that, in ten years, may make the city a laughingstock – I just feel it in my bones. Hopefully both of these men will prove me wrong, but my reading of the two personalities tells me otherwise.