The NAACP forum and the campaign tone

Update 12 p.m. – Tim Spies replies to my questions – see end of the post.

Last night the final major forum before the primary election was held at the St. James AME Zion Church, sponsored by the Wicomico County chapter of the NAACP. It was taped for later broadcast on PAC 14, although editing the tape in time could be a challenge!

Ignoring the irony that the forum was held in a district which won’t have a say in the matter, seven of the eight candidates came to engage moderator Orville Penn and each other in a discussion which started out rather freeform as forums go but became more constrained as the evening wore on. For example, each candidate could make as lengthy of an opening statement as they wished but by the time closing statements were uttered, they were limited to one minute.

A focus of the forum was on civil rights issues, so the line of questioning was a little different than in other forums. After the opening statement of why each candidate was running they answered a number of questions briefly described as follows:

  • The most challenging civil rights issue the city faces
  • On crime, how the candidates stood on racial profiling
  • Whether they would agree with subdividing the city into five separate Council districts (this was a question I supplied, so I’m saving it for last)
  • How they would place work sessions at times more convenient to the public
  • Their opinion on trying to override Mayor Ireton’s veto of rescinding health benefits for certain members of Council via charter amendment
  • Civility, in general
  • Employment and attracting jobs
  • A closing statement

The loose format meant there was no set order to deliver the opening statement so the first person to speak up went first, and that’s the order in which I’m going to summarize the performance of each participant. Bear in mind, though, that some questions have such obvious answers that I may not necessarily go through each answer. Instead, I’m just going to go over the highlights of the evening as provided by each along with the impressions I received.

This means I get to start with Tim Spies.

In a relatively lengthy opening statement, Tim explained his military background before working his way into some of what drew him into the political scene. He told the audience that his Camden neighborhood was “sort of in the middle,” caught in a transition period where the two rentals on his street present when he moved there over a decade ago had evolved into over half the street now. “(That) doesn’t make for a stable neighborhood,” he added.

One mention in his opening statement aroused my curiosity. If, as he said, he had resigned in the middle of his third term as the Camden neighborhood association president to run for Council this time, why didn’t he do so in 2007 when he first ran? Since I know he reads my site (as I’ll bring up later) perhaps he can explain.

Spies mentioned his Weed and Seed experience when pressed on the civil rights issue, calling the afterschool programs sponsored by the group “a haven” for at-risk youth. On that same token, he later said in replying to the racial profiling query that there’s “close to a dozen” gangs in the city and we need to “embrace the (gang) problem as our own.”

One interesting idea Tim brought up in response to the work session question was changing the location of sessions to neighborhood venues. It’s worth considering on a trial basis, although it would also mean members would have to be more prepared because they wouldn’t be close to their offices in the Government Office Building.

Tim may have been responsible for the forum’s most heated moments, though. In responding to the health insurance question he chided fellow Council members for their politically motivated votes, calling it “a slap in the face.” He then chided outgoing Council President Louise Smith in his next answer, calling her “responsible for a great deal of incivility” and drawing a pointed response from NAACP head Mary Ashanti, who briefly halted the proceedings to remind participants to be respectful of those attending – among them was current Council member Shanie Shields, who Spies would have to serve beside should he be victorious (her term expires in 2013.)

But Spies wasn’t quite through with the cutting remarks, stating in his closing that, “my goal is to see that the things that happened in the last twelve years don’t happen again.”

Now, allow me to digress a moment.

As most of the candidates did, Spies had literature for distribution at the forum. One of his pieces was a partial reprint of my recent post called First reports. In it, he cited the fundraising figures and my assertion that perhaps three of his opponents could be considered SAPOA candidates based on who contributed to them. Fair enough.

But Spies opted to omit the following paragraph regarding his fundraising alliances with Terry Cohen, the latest of which is detailed in this press release turned Daily Times article. (I received the same release earlier today.)

However, it can also be shown that Cohen and Spies are running as a team of sorts, with the most obvious sign being a joint fundraiser. Thirty of their contributors gave to both (mainly as a result of the joint effort) but only one maxed out to both so far: Anita Malik of Salisbury. Other significant contributors to both Cohen and Spies are Mary Gibson of Salisbury ($100 each), Dorothy Truitt of Salisbury (also $100 each), P. James Doyle of Salisbury (also $100 each), David Suiter of Salisbury (also $100 each), Patricia Derrick of Salisbury ($100 to Cohen, $250 to Spies), and Gail Reilly Cross of Salisbury ($100 to each.) Whether that is enough for them to help the candidates or if they are holding money in reserve for the general election that both should easily qualify for is the question, and one which won’t be answered until late next month when general election reports are due.

I understand the business of politics, but I also have to ask if that’s an omission which would be made if Tim didn’t feel the need to hide that fact.

Still, Tim provided most of the exciting moments. That’s not to say others didn’t contribute.

Laura Mitchell “never thought I’d be doing this.” But she’s running for Council for her children and grandchildren.

She made a remark in her opening statement that I’d love to have clarified, telling us that she had been politically active on the state level. But she didn’t say in what manner, just that “voting is not enough.”

For the civil rights issue, Mitchell pointed out that we need affordable and livable housing, which most would agree with. But she also revealed as part of her answer that she’d grown up in “an abusive house” and was “determined not to repeat the cycle.” That was a surprise for most, including me, and something you rarely see in a politician.

She asserted that racial profiling “does occur (and) has occurred in the past.” We need a zero tolerance policy toward profiling, along with better training and incentives to keep officers on the city force.

In an echo of Spies on the health benefits issue, she believed that the City Council was trying to bypass the rules by proposing a charter amendment because they didn’t have a 4-1 majority to override Mayor Ireton’s veto. There were rules of order which needed to be followed to promote civility, she continued in answer to that question.

Turning to job creation, Mitchell also opined that we had overused enterprise zones during the boom times, but we could use them on a more limited basis for infill purposes.

Afterward, Laura informed me that I’d made an erroneous assumption in the “First reports” post, as her January event was not a fundraiser as I’d believed. (I’ve changed the post to reflect this.)

I already knew from previous forums that this was a city Muir Boda loved. But he was first to jump on the civil rights question, pointing out that it was a question of economic opportunity and among the measures to employ it were faith-based items. Considering the forum was held in a church and opened with a brief prayer, that was a winning answer. Even Tim Spies, who answered next, agreed.

He also had a little bit of a different perspective on the racial profiling issue since he worked so often with law enforcement – Boda said the situation was “getting better.”

Muir also expressed his disagreement with the health insurance charter amendment, saying it promoted an “atmosphere of contention.” He got points from most of the women in the room, though, when he remarked on civility that his wife is more right than he is – Laura Mitchell, for one, agreed it was a smart answer.

When Boda talked business, he believed that we needed to both reach out to the business community for ideas and take a page from the success of Berlin and its mayor, Gee Williams. We could also take advantage of Delegates Norm Conway and Rudy Cane, he thought. (Sorry, Muir, I see them more as roadblocks than problemsolvers.)

Finally, Muir told his fellow candidates that he appreciated the respectfulness they have exhibited as they were passionate without being personal. Afterward, he cleared up a question I had received from a previous commenter on the First reports post.

In essence, I thought Bruce Ford started out like he’d say a lot but really didn’t. “I need to make sure this community is viable” as a place for his kids to grow up in, he began. He had seen 13 years of “slow decline” in the city based in part on the negative coverage we get on the televsion news and local paper.

But one question which sprang to mind was when he spoke about “a lot of major concerns I need to look at” and then brought up the fact he works 80 hours a week at times. How does that affect his commitment to the job, particularly when he said in closing, “this is more important than me being elected…we need to ask is what we do right?”

Ford saw the Safe Streets initiative as a “first step” in addressing civil rights. But then he tossed out another idea, asking why some would pay rent that equals his house payment. Perhaps we could look into arranging financing?

If Bruce is saying what I think he is, well, our economy hit bottom in part because government tried to address this on a national scale.

Among the other questions, Ford believed it was “inappropriate” for the outgoing City Council to try and couch the health insurance issue as a charter amendment. He also had an idea about forming a committee to look for businesses appropriate to lure to the city.

If anything, though, Bruce was one of the candidates who seemed to always be a responder after the first one, so he couldn’t add a lot of new ground to the questions. He doesn’t seem very talkative to begin with, and being one of the later to answer didn’t help him in that respect.

Incumbent Terry Cohen spoke of her “culture shock” upon moving from Texas to Salisbury as a young teenager but realized “Salisbury is a town of potential.”

A couple items which helped her in politics was her membership in the Salisbury Business and Professional Women’s club (20 years) and the work ethic she inherited from her father, who worked for the Piedmont family of air carriers until the age of 86. I didn’t know she had served under two governors on the Maryland Commission for Women.

And she could use her incumbency to advantage in answering questions. She distinguished the roles of state and local government when it came to civil rights issues, while saying that “we break our kids” and tell teachers to fix them. When we neglect neighborhoods, we break our next generation, said Terry.

Since the relationship between the minority community and the police was “an important bridge,” Cohen praised new police Chief Barbara Duncan for being sensitive to those issues – she came from a community with numerous ethnic groups. Cohen also encouraged interested members of the public to attend the upcoming Citizen’s Academy to learn more about police work.

Obviously Terry was the target of the health insurance question, and she had to mainly recuse herself from answering. She did bring up a provision in the Maryland Constitution which prohibited a change of salary or benefits due a public official during a term in office.

Cohen also brought up a three-pronged approach to civility during Council sessions – prioritize issues, scrap the time limits as necessary to get the job done, and enforce the rules equally. (It was another, more subdued, slap at Council President Smith.)

Regarding business development, Terry contended “we can incentivize ourselves into a hole.” We need a diverse set of industries to create jobs.

She closed by reminding those attending that she had a track record of accomplishments, including the Maryland Safe Streets Program.

Joel Dixon seems to be a man of few words, and generally had some of the shorter answers.

But his reason for getting into the race – having $2,000 worth of property stolen “upset me a lot” and drove him to “go out and do something” is as sound as anyone else’s.

It was “ignorance between cultures” which helped aggravate our civil rights situation, and we needed to “break down barriers” to help fix it via interaction. “Racial profiling is wrong,” he added later.

Dixon didn’t agree with the charter process to address the health insurance issue either. Instead, civility dictated we follow the Golden Rule and “set your pride aside.”

He shined best on the business question, providing an example of where Salisbury didn’t promote a business-friendly environment and calling on the city to “market our strengths until we fix our deficiencies.” The campaign has been a learning experience for him, Joel concluded.

While Orville Dryden recounted his term as local postmaster-turned-bailiff to note on the crime problem, “it’s not all rosy out there,” he only vowed to work with other law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem. He seemed to retreat to the idea of “working together” a lot rather than propose more specific solutions. “I don’t know if crime has any color” probably wasn’t the answer those attending were looking for on profiling, for example.

Dryden may have ruffled the feathers of one of his opponents, though, when he asked why we should provide health insurance for City Council members when other employees are being furloughed.

Yet he was behind the curve a little when discussing the idea of spreading out impact fees over a period of time, as the city’s already taken steps in that direction.

Perhaps the one area he spoke differently was in asking people to get out and vote. He had the final word in the affair so that would be what stuck with the crowd most about him. “Make this one beautiful city,” Dryden concluded.

Finally, this brings me to the discussion of my question on redistricting.

As it stands right now, all five Council representatives live in an area west of Division Street, four of them live south of Business Route 50, and two live within blocks of each other in the Camden neighborhood. Admittedly, this situation could change for the better since all but Terry Cohen and Tim Spies live in other hitherto underserved portions of the city, but we could have three Council members in the same neighborhood if Cohen and Spies join Debbie Campbell on the City Council.

Not surprisingly, Tim Spies was dead-set against the reditricting idea, claiming it would “fragment the city.” Bruce Ford was also leaning against the idea, while Terry Cohen was open to a “robust” discussion of the issue and mentioned the fact similar changes were discussed at a work session.

The supporters of the idea had different approaches. Muir Boda would support the move, as well as having four Council districts and electing the Council president at-large. Laura Mitchell had a similar idea using Business Routes 13 and 50 to divide the city into quadrants. (That probably won’t work for equal population, though.) Joel Dixon and Orville Dryden also supported it, with Dryden saying that he may finally get a snowplow for his far east-side neighborhood. (As it turns out, he lives on the street behind me.)

Perhaps I have muddied the waters with the long post, but with five days to go and counting I’m still considering each candidate – even Michael Taylor, who missed the NAACP forum due to work reasons and didn’t answer my questions. However, later today I will put up a 20-minute audio interview I conducted with him earlier this week, which may clarify some of his positions.


I got an e-mail this morning from Tim Spies regarding the Camden Neighborhood Association presidency and his citation of my material.

In answer to your as-yet personally posed question regarding the presidency of the Camden Neighborhood Association, the association’s by-laws do not specify what actions are to be taken when an officer is a candidate for public office.  In 2007, I stepped aside for the duration of the campaign, the vice president ascended to the presidency and an interim vp was elected.  When the city election was over, the interim vp decided on his own to resign and I resumed the presidency by popular request.  We decided to do it differently this time, although, again, there are no rules to abide by.  I have resigned my position as president, effective as of our January 2011 meeting, the first meeting after declaring candidacy.  At that meeting I proposed no new business except to complete that resignation process.  In my ex officio capacity, I have no more control over the association than any other member at large.

Regarding my leaving out the last paragraph(s) of your council report on campaign contributions when providing it to forum spectators/participants, I felt that it was common knowledge that Councilwoman Cohen and I are sharing and contributing efforts toward one another’s campaigns.  We share many of the same opinions, but we are not connected at the hip – we have disagreements, but come to accord on virtually all of them.  We decided early on that a united front would better serve the purpose of meeting the sleaze and misinformation that characterizes the well-funded campaigns previously orchestrated by SAPOA.  As you can see from your own report, those contributions indicate the very real possiblility that several candidates are essentially fully funded by dollars donated by SAPOA members and/or “friends”.  I highly suspect that more maximum donations will come to those who seem to be SAPOA’s candidates of choice, possibly under individual and business names that are more or less unknown to the local public – from outside the city and even the state.  The rental industry in Salisbury has, at minimum, an annual income of $96,000,000.  As an organization, it exists, according to its opening website statement (which may have been softened since I first read it), to minimize the effect of government and community on its industry.  What better way to minimize government’s effect than to control it? 

I look forward to dialogue with you regarding this campaign and city government.

Tim, let me tell you – if it were “common knowledge” that you were coordinating efforts with Terry, it would have been just as common to know that SAPOA was backing some candidates as well – particularly when the forum is held in the part of town where many don’t own their homes.

And I’m curious – why are you turning your back on a $96 million industry? To get the same economic impact, we would have to import 1,920 jobs at $50k apiece. (Granted, a large portion of that money goes elsewhere but there will always be a rental industry here since it’s a college town. And a fair sum of that money comes right back to the city in taxes and fees.)

Waging jihad on SAPOA isn’t going to get the city anywhere, particularly at an economic period when homeownership is down.

Since I presume, by polling and other indications, that you’ll survive the primary election I look forward to continuing the debate.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

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