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The Rev. Antonio Matthews opened the 2014 candidate forum hosted last week with a prayer at Tabernacle of Praise church in Waldorf, where he is pastor, but he soon stressed that the evening was reserved for civic education, not preaching.

“I teach my church that anybody who is just a spiritual being is an ineffective being, that rational thinking must be inclusive in the holistic nature of who we are,” he said. “So if we’re all about theology without understanding legislation, then we are totally incomplete, and so we must be as a church involved in social, economic, cultural advancement of our people.”

Ten candidates running as Democrats in Charles County races and a couple dozen residents attended the forum, which focused primarily on education and steering youth away from crime.

With the new St. Charles High School set to open in August, one resident asked how the county would bring the county’s existing schools up to that standard.

Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D), who is running for board president, responded that a school’s facilities are not necessarily indicative of student performance, noting that earlier that day Henry E. Lackey High School — from which he graduated — had won the county’s annual Math Engineering Science Achievement competition at the high school level despite being the oldest high school in the county along with Thomas Stone High School. Both opened in 1969.

School board candidate Richard Wallace said he supported all-day prekindergarten, universal STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — programs throughout the county and pay raises for teachers.

Growing up in Jamaica, “None of my schools looked like North Point [High School],” he said.

From the audience, Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed concern over “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“I don’t want to give [newly appointed Circuit Court Judge] Jay West, I love you dearly, but I don’t want to give you any more business,” she said.

Charles County sheriff’s candidate Lt. Troy Berry stressed the need to reinstitute the department’s community policing unit, “getting back to boots on the ground,” and working with the county and school system to provide youth with more after-school activities, such as a “midnight basketball” program.

Asked about the county’s transportation needs, Collins placed a “conservative estimate” for when residents might be able to board a light-rail train to the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights at 12 years and reiterated support for the dormant cross-county connector project.

“I believe the cross-county connector, or at least a smaller scale improvement of Billingsley Road, is necessary, for no other reason than safety,” he said.

If elected, state delegate candidate John Coller said he would push for policies that would help foster job growth in Charles and keep residents from having to commute into Washington, D.C.

“I’m one of the few people when elected who can say they sign both sides of a paycheck,” said Coller, who owns his own realty company in Waldorf.

Running for one of two spots on the circuit court bench along with fellow circuit Judge Jerome R. Spencer and La Plata attorney Thomas R. Simpson Jr., West recounted how he first learned of his selection by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

After twice ignoring calls from an unknown number, West said he received a call from a friend who informed him, “Hey, stupid, the governor’s trying to call you.”

The panel also featured Charles County Democratic Central Committee candidates Thomasina Coates, Gilbert Bowling, Russell Yates and Rosalind Ellis. A current member, Yates said the central committee’s job is “pretty simple” — getting Democrats elected by raising funds and recruiting volunteers.

Bowling said he sees running for central committee as a first step before running for higher office. He described his background growing up on a La Plata farm and working as a Prince George’s County policeman so that those in the audience will know who he is “four years from now when I’m running for a different position.”

Register of Wills candidate Abena McAllister stressed the importance of estate planning, and said she wanted to “increase the visibility of the office” if elected, demonstrating her point by asking those who knew what the register of wills does to raise their hands. Only a few hands went up.

“That’s one reason I’m running,” she said.

jnewman@somdnews.com