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Fifteen candidates for Charles County commissioner pitched their platforms before more than 100 people Wednesday during a candidate forum at the Jaycees center in Waldorf, the last opportunity for hopefuls to address a large audience prior to the June 12 start of early voting.

Commissioner Ken Robinson was midway through answering a question on land preservation when he felt it necessary to address “the elephant in the room.”

“I’m the only incumbent commissioner who showed up here tonight,” Robinson said, drawing appreciative applause from the crowd.

Sponsored by the Citizens for a Better Charles County, the forum was exclusively for commissioner candidates.

Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D), running for re-election in Districts 2 and 4, respectively, did not attend. Neither did board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D), who is running for commissioners’ president. Current board President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) is running for state delegate.

CBCC President Julie Simpson began the forum by asking each candidate to name the three most important issues facing the county.

Running for president against Collins in the June 24 primary, Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles) said the most crucial challenge would be “to re-establish trust” within the county government and also to repair its relationship with the state.

Murphy expressed hesitation in focusing heavily on the Waldorf Urban Redevelopment Corridor, which the current board has made its primary economic development priority, in step with light rail transit as its top transportation initiative.

“It is time for us to look much broader. That’s a wonderful project in Waldorf. I’m not minimizing that, but to pour all of our resources into that at the expense of other parts of our county is wrong,” Murphy said. “If we’re ever going to build community here, if we’re ever going to be one, whole Charles County, we must look at the entire county.

“To pour all of that money into one plan, which by the way I’ve never seen any get anywhere further than these beautiful drawings, and a lot of money is put into those projects [with] very few results,” he said. “I’m very results oriented.”

District 3 candidate Kamilah Way of Waldorf turned some heads when she voiced opposition to the cross-county connector project. After the forum, several in attendance expressed surprise at Way’s position, citing her endorsement by the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors.

Fellow District 3 candidate and Waldorf resident Robert Taylor — the only one to express support for another “east-west passage” through the county — later accused Way of flipping her position on the issue.

“I have never wavered on that,” Way said Thursday. “I’m a person who does their homework. The Army Corps of Engineers clearly stated there’s no grounds to move forward with the cross-county connector.”

A future solution to alleviate traffic and safety concerns on Billingsley Road is needed, “but right now, no one knows what that looks like or can speak articulately about the implications on our natural resources,” Way said. “Until there’s a meeting of the minds, I don’t believe we should move forward at this point in time.”

Taylor struck a nerve when he referred to himself, Way and Waldorf resident Amanda Stewart as the only viable candidates in the five-way Democratic primary in District 3. Waldorf residents Jim Easter and John Ashburn also are running for District 3 commissioner.

Taylor described Stewart as a “well-respected school teacher” and Way as a “social worker,” but before he could finish his popular refrain by describing himself as a “businessman,” Way, who owns her own consulting firm, chimed in with an addendum.

“And businesswoman,” she said of herself.

“I am a businessman, not a businesswoman,” Taylor said.

Stewart cited economic development, schools and government transparency as the top three issues she had heard mentioned by voters. She called herself the candidate most willing “to cast my vote for the people.”

Easter cited a burgeoning “heroin crisis” as one of the county’s top issues and later in the forum said caffeinated beverages like Red Bull were also a health threat to youth.

Asked about the Indian Head Science and Technology Park in Bryans Road that the county must buy back in August for $6 million — nearly twice its assessed value — District 2 candidates Johnnie DeGiorgi and Melanie B. Holland offered different solutions.

DeGiorgi suggested selling the property off as quickly as possible and moving on.

Holland said the county needs to brand the land and “be choosy” with a buyer, selecting one that would preserve the land or use it to start an environmentally friendly business.

The county’s retired information technology chief, District 4 candidate Richard Allen Aldridge said “smart growth” should be the county’s top priority and called himself “the best qualified, most experienced candidate you have to vote for.”

Fellow District 4 candidate Emmanuel Ogungbesan of Waldorf promised to freeze taxes for two years and abolish “personal gain lobbying” in the county.

Local pharmacist Vincent “Vinny” Ippolito, also running in District 4, said schools, traffic and taxes were his chief priorities, and the county needs to pass a comprehensive plan update that reduces sprawl development.

Robinson touted his record having supported successful efforts to retain the National Guard armory in La Plata, locate the fourth College of Southern Maryland campus within the county and establish a future Popes Creek rail trail. One of the more vocal proponents for a replacement Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, Robinson also stated that the state’s recent allocation of $50 million to the project had taken it “from an if, to a when.”

Robinson’s primary opponent in District 1, former Commissioner Sam Graves, touted his record while in office, which included the completion of Middletown Road and Rosewick Road, and said if elected he would pursue opportunities to bring “clean manufacturing” operations to the county.

Republican candidates Tom deSabla (president), Mike Bakir (District 2) and John Young (District 4) also attended the forum.

Running together, the three Republicans — none of whom have a primary opponent — said they had signed a pledge to not raise taxes or increase spending if they are elected in November.

jnewman@somdnews.com