Candidates seek to ensure inclusive community
CHESTERTOWN — In May, the Kent County News published an editorial noting racist statements made at a candidate meet and greet in Chestertown and explained how what was said shows how much work still needs to be done to make this community one of inclusivity for all people.
That led the Greater Chestertown Initiative, a coalition of local organization and business leaders, to ask the six candidates running this year for Kent County commissioner what they think needs to be done to build an inclusive community. Some candidates offered short answers, while others wrote lengthy responses to the GCI’s question.
With all three commissioners’ seats on the ballot this year, the GCI posed a series of questions to the candidates. Along with seeking candidates’ views on inclusivity, the GCI asked about economic development, transportation, education and the future of Chestertown’s hospital.
The Kent County News has provided the candidates’ answers to the GCI’s questions relating to each topic over the past four weeks. In addition, the candidates’ full, unedited answers have been attached to each story on the paper’s website, www.thekentcountynews.com.
For this, the final week of the series, the focus is on inclusivity.
“In the May 17 edition of the Kent County News, an editorial described how racism endures in our county. What work needs to be done to build the inclusive community Kent County should be, and how would you implement that work? How would you show the African American and Latino communities they are essential to the success of our county?” the GCI asked the candidates.
Incumbent Democrat Ron Fithian, town manager of Rock Hall, wrote about how he graduated from Rock Hall High School in 1969, dur- ing the era of desegregation. He said someone who was doing work on this year’s annual Legacy Day celebration, which commemorated students who went through school integration, wanted to interview him about his experiences at the time.
“When I grew up here in Rock Hall, it was a commercial seafood town. Blacks and whites, we all worked together, we played together,” Fithian wrote. “And I’ll tell you when the blacks and whites starting going to Rock Hall High School, I told him I hate to make a dull story out of it, but it really didn’t seem to be a problem for me. Maybe it’s easy for me to say because they were coming to my school. But we don’t have the real problem with the races that you might see on television and stuff.”
He held up African American leaders like the late Clarence Hawkins, fellow Commissioner William Pickrum and teacher and minister Leon Frison, as well as county department heads like Warden LaMonte Cook and Parks and Recreation Director Myra Butler as examples to show people of color that they are “essential to the success of the county.” He said county officials seek to put African Americans and Latinos on boards to ensure “there is some kind of balance.”
“It’s a tough one for me to answer because some of my best friends are African Americans and Latinos. If there is that racism in Kent County, it certainly isn’t anywhere in my travels,” Fithian wrote. “So, I’m going to treat everyone the same regardless of who they are or what they look like until they prove to me that I shouldn’t. That’s the way I do it.”
Incumbent Pickrum, a Democrat who spent a career in the U.S. Coast Guard and now works at Delaware State University, is one of only two persons of color running for county office this year. Nivek Johnson is running for Board of Education.
“I will continue to identify opportunities for inclusive opportunities. This must be encouraged through all our social networks, i.e., churches, business groups, social and service groups, etc. These groups must have an inclusive frame of reference,” Pickrum wrote.
Pickrum also wrote about his own status as a role model and his efforts to aggressively seek African Americans and Latinos for county employment and seats on boards. He said county employees should periodically take racial and gender sensitivity training.
“As a personal story, when I returned home after a career in the Coast Guard, I was not well received at an Economic Advisory Commission meeting. In fact, I was asked why I was there. After careful thought, I decided to run for elective office. One of my goals from the beginning was to insure inclusiveness in county government,” Pickrum wrote.
Pickrum offered his support for the Kent County Local Management Board and how it has been tasked with coordinating assistance and support for children and families.
“I will encourage the development of an African-American, Latino and non-minority business directory, sponsored by the County. This will provide local governments and residents a resource to utilize these local businesses,” Pickrum also wrote.
Incumbent Republican Bill Short, a local business owner, wrote that inclusion is imperative to the county’s overall success. He said he is a commissioner for all people, with a six-year record of doing so.
“All ethnic and racial backgrounds add value to our community. As an elected official I work to move the County and all of its citizens forward without a racial or ethnic divide,” Short wrote.
Republican challenger Bob Jacob, also a local business owner, agreed that African Americans and Latinos are essential to the county.
He wrote about playing sports when he was growing up, and how it was just a bunch of kids trying to win a game. Color did not matter, he said.
Jacob said that held true when he worked at Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. He said everyone, regardless of color or gender, was just trying to get a job done.
“People are not born racist. They are taught it. I personally think everyone in life should be given the opportunity to succeed in whatever they do,” Jacob wrote. “Everybody deserves an equal shot no matter who you are. It is all about equality. Our differences are our strengths, we learn from each other and grow together.”
Jacob said he has always been more goal-oriented, rather than focused on race. He said one of his commitments will be to make sure everyone is on an even playing field, regardless of color or gender.
Republican challenger Tom Mason, a farmer, said everyone should practice the Golden Rule, treating others they way they would want to be treated.
“I would have an all inclusive government where the African American and Latino communities will have equal opportunity to serve on committees and participate in all aspects of county government. All citizens will be treated with respect and equality when it comes to living and participating in our community. All county departments will be expected to provide the same services to all of our community without a racial or ethnic divide,” Mason wrote.
Democratic challenger Tom Timberman, an international business consultant, wrote that Kent County’s historic record on race relations, down through the 1960s and 1970s, is not encouraging. He said admirable steps being taken now — the reboot of a Social Action Committee, an active event calendar at historic Sumner Hall and the annual Legacy Day celebration — can be assessed against that background.
“It’s essential that minorities actually believe that they are listened to, that they are heard and that actions are taken as a result,” Timberman wrote.
He wants to see more African Americans and Latinos involved in county management. He wants to see them hired to deliver county services. He also wants to see local boards and committees include more diverse members in the decision-making process.
“An initiative to identify, recruit, hire or appoint minority members should be a Commission priority,” Timberman wrote. “This must start with teachers and administrators in the public school system. African American and Latino children and their parents will begin to believe they are essential to the success of the County if they are seen to occupy essential positions.”
Timberman suggested an outreach program emailing the commissioners’ meeting agendas to African American churches and churches with high Latino populations. He said they should be invited to speak at meetings, to suggest agenda items and to serve on ad-hoc committees. He said the commissioners also should fund an archive of their weekly meetings on the county website.
“And finally, one Commission meeting per month should be conducted in each of the other four incorporated towns to encourage attendance by residents who do not live in Chestertown and are without personal transportation,” Timberman wrote.
The election is Nov. 6. Early voting runs Oct. 25 through Nov. 1.
The candidates for Kent County commissioner are, top row from left, Ron Fithian, Bob Jacob and Tom Mason, bottom row from left, William Pickrum, Bill Short and Tom Timberman.