GREENBELT – The candidates for Prince George’s county executive participated in a forum at the American Legion Post 136 to discuss their stances on veterans’ issues on June 7.
According to the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, a projected 59,000 veterans lived in Prince George’s County in 2017, which is the largest veteran population in any Maryland county.
Prince George’s County state’s attorney Angela Alsobrooks, educator Billy Bridges, former Congresswoman Donna Edwards, former Obama administration official Paul Monteiro, State Sen. Anthony Muse (D-26) and former Maryland housing director Tommie Thompson attended the forum.
Mathis is the sole Republican in the race. All the other candidates are Democrats.
“Accessibility” was a key word and sentiment frequently repeated throughout the forum.
The candidates all agreed that the county executive should engage and interact more with the veteran communities to meet their needs, though candidates differed in whether this should be accomplished by strengthening and revitalizing existing programs or dismantling and restructuring county initiatives.
Most candidates said they would meet with the county Commission for Veterans at least more than once a year. Mathis, on the other hand, described the commission as “broken” and said he would get rid of it.
“How can you run an organization for veterans if you haven’t been a veteran?” said Mathis, who is a veteran.
The Prince George’s County Commission for Veterans seeks “to elevate, develop and promote new and existing programs and services for veterans and their families within Prince George’s County,” according to the county website. The commission meets once a month.
Edwards said it is essential to take the recommendations from the Commission for Veterans Affairs and make them into actual public policy, as well as to collaborate with the veteran community to assist them with establishing small businesses.
Alsobrooks promised to meet with the veteran community on a regular basis. A strong relationship with this community would benefit not only the veterans, she said, but also the county at large.
“The truth is that in our county we focus a lot on economic development, but we have to focus on human development, and our veterans offer to us capital. You are human capital,” Alsobrooks said. “We need the experience that our veterans have to engage in our communities.”
Monteiro suggested bringing the commission “to the community” so veterans are better able to communicate with and access the group. He also suggested bringing veterans into public schools to speak with students and to be role models for the young people.
Several candidates also discussed other means of expanding accessibility to the veteran community, such as through a designated liaison or a specified hotline.
Bridges suggested creating a toll free hotline county residents who are veterans can call for help getting the services they need. He also proposed discussing veterans’ matters on a “cabinet level.”
Similarly, Mathis and Muse said they would assign an individual to assist veterans.
“I will promise this, that (there will be a) person to help you to navigate through what is a long process to get just one thing done that’s already been promised to you,” Muse said.
If elected, Mathis would have a deputy county executive of veterans’ affairs in his office.
“That way, there will be no disconnect,” he said.
Other priorities for veterans the candidates discussed included housing and workforce development.
“With all the development going on, you are pricing out a lot of folks and veterans are not immune to that,” Monteiro said. “We face a structural deficit in this county…the only way out of it is to grow that commercial tax base by getting more companies to start. Veterans should be at the head of that line. We invest in them because they invested in us.”
Likewise, Thompson focused on accessible housing – rental as well as homeownership – for veterans.
“Our veterans need quality housing,” Thompson said. “Public policy creates private wealth. So, we want to make sure we have the public services that veterans need to be able to function properly in society.”
Alsobrooks suggested creating workforce opportunities for retired veterans.
Every candidate said they would commit to developing veteran-specific legislation that might improve the ability of local veterans to continue residing in the county.
Every candidate but one supports the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County Veterans Court Program. The Veterans Court is a 12-month voluntary program for county residents who are veterans who entered the judicial system with a misdemeanor or felony level offense with prosecutorial consent. Participants must follow numerous responsibilities, such as a curfew, and are able to receive substance misuse and mental health services.
Alsobrooks helped establish the Veterans Court in her capacity as state’s attorney.
She said the court does not to seek to answer the question “what is wrong with you,” but, rather “what happened to you?”
What is it that we can do to assist you in getting back on track?” she said.
Mathis opposed this court program, declaring it to be a misuse of funds that could go towards housing and medical assistance for veterans. Veterans could have a court liaison rather than a separate court program, he suggested.
“The justice system in the state of Maryland is corrupt,” Mathis said. “You don’t want to go there…Let’s take those dollars you’re going to put in a veteran’s court and get veterans homes.”
Other candidates were more supportive of the court initiative.
“Some of our veterans come back and many of them struggle with mental health issues,” Muse said. “Those mental health issues should not push them into jail. It should push them into treatment.”
Candidates almost unanimously backed seeking grants to provide mental health services for veterans to lower the veteran suicide rate. Mathis, on the other hand, said rather than focus on writing grants, local jurisdictions should work in collaboration with Veterans Affairs to solve these types of concerns.
The primary election is June 26. Early voting takes place June 14 through 21.