Four observations from the stage of the first Maryland democratic gubernatorial debate


Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidates Doug Gansler, left, Rep. Heather Mizeur and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown at a debate May 7 at the University of Maryland in College Park. (Matt Mcclain/AP)

When candidates take the stage for a televised debate, reporters usually huddle in a dark corner or watch on a television screen, listening for quotes to tweet, news to report and themes to explore. On Wednesday night, I was invited to sit on a panel of three journalists for Maryland’s first democratic gubernatorial debate between Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur (Montgomery).

Here are four things I learned or observed from this vantage point:

1) The candidates were nervous.

Shoot, I was nervous. Sure, it was only an hour-long debate before an audience of a few hundred. But it was the result of weeks of snowballing preparations, lengthy meetings and rounds of e-mails that obsessed about every little detail. Campaign staffers arrived in the early afternoon, and we panelists had to be there by 3:30 p.m. We spent the afternoon in a labyrinth of dressing rooms, isolated from the campaign-sign waving, chanting and other pre-debate festivities outside. The ongoing attention of make-up artists, who continued to layer our faces with powder throughout the night (except for Brown, who declined the service), was a reminder that television cameras would soon capture our every move.

Minutes before the debate began, I glanced to the wings, where the candidates anxiously waited. All three looked nervous in a way I had not seen in the Annapolis Statehouse or on the campaign trail. A lot was riding on this debate, over which they had little control.

Although the audience was filled with their family and friends, those supporters were ordered to keep quiet throughout the debate and could not provide energy-generating applause or cheers. Plus, they did not know what was percolating on social media or what news releases their staff was firing off.

2) A lot of thought went into selecting the questions.

Here’s what we asked about: the broken online health insurance marketplace, taxes, attracting business to the state, sexual violence, the controversial Redskins team name, education funding, balancing the need for government services with tax revenue, and if the candidates were fit for office. There’s a list of questions we would have asked if we had more time, and I am sure others have even more.

There has been some criticism of the questions we picked. The news Web site MarylandReporter.com collected reactions from experts and random people, including this assessment: “Hard to say what is more insipid or dispiriting – the candidates or the questions from the reporters.”

Whether you liked our questions or not, a lot of thought went into deciding what to ask. We started more than three weeks ago with a long list of topics and cut it down from there, continuing to swap out questions and refine the wording up until the debate began.

We needed to ask questions that would capture the interest of viewers — most of whom live in the Washington suburbs, as Baltimore-based stations refused to broadcast the debate — and, hopefully, keep them around so they could fully learn about the candidates.

Keep in mind that the candidates also had one minute to introduce themselves and one minute to conclude, during which they could talk about any issue they wanted. They also had one minute each to respond to a question about what they would want their legacy as governor to be — an open-ended query that was another opportunity to talk about any issue.

3) Brown and Gansler were visibly agitated at times.

I have yet to watch the full video of the debate, but I am guessing that some of the most interesting body language was not captured.

During a question about the character of the candidates, Gansler gripped the sides of the podium so tightly that I saw his fingernails turn from pink to white. And during a question about how the state divides funding between school systems, Brown’s eyes enlarged and he shifted his weight back and forth, clearly fired up, as Gansler said this: “The lieutenant governor’s been in office for eight years, at the seat of power, and stood by while Maryland has the number two — number two — minority achievement in the country, the second-worst. And that’s the moral state of our state. So we need to address that.”

Mizeur remained cool throughout the debate, although I saw building frustration as the debate began to be a match between Gansler and Brown, who swapped attacks.

4) This is cheesy, but it was touching to be on stage as the candidates were joined by their families.

For an hour, the candidates were isolated from everything, focused on the questions and not fully aware of how they were doing. That initial assessment came from those who matter most to them, their spouses, relatives and closest friends, who came onto the stage as soon as the debate ended and swore to them that they were the winner that night.

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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