The biggest drama at Thursday night’s Maryland gubernatorial forum started to play out before any of the candidates spoke.

After a stellar rendition of the national anthem, four hopefuls took the stage at an event put on by the Collective Empowerment Group, made up of Prince George’s County ministers. There were only three chairs.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) and Charles County businessman Charles Lollar, a Republican, took their seats. Cindy Walsh of Baltimore, a little-known Democratic contender, stood awkwardly by until she was waved off the stage by organizers.

Around the same time, Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who was sitting in the front row of the audience, sent a text message to a reporter saying she was supposed to be on stage, too, standing in for her running mate, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who had a prior commitment in Western Maryland.

“Anthony said he wouldn’t come if I spoke in Doug’s place,” Ivey wrote. “Why do you think he’s scared of me?”

Brown campaign manager Justin Schall later disputed Ivey’s contention, saying the organizers had made it clear in an April letter inviting candidates to participate that only the those on the top of the ticket could be on stage.

“Regrettably, Jolene hasn’t been accurate about a lot of things lately, and this is just another reckless and irresponsible statement from the Gansler campaign that we’ve all come to expect,” Schall said.

Brown aides also suggested it was ironic that Gansler would skip a forum on a day that he launched a new television ad criticizing Brown for missing a televised debate.

The Rev. Anthony B. Maclin, president of the Collective Empowerment Group’s board, said that the organization stuck with its rule that only “principals” would be allowed to take part in the debate. “There’s no slight to Mr. Gansler or Ms. Ivey here,” he said.

Maclin said he hadn’t expected Walsh to attend. “We were surprised to see she was here,” he said.

Gansler campaign manager Antigone Davis said later that Brown’s campaign had “bullied the organizers” to maintain the orignal format after they had said Ivey could participate. Davis accused Brown of showing “the same disdain and arrogance for the voters that prompted him to skip this week’s televised debate in Baltimore.”

Once the forum got under way — in front of a crowd of fewer than 100 people — the candidates fielded questions on issues including jobs, affordable housing, the re-entry of former prisoners into society and the role of faith-based groups in supplementing government services.

On the latter question, Mizeur promised that as governor she would have a “transformational” rather than “transactional” relationship with faith-based groups and pointed to her choice of a running mate, the Rev. Delman Coates of Prince George’s, who was in the audience.

“It starts with who I picked to be my partner in my journey,” said Mizeur, who also used the forum to tout her plans to cut income taxes for 90 percent of Maryland families, raise the minimum wage beyond the levels approved by the legislature this year and legalize marijuana.

Lollar, an African American and the only one of four Republicans in the race to participate Thursday night, asked the largely black audience to remain open to his pitch, which includes eliminating the state’s personal income tax within five years.

“Partisan politics has become the new segregation of our day,” said Lollar, who also relayed that he became a born-again Christian in 1983.

Brown, the front-runner in the race, played up the accomplishments of his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and promised to build on progress made stemming of the tide of home foreclosures, reducing the number of former inmates who return to prison and expanding access to health insurance.

Brown, too, talked up the role that faith-based organizations can play in delivering social services.

“We can’t build a better Maryland without the church,” he said.