The Democratic candidates for Maryland governor in their first televised debate took swipes at one person who wasn’t on the crowded stage to respond: popular Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
They also tried desperately to stand out on the eight-person stage by highlighting differences in their upbringing, their experience in either public office or the workplace, and — in a few instances — their policy positions.
The hour-long debate, which aired Monday night on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV in Baltimore and included eight of the nine candidates vying to unseat Hogan, comes as the race for the Democratic nomination begins to heat up with just five weeks until the primary.
None of the candidates has broken away from the pack. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has locked up many endorsements from the party establishment, while former NAACP president Ben Jealous has received backing from the state teachers union and several national and statewide progressive groups.
But recent polls have found that most voters are still undecided. And with so many votes up for grabs, the televised debate offered the first opportunity for the candidates to distinguish themselves.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. highlighted his 16 years in the General Assembly, describing himself as the only candidate with experience in state government.
While all the candidates agreed on the need to fully fund education and support public-transit projects over roads, they offered some differences on how they would pay for some of their proposals, including whether they would raise taxes.
Asked if he supported a tax increase, Jealous, who is advancing a similar agenda to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said he would force the “1 percent to pay 1 percent more,” a move that he said would help pay for his plan to provide tuition-free community college.
Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, who is a former teacher, said he would pay for new initiatives by legalizing recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and older, saying that it would generate hundreds of millions of tax dollars for the state coffers.
Noting his experience as the chairman of a major law firm, Baltimore lawyer James Shea said: “I will not raise taxes, but I will not promise that I’ll lower them. The only way we can get to the point where we can lower taxes is to invest in education and infrastructure. If we make those investments, we’ll have a much more robust economy.”
Valerie Ervin, who entered the race last week after the unexpected death of running mate Kevin Kamenetz, evoked the late Baltimore County executive, who often boasted that he did not raise taxes during his tenure as executive.
Baker, a two-term county executive and former delegate, said he couldn’t raise taxes in Prince George’s County because of a property tax cap. He failed to mention that under his leadership the county, despite that cap, had used legislation to raise taxes to boost education.
Unlike other candidate forums over the past several months, the Democrats appeared to back off on their attacks of President Trump and focused much of their attention on Hogan. And they continued to resist publicly attacking one another.
In his 90-second introduction, Shea said Hogan “has taken us in the wrong direction.” In answer to a question about crime in Baltimore, Baker said: “There are Marylanders dying in Baltimore City, and the governor acts like they’re from some foreign place.” And former Michelle Obama policy director Krishanti Vignarajah attacked Hogan’s record on jobs, claiming that “Maryland hasn’t been open for business. It’s been open for businesses leaving.”
The state Republican Party released a statement saying that the claims were “ludicrous.”
The GOP said Hogan, since taking office, has committed $5.5 billion in local aid to Baltimore, more than any other jurisdiction, and put together a task force of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies that has helped lead to the arrest of hundreds of the most violent criminals.
Early Monday, the state Republican Party unveiled a video about the upcoming debate, titled “Uninspired.” The video, which runs a little over a minute, takes a humorous shot at the field of candidates.
“These candidates aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire,” the narrator says, showing the empty seats at one of the past candidate forums.
Mileah Kromer, a political-science professor at Goucher College, said the format of the debate and the number of candidates has made it difficult for the candidates to get their message out.
“It is difficult to distinguish yourself with such little time,” she said.
She said the GOP’s slam, calling the field boring, is unwarranted.
“Each one of these candidates have a clear vision about what they think about Maryland and its future. While they haven’t been able to excite the base and boost up their name recognition as much as they want at this time in the campaign, they’re not boring,” said Kromer, who watched the live taping of the debate, which also included Baltimore City business owner James Jones. Baltimore County teacher Ralph Jaffe was unable to participate and provided a video statement.
During the planning of the debates, a couple of candidates who have been receiving low poll numbers had pushed back against any attempt to limit participation to those who were doing well in the polls.
In an effort to be inclusive, the state Democratic Party invited the entire field to participate.
As it turned out, the only attack on a Democratic candidate came hours before the debate when Ross tweeted that he did not understand how Vignarajah, who has faced questions about her residency, is on the ballot while Ervin, who is running into trouble with the State Board of Elections over the timing of her filing, is not.