Md. Democratic gubernatorial debate includes attacks on health care, taxes, character

The leading Democratic candidates for Maryland governor sparred Wednesday over health care, the death penalty and corporate taxes in a spirited first debate that featured an unusually combative performance from front-runner Anthony G. Brown.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler used the face-off at the University of Maryland at College Park to continue his attacks on Brown’s handling of the state’s online health insurance marketplace, which Gansler called “an unmitigated disaster.”

“I think the lieutenant governor is the only person that believes it’s been a success,” Gansler said, a position he characterized as “relatively delusional.”

Democrats vying to become Maryland’s next governor give their closing statements after their debate at U-Md. Wednesday night. (NBC4)

Brown threw several elbows as well, criticizing Gansler for his past support of the death penalty, which lawmakers repealed last year, and arguing that Gansler’s plan to cut corporate taxes would undercut the state’s efforts to expand pre-kindergarten education.

Brown also sharply questioned Gansler’s judgment in not breaking up a teen beach party in Delaware at which there was apparent underage drinking last year. Gansler’s son was at the party, and Gansler stopped by to talk to him.

The third Democrat on stage, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery), largely stayed out of the fray, refraining from attacks on either of her two better-known opponents and arguing that she has a record of working collaboratively to get things done.

“This race is not about personal bickering,” Mizeur said. “People want leadership.”

The hour-long televised event, hosted by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory, was the first of at least three debates expected before a June 24 primary in which the candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is term-limited. Four Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1 in the state.

The Democrats were divided Wednesday night over whether the state should legalize marijuana, following legislation passed by the General Assembly to impose only civil fines for possession of small amounts of the drug.

Mizeur voiced support for regulating and taxing marijuana, saying Maryland should follow the lead of Colorado and Washington state. Both Brown and Gansler said such a move would be premature until more is known about the impact of legalization elsewhere.

Gansler came up swinging on the issue of the health exchange, arguing — as he has for much of the campaign — that Brown mishandled the most important assignment handed to him by O’Malley. The lieutenant governor, Gansler said, should be held accountable.

The site crashed on its first day of operation. Persistent technical ­glitches since have prompted state leaders to try to replace most of the system, using a new team of consultants and technology borrowed from Connecticut.

“I sincerely regret that any Marylander was inconvenienced trying to get health care through the broken Web site,” Brown said, acknowledging that he was partly responsible.

“Nobody was more frustrated than me,” he added. He argued that he took several decisive steps in response to the crisis, including supporting the firing of the contractors responsible for building the site.

Gansler suggested that Brown and others had resisted an accounting of what went wrong, saying there had been a “coverup from the special interests.”

Mizeur declined the opportunity to assign responsibility for the health exchange’s troubles, saying she had worked hard as a delegate to expand access to health care and would continue to do so if elected governor.

The candidates were not asked about the death penalty, but Brown used a question about marijuana to knock Gansler on the issue, suggesting the attorney general’s past support was out of step with Democrats in the state. Gansler said he considered the death penalty “a non-issue,” given that it has been repealed in Maryland and there is no move to reinstate it.

All three candidates agreed that the state could do more to improve its business climate. But Brown questioned a “corporate giveaway” advocated by Gansler — a gradual reduction in the state’s corporate income tax from 8.25 percent to 6 percent to match that of Virginia.

Gansler argued the move would lead to more businesses in Maryland and an expanded tax base. Gansler also said a string of tax increases implemented during Brown’s tenure as lieutenant governor has made the state less attractive to companies.

The debate turned testy when the issue of Gansler’s actions at the beach party came up. Gansler seemed to bristle at Brown’s criticism, sarcastically thanking him for “lecturing me on my parenting skills.”

“Could I have done something different there that night? Absolutely,” Gansler said. “That was the mistake we made that night.”

Brown also brought up the fact that Gansler, as Montgomery County state’s attorney, was reprimanded by Maryland’s highest court for violating a professional rule of conduct against making out-of-court statements before trial.

Gansler played down the 2003 episode, suggesting that the reprimand was retaliation for his willingness to speak out against a judge who spoke inappropriately about an 11-year-old girl who was the victim of a sex crime.

The three Democrats found common ground on a question about whether the owner of the Washington Redskins should change the team’s name, which Native American groups and others find offensive.

Brown said that he “no longer refer[s] to the Washington football team by their nickname” and that owner “Dan Snyder ought to . . . do the right thing and change the name.”

Gansler said he was “keenly aware” of discrimination and that as “a lifelong Redskins fan,” he’s “sympathetic to those fans who deeply love the name.” But it is a “slur,” he said, and the team should move toward changing it.

But Gansler said he wouldn’t pressure the team, whose home stadium is in Prince George’s County. He said “the die is cast” and the name will be changed; “the question is when and how.”

Mizeur noted her opposition to the name but did not dwell on the question, pivoting instead to talk about income inequality and saying actions are more important than words. She’s the only candidate, she said, pushing for “a living wage.”