The eight Democrats vying to be Maryland's next governor came to Montgomery County on Thursday to urge more funding for schools and mass transit but offered few details about how they would pay for it.
Speaking to a large audience at a breakfast forum in Maryland's most populous jurisdiction, the contenders faulted Gov. Larry Hogan (R), the man they hope to oust, for misplaced priorities. They condemned his $9 billion plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, calling it impractical, outdated and discriminatory against less-affluent drivers.
The hour-long event, in which the candidates responded to questions from a moderator, did not reveal significant differences over issues. When asked whether they would support legislation to provide dedicated funding for Metro, for example, all eight said "yes" or flashed a thumbs-up.
"I don't think you'll hear much disagreement from us this morning," Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP, said in his opening comments.
But the forum offered an early glimpse at the subjects that will shape the race, particularly education and transportation, six months before the June 26 primary. The candidates said Hogan has neglected the needs of the Washington suburbs and Baltimore area, the state's two principal Democratic strongholds.
"Right now, you've got a governor who is the self-proclaimed king of highways," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "He's against mass transit; he killed the [light-rail] Red Line in Baltimore. He watered down the [light-rail] Purple Line, so now it's the Lavender Line."
Jealous said Hogan's highways proposal — a public-private partnership that would have private companies build the new lanes and let them keep the toll revenue — showed the governor was "living in some nostalgia about the 1970s that we should just keep building for cars."
Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross said that on the day of the plan's release, "It read like the interns wrote it that morning."
Like others, Ross, a former teacher, noted that Montgomery has pressing social needs despite its overall affluence.
"The reputation of Montgomery County is that the streets are paved in gold," Ross said. "The reality is, guess what, you have 55,000 students in your public schools that get free and reduced lunches. That is nearly the total number that's in all of Baltimore City."
In addition to Jealous, Kamenetz and Ross, the other candidates are Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III; state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery); Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy aide to Michelle Obama; Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, founder of Global Policy Solutions and wife of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.); and James Shea, an attorney and former chair of Venable LLP.
The Committee for Montgomery, the civic group that hosted the event, said it invited Hogan to attend, but he declined.
Asked to comment on the Democrats' criticisms, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor has provided "overdue and balanced leadership to relieve traffic congestion, including finally getting the Purple Line built and adding lanes to the Beltway." She said school construction funding has increased every year.
"The governor has done all of this and more while putting an end to the years of nonstop tax increases that will no doubt return if he is not there to stop them," Chasse said.
The Democratic candidates sought to introduce themselves to the public at the forum and in remarks to reporters afterward, and to make their case as to why they would be the strongest candidate to face Hogan.
The three who hold elected office — Kamenetz, Baker and Madaleno — all emphasized experience.
"I am uniquely positioned as probably the person who knows more about the budget than potentially any other elected official in the General Assembly," said Madaleno, who is vice chair of the Senate budget committee.
Baker, referring to his record of seeking schools money as county executive and during his time as a state lawmaker, said, "We need a governor that understands the needs of the school system across the state and being willing to step up there and make the argument at the General Assembly."
Kamenetz stressed that as county executive, he had not raised tax rates in Baltimore County. That distinguishes him from Baker, who oversaw a property tax hike in Prince George's. It could position Kamenetz well to face Hogan, who won an upset victory in 2014 on an anti-tax platform.
Other candidates pointed to their accomplishments outside of elective office.
Rockeymoore Cummings said she was "distinct" from the rest of the field because of her focus on helping small business.
Shea described himself as "a progressive Democrat who built a business," referring to the law firm he led.
Vignarajah called herself "fiscally responsible and socially progressive," and noted her experience in the private sector and the Obama administration.
Jealous said he had led a national organization and had been committed to social justice from an early age.
While all of the candidates called for devoting more resources to education and mass transit, they were vague about where the funds would be obtained. Most said funds could be diverted from less-important priorities or by reducing waste in current government spending.
Some, including Baker and Ross, said they would shift funds from road-building to transit. Vignarajah suggested she would redirect spending from prisons and policing to schools. Rockeymoore Cummings said she would collect revenue from taxes generated by medical marijuana, which became available in Maryland this month, and from taxing recreational marijuana, if it is legalized.
The forum moderator, Josh Kurtz, editor of Maryland Matters, did not press the candidates on whether they would raise taxes to cover new spending.