The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland gubernatorial candidates locked in standoff over when to debate

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), left, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous. (Pete Marovich for The Post and AP)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous are locked in a six-week standoff over debate logistics that has put potential hosts of the events in an awkward position: Saying there is no time left to wait, they have started to plan debates without the candidates having agreed to face each other.

Hogan (R) announced in mid-July that he intended to participate in two televised debates in September, and aides say he has no intention of participating in more.

Jealous, a former NAACP chief who is trailing Hogan in polls and in fundraising, wants five debates in October, when he says more voters will be focused on the race. He is pushing for some to be aired on media outlets that cater more to minority viewers, who are crucial to his coalition.

The campaigns have not held talks about resolving the disagreement.

Meanwhile, the potential debate hosts are booking studio time and assigning staff. The first possible debate would be Sept. 17, less than three weeks away. It would be hosted by Maryland Public Television, WBAL-TV and the Baltimore Sun.

“If they end up agreeing to that date, we’ll be ready,” said Tom Williams, managing director of communications for Maryland Public Television. “You can’t have a debate without two candidates.”

Williams added that the station would be open to an October date as well.

Hogan announced by news release July 18 that he had accepted invitations to the Sept. 17 debate and one proposed for Sept. 24, to be sponsored by WJLA (Channel 7) and The Washington Post.

The declaration caught the Jealous team by surprise because the two campaigns had not conferred about the invitations or debate logistics. Jealous has refused to agree to anything until the campaigns discuss a compromise.

“He’s governor, not emperor,” Jealous said recently. “It’s a democracy, so we’ll figure out what we will all agree upon. . . . He literally wants to cap the debates when the least voters are paying attention.”

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the campaign is “happy to have a conversation about rules” but does not see the need for additional debates beyond those supported by the largest news organizations in the state.

“The bottom line here is that we have accepted two debates and they haven’t,” Mayer said. “They can continue delaying, they can continue complaining, or they can come to these debates and talk about the issues.”

Joe DeFeo, director of content at WJLA, said that the station is preparing for a Sept. 24 debate and that the Jealous campaign could agree to it as late as the day before.

Hogan was on the opposite end of a debate dispute four years ago, when then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) was the well-funded front-runner. Hogan, who relied on public financing, was seeking free media exposure and pushed for five televised debates, while Brown wanted two. The campaigns eventually agreed to three televised debates and one radio debate.

Now, Hogan has $9 million to spend in the final 10 weeks of the campaign, and Jealous has less than $400,000 in the bank.

“It’s always been the case that front-runners want to limit the opportunities to change the dynamic of the race,” said David Lublin, a professor of government at American University and author of the Seventh State blog, which deals with Maryland politics.

Lublin noted that the Republican Governors Association has spent millions of dollars on television ads attacking Jealous and said that it is a smart strategy for Hogan to try to limit his opponent’s ability to counter that messaging.

“If I was Jealous, I would want as many debates as possible,” Lublin said.

Jealous campaign spokesman Steve Hershkowitz said his candidate also has agreed to the Maryland Public Television and WJLA debates — but wants them to be in October. The Democrat also wants to participate in a radio debate proposed by WYPR, the NPR affiliate in Baltimore; a debate hosted by the Real News Network, a nonprofit Baltimore news organization that broadcasts on the Internet; and a television debate co-hosted by NBC4 Washington and the Spanish-language station Telemundo.

Matt Glassman, assistant news director at NBC4, said the station for now does not expect the Hogan campaign to change its mind. But Glassman said the offer to host remains on the table if the campaigns can come to agreement.

“If they came to us tomorrow, my team would find a way to make something happen,” he said.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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