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Candidates talk jobs, not jabs, at forum [Commentary]

Why can't the big televised debates be run this way?

"We want your responses to these questions, not your critiques of each other," the Rev. Nancy Ladd warned the three gubernatorial hopefuls seated in the front pew of a packed St. Matthew Catholic Church.

The Maryland Industrial Areas Foundation promoted its May 14 candidates forum in Baltimore as being geared toward "jobs, not jabs." For the most part, the umbrella organization — which includes People Acting Together in Howard, or PATH — succeeded in keeping Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur talking about their own plans for improving the state's employment picture, stemming gun violence, fomenting affordable housing and boosting funding for after-school programs.

The three Democrats — Republican candidates polling at 5 percent or better were invited too, but none accepted — each got five minutes to outline their ideas for addressing these four issues and to specify where they would get the money to pay for whatever programs they were proposing. The candidate had another two minutes to describe what kind of working relationship the Maryland IAF could expect to have with them as governor.

This segment gave rise to some gasbaggery as the candidates all vowed profusely to call upon IAF for its insight and assistance in fighting the good fight. "I need your advocacy skills. I need your passion," Brown said. Gansler and Mizeur said pretty much the same thing.

PATH executive director Cynthia Marshall allowed that this sounded a little like "I'll call you, baby." On the other hand "we do get a commitment," from each candidate to meet with IAF before and during the annual legislative session, she said.

The Howard County group brought three busloads to the IAF "Accountability Action." Between the 300 PATH people and other representing Action in Montgomery and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, IAF filled St. Matthew's 1,000-seat sanctuary.

On guns, Brown advocated using the state's procurement power as leverage to pressure weapons manufacturers to develop products that are more easily traceable and will work only for the legitimate owner. Gansler said he wants to implement a Maryland version of federal law mandating a minimum sentence of five years for repeat offenders who carry guns during the commission of a crime. Mizeur called for universal background checks for all firearms purchases, not just handguns.

On housing, Mizeur and Brown both promised big increases to the Maryland Affordable Housing Trust. Brown also said he would boost funding for transitional housing using the savings from no longer having to prosecute minor marijuana cases as decriminalization takes effect. Gansler touted his work in stemming foreclosures and reforming mortgage lending.

The Rev. Tyrone Jones IV, pastor at Columbia's First Baptist Church of Guilford, made certain the candidates understood that IAF seeks something more than the typical half-hearted stab at the issues of unemployment and underemployment.

"We don't need more job-training programs. We need real jobs," he said, especially brick-and-mortar projects including school construction and renovation, bridge repair and other shoring-up of infrastructure. "We're looking for a partner to make sure that the dollars go to labor-intensive projects, not captial-intensive ones."

The candidates generally expressed support for the concept but provided few specifics on this one, not surprising given the time allotted. But that's a tightrope the organizers of such events must walk.

"You want to give them little enough time that they'll stay on point," and not drift into their stump speeches, Marshall said later, "but enough time that they can express their ideas."

However flawed, the IAF event at least provided a forum to hear these candidates without having to sit through a gotcha-fest. I didn't once hear anybody talk about whose website crashed or whose kid was having drinking parties. The focus was on ideas.

A radical concept indeed. Quite refreshing.

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