With the front-runner in the race conspicuously absent, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Douglas F. Gansler and Heather R. Mizeur disagreed — politely — during a debate Tuesday night, with Gansler saving the brunt of his criticism for the missing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
The debate at the WBFF (Fox 45) studios was unusual not only because Brown did not participate, but because the station chose to highlight his absence by displaying a lectern with his name posted prominently in front.
Gansler has repeatedly criticized Brown over Maryland's botched rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act, and he did so again Tuesday despite Brown's absence.
"If he had spent more time actually running the Affordable Care Act rollout instead of raising money from special interests, we wouldn't be in this position," Gansler said.
Brown's campaign has defended the state's handling of its troubled health insurance website, saying it fired the contractor, replaced the leadership of the exchange, beefed up its call centers and signed up 340,000 Marylanders for coverage under Obamacare.
Gansler and Mizeur disagreed on taxes, with Gansler repeating his call to gradually cut the corporate income tax rate to improve the state's business climate.
In contrast, Mizeur said, "I'm not someone who is pushing for corporate tax cuts."
Mizeur, a state delegate from Montgomery County, has been less critical than Attorney General Gansler of the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Brown. But she said in her closing statement that she worried that current state policies have left the middle class behind.
"The middle class is struggling in Maryland, child care costs eating up entire paychecks," Mizeur said. "The current administration raised our taxes while giving handouts to big corporations and the wealthiest few."
Political analyst Mileah Kromer said Mizeur's tone was less restrained than in the past. She said Mizeur and Gansler both benefited from the opportunity to criticize Brown without a rebuttal from the lieutenant governor.
"Gansler had that opportunity to take punches at somebody who wasn't there, and I think that was really of benefit to him," said Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
The Gansler and Mizeur campaigns have accused Brown of failing to keep a deal for three TV debates in advance of the June 24 primary. Brown's campaign maintains that the agreement called for three debates, but not three televised debates.
In her introduction, moderator Jennifer Gilbert noted that the station negotiated with Brown's campaign for several months but that he ultimately "chose not to be a part" of the debate.
"We certainly wish the lieutenant governor were here," Gilbert said midway through the hourlong debate as she introduced a question about health care.
The debate was held in a studio the size of a high-school classroom in front of about 75 guests. The station solicited some of the questions — touching on such topics as crime, education and marijuana policy — from social media.
Earlier Tuesday, the station said it was giving the lieutenant governor until 6 p.m., to change his mind and declare his intention to participate. But Brown's campaign reiterated statements that the debate was outside of an agreement to which it says the three candidates agreed.
Brown's campaign said he had previous plans to attend a community meeting Tuesday night. On Tuesday afternoon, Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore sent an email to constituents inviting them to hear Brown at that event, saying, "I apologize for the late notice, but I hope you will attend this important meeting with the Lt. Governor and his campaign regarding plans for Baltimore's future." Brown's campaign said the meeting had been planned for more than a week but that a location was finalized only over the weekend.
It is common for front-runners to seek to limit debates, since they have more to lose than their rivals. Still, Brown could face criticism for not appearing. Brown's absence is "doubtless a measured decision on the part of the lieutenant governor," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. Smith said Brown's internal polling likely shows him with a sizable lead and he "is playing keep away right now. He's running out the clock."
All three took part in a debate on a Washington area television station May 7. Another Democratic debate will be aired Monday by Maryland Public Television, while a third is to be broadcast on radio station WOLB June 5 and moderated by former state Sen. Larry Young.
A debate for the Republican gubernatorial candidates will be taped June 2 and aired June 6 on MPT. Participating will be Del. Ron George of Annapolis, former Ehrlich administration official Larry Hogan, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar and Harford County Executive David R. Craig. They previously debated on May 3 on WBAL radio.