In Maryland attorney general race, a debate over debates

The campaigns of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and his Democratic challenger Ben Jealous wrangled for weeks over their debate schedule before settling on just one debate.

Now, a similar debate over debates is playing out in the attorney general’s race.

Democratic incumbent Brian Frosh and his Republican challenger, Craig Wolf, have agreed to two debates. But deciding when and where they should be has become contentious.

The Wolf campaign this week accused Frosh of refusing to debate on television — after he declined an event hosted by WBFF-TV.

“Maryland voters deserve to see the candidates side-by-side in a series of televised debates discussing the underlying question in this race — what the role of the attorney general should be,” said Dan Smith, Wolf’s political director. “We hope the Frosh campaign agrees and accepts this invitation for a substantive, televised debate on the issues affecting Marylanders.”

The Wolf campaign released emails from Gregory Massoni, a longtime aide to former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Massoni now works for Sinclair Broadcast Group as executive producer of Town Hall and Political Content. WBFF-TV, also called Fox 45, is Sinclair’s flagship station.

In the emails, Massoni proposed to host a debate Oct. 17 on WBFF moderated by Mark Hyman, a conservative commentator. Massoni wrote that Frosh campaign manager Colin Curtis declined that format.

“He said the Frosh Campaign has now agreed only to 2 Law School Debates and we could televise them but cannot host or be involved in the timing and terms of the debate,” Massoni wrote. “Colin told me that 10/17 was the date determined today for the Law School Debate. Our offer of two debates continues to be offered with one on location and one in-studio debate. If we broadcast a debate we will have (to) determine the moderator and be involved with the planning and formatting. Currently, we have no agreement with the Frosh Campaign.”

Curtis said the Frosh campaign agreed to two debates at law schools, not one hosted by Sinclair.

He said Frosh agreed to debate Wolf twice during a conversation at the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake this summer on the Eastern Shore.

The proposed Fox event was scheduled for the same time as the University of Maryland law school’s event, Curtis said.

“Over the summer, my opponent and I agreed to two debates, one to be held at each of Maryland’s law schools,” Frosh said in a statement. “Our campaigns have been in talks with each institution to coordinate dates and times. The date requested by Sinclair is one that the University of Maryland Law School proposed and both campaigns agreed to, so we have already been looking forward to a robust debate on the 17th.”

Smith said he believes Frosh wants to limit the number of people who see the debates by having them at law schools rather than on television. He said many details of the law school’s event have yet to be finalized.

“I think it’s pretty obvious the Frosh campaign doesn't want a single televised debate,” he said. “We still want two debates. We think they should be televised.”

John T. Willis, who studies Maryland elections and was secretary of state in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, said the tradition in Maryland politics is for law schools to host such attorney general candidate forums.

“Traditionally, incumbents want fewer head-to-head debates and challengers want more,” he said. “When and where is always a subject of negotiation between the campaigns and the sponsor.”

Wolf served in the Army after the 9/11 attacks and is president and CEO of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, a trade group. He worked as a prosecutor in Allegany County in the early 1990s, and in the late 1990s was a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division.

Frosh, previously a state senator, won statewide office in 2014 with 55.8 percent of the vote. Of statewide officials elected that year, only incumbent Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot received a higher number of votes.

Prior to becoming attorney general, he served in the General Assembly for nearly three decades, including 12 years as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. There, he led the effort to pass some of the toughest gun control legislation in the country.

Wolf has $160,000 in his campaign account compared with $1.2 million for Frosh.

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