Del. Jon S. Cardin and state Sen. Brian E. Frosh briefly shook hands Monday night. But that's where the niceties ended.
In front of a packed audience at the University of Baltimore School of Law, the leading candidates for the Democratic party's nomination for attorney general got downright hostile.
Frosh, of Montgomery County, accused Cardin of missing a large number votes in the General Assembly and associating with a rapper facing human trafficking charges. Cardin, of Baltimore County, accused Frosh of working against anti-child predator legislation and trying to implement an "Orwellian" bail system in which a computer decides a prisoner's freedom.
"He's been attacking my character," Cardin said afterward. "I think voters needed to hear the other side."
Frosh called Cardin's statements "mostly bogus."
There was so much contentious back-and-forth between the two candidates that Prince George's County Del. Aisha N. Braveboy — who was running third in the latest poll — had fewer opportunities to talk because the format allowed candidates to respond to each other's claims.
"I think the people in this state deserve a discussion on substantive issues," she said after a particularly testy exchange between the two men. At times, she smiled as the two verbally attacked each other, but after the event Braveboy said she believed she was provided ample opportunity to her message out.
Cardin, the nephew of Sen. Ben Cardin, leads the race by 10 points, according to a Baltimore Sun poll published Monday, but a large portion of the electorate — 42 percent — remains undecided.
Frosh has led in fundraising and high-profile endorsements, including one from Gov. Martin O'Malley. Frosh recently reported having $864,000 in campaign cash on hand — nearly twice as much as Cardin's $486,000.
The debate began with Frosh and Braveboy both offering subtle criticisms of Cardin in their opening statements. Braveboy said if she is elected attorney general, human traffickers "will not be tolerated," an apparent reference to Cardin's recent endorsement by a Baltimore rapper charged with the crime. And Frosh promised to "show up" for work everyday, a reference to Cardin's history of missing committee votes, including nearly 75 percent last session.
But then Frosh took the criticism to Cardin more directly. He accused Cardin of repeatedly missing important votes over the years, including 20 percent of his committee votes in 2013 and the vote to expand casino gambling in Maryland — the only issue of the 2012 special session.
"He has the worst voting record in committee out of anyone" in the House of Delegates, Frosh said.
Cardin hammered Frosh over what he said was a soft stance against child predators, accusing him of trying to kill "Jessica's Law" — which abolished parole for child rapists.
"You tried to kill a bill that would keep child rapists in prison," Cardin said. "Why did you try so hard to kill Jessica's Law?"
Frosh said he has reservations about mandatory minimum sentences, but pointed to his endorsements by numerous law enforcement groups as evidence that he's tough-on-crime.
"You've been endorsed by Mr. Ski Money," Frosh said, referring to the rapper. The line drew laughter from the audience.
The two men also traded blows over a proposal to automate parts of Maryland's bail system.
Cardin accused Frosh of wanting computers to decide a person's freedom. "It's Orwellian. It's inappropriate. ... It's un-American," he said.
"That's the comic book version of a serious, complex issue," Frosh responded.
The candidates did find some common ground on the issues. Both Cardin and Frosh said they would sue Maryland health exchange contractors over a botched rollout of the program in the state.
Braveboy stood out when speaking passionately about civil rights issues, such as when she took aim at the O'Malley administration over the under-funding of Morgan State, Coppin State and other historically black colleges.
"The state of Maryland has been defiant and arrogant in its treatment of historically black colleges," she said.
Cardin called Braveboy a "champion" on the issue.
In his closing comments, University Baltimore law school dean Ronald Weich, who moderated the debate, made reference to the frequently hostile nature of the debate.
"I hope you'll agree that it was lively," he said, sparking laughter from the audience.
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