Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler launched barbed attacks on each other's record and character as they and Del. Heather R. Mizeur met in the Democratic gubernatorial campaign's first televised debate Wednesday night.
As Brown and Gansler exchanged acrimonious remarks over everything from the rollout of Obamacare to a raucous teen party Gansler failed to break up last year, Mizeur admonished her better-known rivals for "bickering" instead of talking about solution's to Maryland's problems. The three are competing in the June 24 primary, hoping to succeed term-limited Gov. Martin O'Malley when he leaves office in January.
The debate at the University of Maryland, College Park, moderated by David Gregory of NBC's "Meet the Press," gave Gansler an opportunity he's been anticipating for months — to go after Brown face-to-face over the troubled launch of Maryland's health insurance exchange. He got his chance when Gregory asked him, "Who's ultimately responsible?"
Gansler's answer: the lieutenant governor.
"This is, literally, the one thing he's been in charge of, that he's managed or he's led since he was lieutenant governor, and it's been an unmitigated disaster," Gansler said.
When Gregory put the same question to Mizeur, a two-term delegate from Montgomery County, she declined to go on the attack. "I'm not about casting blame. I'm about fixing the problem and making sure that families get access to the health care they deserve," she said.
Brown accepted part of the blame for the website's problems but defended the administration's overall record in implementing the Affordable Care Act.
"Everyone involved with [establishing] the health benefit exchange is responsible, and that includes me," he said. "Nobody was more frustrated than me, and that's why I took the action that I did. I reorganized the leadership at the exchange, the executive director left. We refocused the vendors, fired those who didn't perform as promised."
Given extra time by Gregory to dispute Brown's claim that the administration had enrolled 330,000 people for health care — 70,000 more than state's goal — Gansler questioned the numbers. "That is because there's been a cover-up from the special interests that don't … want us to know what happens," he said.
Chris Gordon of Channel 4 in Washington, the NBC affiliate that produced the debate, opened the door to the bitterest exchanges of the night when he asked each of the candidates about the negative perceptions of them — Brown that he's done little as lieutenant governor, Gansler that he speaks recklessly and shows poor judgment, Mizeur that she lacks the experience to be governor.
Brown, after recounting a list of major initiatives he's led other than health care, went on the offensive. He pointed out that Gansler, before being elected attorney general, had become the first state's attorney in the state to be admonished by the state Court of Appeals for his comments about a judge.
Gansler parried by describing what he said were the circumstances of the reprimand: a judge who made insensitive comments about an underage victim in a sexual assault case.
"I wear it as a badge of honor," Gansler said.
The attorney general was asked specifically about an incident last year, first reported in The Baltimore Sun, that he failed to break up a party his son attended where participants said there was underage drinking. Gansler admitted error.
"Could I have done something different there that night? Absolutely." He said. "We parent on the fly, and that was the mistake we made that night."
Brown said the incident reflected a "judgment issue.'
"I would have stopped the party and made sure every child got home safely," Brown said — to which Gansler sarcastically thanked him for his lecture on parenting.
For Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College, that was a pivotal moment in a debate he called for Gansler.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, didn't call a winner but agreed that Brown looked bad in that exchange.
"If there's one thing people hate, it's when other people tell them how to raise their kids," she said.
Another political analyst said he thought Mizeur gave the best performance, striking a different tone that focused on her plans, not her biography.
"She was positive, she was direct, she said what she wanted to do very clearly," said Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The other two guys were beating each other up."
Norris said that while Brown and Gansler did not make any mistakes, each could have done better.
"On some really tough questions, Brown and Gansler ducked," he said.
Kromer said Mizeur did a good job of showing she belonged onstage with two statewide officials, though Eberly said Gregory seemed to shut her out of the debate. A transcript shows long passages where Gregory — whom Eberly called "maybe the biggest loser of the night" — went back and forth between Brown and Gansler and blocked Mizeur out.
That didn't stop Mizeur's camp from claiming victory.
Her running mate, the Rev. Delman Coates, said that while Gansler and Brown sparred over taxes, the health care rollout and character, Mizeur stayed on message about Maryland families.
"I think it was pretty clear she was the best candidate on that stage tonight," Coates said.
Gansler's surrogates continued on the attack after the debate ended.
"The lieutenant governor really ducked the opportunity to be straight about health care and the debacle that it turned into," said Glenn Ivey, former state's attorney for Prince George's County and husband to Gansler's running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey.
U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, who backs Brown, said the lieutenant governor showed he has taken responsibility for the exchange's trouble and demonstrated that he fixed the problem afterward.
"The fact is that there's a lot of accountability to go across the system," Edwards said. She called Gansler's suggestion there was a cover-up "ridiculous."
Coming TV debates
•May 31. Republicans. 7 p.m. GOP candidates David Craig, Ron George, Larry Hogan and Charles Lollar debate on the Salisbury University campus. Broadcast by WMDT 47, an ABC affiliate. Moderated by Ernie Colburn of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.
•June 2. Democrats. 7 p.m. Anthony Brown, Douglas Gansler and Heather Mizeur meet for a live debate produced by Maryland Public Television at its Owings Mills studio. Moderated by MPT's Jeff Salkin.
•June 6. Republicans. 7 p.m. MPT will broadcast a debate among the four candidates to be taped June 2 at the MPT studio. Jason Newton of WBAL-TV will moderate.