Democrats running for Maryland governor stress differences in third televised debate

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

With time running out to campaign, the seven major Democrats in the wide-open contest for Maryland governor used their third televised debate to stress their differences more than ever before.

Early voting begins in less than 10 days, and the candidates made their most direct pitches yet about why they are the best Democrat to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Although the candidates emphasized the unique perspective and talents they would bring to the job, they also continued to agree on most of the issues. They all said Maryland needs to invest more in education, bolster treatment for opioid addicts, provide universal pre-K, legalize marijuana, help Baltimore stem its murder rate and avoid higher taxes.

They even joked about “building on” one another as each answered a question in turn.

“It becomes painfully obvious that that they agree on a lot,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College who watched the debate. “For voters, it’s going to be about nuance.”

The debate, hosted by the The Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore, and WJZ-Channel 13, was broadcast at 6 p.m. after being taped earlier. It marked the first time one of the candidates attacked another’s record on stage, a potential turning point in a race that so far has not captured much voter interest.

Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea took aim at the two perceived front-runners.

“I have to. It’s my job, and frankly Maryland needs it,” Shea said of his attacks after the debate. “Maryland needs a pointed debate.”

Shea argued that Hogan was vulnerable on education and warned that if Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wins the nomination, Hogan could go after him for recent school system scandals.

“When I’m the nominee, I can’t wait for the governor to come in and talk about Prince George’s County schools,” Baker shot back.

Shea also criticized former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous for not yet releasing his tax returns despite promises to do so. Shea and state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. have already released their returns.

Jealous said afterward that his campaign staff was in the process of preparing his returns for release.

Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, painting himself as an outsider, generally criticized his competitors for talking too much about themselves and not about what voters need.

“If egos could fly, it’d be an airport up here,” Ross said. “I gotta tell you, this is why people don’t like politics. It’s the vanity of career politicians.”

Tuesday’s debate marked the first time all candidates clearly articulated their differences on a debate stage, rather than generally agreeing that any of them would be better than giving Hogan a second term.

Madaleno, for example, argued that his campaign promises carried more weight because as a veteran state legislator he was the most experienced in Maryland government and knows how to deliver in Annapolis.

“When I say I’m going to do something, I’ve got the record of actually coming through for the people of Maryland,” the Montgomery County lawmaker said.

Shea cast himself as a successful executive and businessman — he built Venable, the state’s largest law firm — who can manage large organizations and go toe-to-toe with Hogan on business issues.

Jealous focused on his endorsements from teachers and nurses, as well as his record of organizing people to turn out for elections and ballot initiatives.

Baker, a former state lawmaker who has served two terms as Prince George’s executive, emphasized his experience in state and local government, and his willingness to take political risks. “My work has been about taking on the tough political battles so that we can move Maryland forward,” he said.

Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama, was the only candidate to describe herself as “fiscally responsible and socially progressive.”

Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County school board and council member, emphasized her work in education. She described herself as someone thrust into this moment and rising to the occasion after her former running mate, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, died suddenly last month.

Ross portrayed himself as an innovator and said he wouldn’t be confined by “political tribalism.”

The candidates offered their sharpest criticism of Hogan on his handling of the epidemic of opioid deaths.

They faulted him for not putting more money into treatment and for not aggressively pursuing a lawsuit against drug manufacturers. Candidates said Hogan’s task force on opioids had not effectively stemmed the rising overdose death toll, which killed a record 1,501 people in the first nine months of last year, the latest period for which data was available.

Baker said the governor was “missing in action.” Jealous accused the governor of waiting until election season to start addressing the problem in earnest.

Hogan promised during his 2014 campaign to address the growing public health disaster and declared it an emergency not long after taking office. Last year, he launched an opioid command center to coordinate state resources. Earlier this year, the governor testified before Congress about the epidemic.

Hogan’s campaign spokesman, Doug Mayer, said the Democrats mischaracterized the governor’s record.

“There isn’t another governor in the country who has attacked the opioid crisis more aggressively than Governor Hogan,” Mayer said. “As he has from day one, the governor will continue working with leaders from both parties at the federal, state and local levels to develop the solutions that will ultimately save lives. This is a nationwide epidemic that is tearing apart families and partisan political attacks aren’t going to solve it.”

The Democratic candidates also said the governor should work more closely with Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh to reduce the city’s homicide rate, as well as to provide more resources for the city.

Candidates were asked about the lesson learned from the death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy S. Caprio, who was killed last month. Four Baltimore teenagers have been charged with her death.

All seven candidates cast the teenagers — as well as Caprio — as victims. They said the teenagers had been failed by the state in some way or another — either schools did not do enough to keep them out of trouble or the juvenile justice system did not do enough to rehabilitate them while they were in its care.

The candidates became the most animated when asked how they believe Republican President Donald J. Trump has failed Maryland.

“I only have 60 seconds to answer that?” Shea quipped before calling Trump a bully.

Madaleno said Trump has undermined federal workers.

Jealous bragged that he’s been arrested “outside Donald Trump’s White House.”

Ervin said she, too, had been arrested there. She called Trump’s administration “racist,” “homophobic” and bad for women.

Baker said the president “made it comfortable for people to be selfish.”

Vignarajah said she represents everything Trump tries to denigrate — women, minorities, immigrants.

Ross called the president “a vulgar, demented, pig demon.”

The candidates debated for 75 minutes, and when the last of the seven began her closing remarks, she drew chuckles from the audience and fellow competitors.

“If you’ve made it this far into the debate,” Vignarajah said, “you deserve an award for stamina.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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