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6 takeaways from Maryland governor's race forum on the environment

With less than 10 weeks to go until the June 26 primary election, leading candidates for Maryland governor are hitting the forum circuit hard.

Last night, seven Democrats and one Green Party member were in front of a packed crowd at the Peabody Heights Brewery in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, discussing environmental policy at the invitation of the event sponsors: the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter, and the news site Maryland Matters.

The Democrats participating were Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (read his environmental plan here); Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (plan); former NAACP president Ben Jealous (plan); state Sen. Rich Madaleno (plan); former Michelle Obama policy director Krish Vignarajah (plan); tech entrepreneur Alec Ross (plan); and Jim Shea (plan), the former chairman of the state’s largest law firm. Green Party candidate Ian Schlakman (plan) also participated.

Organizers said Republican Gov. Larry Hogan (plan) was invited, but he did not participate. He has no challenger in the primary election.

Here are six takeaways from last night’s forum:

1. People turned out for this forum.

Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the organizers. Maybe people are finally starting to pay attention to the race. Whatever the reason, there was a standing-room-only crowd present. With Public Works Ale and Old Oriole Park beers in hand, the audience cheered and laughed throughout much of the 90-minute forum. Baker even opened with a joke: “If somebody could sneak me a beer, I’d appreciate it.”

2. Some candidates made big promises.

All of the Democratic candidates running for governor have environmental plans. Some are bolder than others. Some are more detailed than others. (See the links next to their names above if you want more details.)

Some of the bigger promises were: Ross’ plan to create a $1 billion “green bank” to help people and businesses switch to clean energy technologies; Vignarajah’s pledge to convert Maryland to 50 percent clean energy by 2026; Kamenetz’s promise to double the oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay; and Baker’s goal to “make Baltimore City the renewable energy capital of the world.”

3. The candidates have similar policies, but different styles

On most of the issues, there was little difference between the people on stage. Shea said the candidates “violently agree” on policies, and both Jealous and Baker praised the strength of the Democratic field.

But voters who watched the forum got to see the different temperaments of the candidates.

If Democratic voters want a calm hand, they might opt for a Baker, Kamenetz or Shea, each of whom cast themselves as an experienced, thoughtful leader.

“I know the instinct of a lot of young leaders is to be demanding,” Shea said at one point. “I’m here to tell you the only way to make progress is to bring people together and work it out.”

But, in the political age of Donald Trump, Democratic voters might instead want a fiery fighter, as Jealous, Madaleno and Vignarajah cast themselves.

“If you want to make Donald Trump’s blood pressure to go up, send a civil rights leader to be your next governor,” Jealous said.

Even if the candidates’ policies aren’t very different, their styles sure are.

4. Trash-burning incinerators are an issue on candidates’ minds.

After a challenging General Assembly session for environmental groups ended with the failure of key proposals — including a measure to end green-energy subsidies for polluting trash incinerators — candidates are eager to begin working on the issue again.

“We are burning trash. We are burning woody bio mass,” Madaleno said. “We have to get the dirty part out of the renewable energy portfolio.”

Said Schlakman: “There are incinerators choking communities but some of them are considered green energy by our state standards.”

5. All candidates pledged to fight gas pipelines and infrastructure.

Fracking is banned in Maryland, but every Democrat raised his or her hand when asked if they would oppose infrastructure expansions — such as the proposed Potomac River pipeline and the expansion of the Cove Point terminal — to accommodate gas from fracking in other states.

“The next governor of this state ... as long as it’s one of us, will not build any new gas infrastructure,” Jealous said.

6. Several candidates had memorable moments, from humor to drawing a contrast with competitors.

Madaleno opened by touting his 93 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He then argued his experience working on environmental issues trumps his opponents’.

“I’m one of only two people on this stage who has a score!” he noted.

Ross, however, lamented the state of the legislative process in Annapolis.

“One thing I don't like about Maryland is we think we’re more progressive than we actually are,” Ross said, adding the legislation often gets gutted or watered-down. “At the end of the day, the bills kind of suck.”

Vignarajah probably got the biggest laugh of the night in her opening statement, when she pointed to her husband Collin O'Mara, who is CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

“Every Democrat will tell you they love the environment,” she said. “I am the only candidate on this stage who loves the environment so much I married the head of the National Wildlife Federation. In fact the only reason I married that man there is the environment.”

Hearing that, O’Mara turned and pretended to start walking out of the building.

The next forum in the Democratic primary is Western Maryland Democratic Summit on Saturday at Rocky Gap Casino Resort.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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