In the first televised debate of the election season, Democrats running for Maryland governor attacked popular Republican incumbent Larry Hogan and attempted to stand out by highlighting what little differences exist among their campaigns.
The hour-long taped debate, which aired at 7 p.m. Monday on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV’s digital channel, offered many voters their first glimpse at the crowded field of nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the June 26 primary election.
The Democrats — from longtime government officials to political novices — largely agreed that Maryland needs to spend more on education and mass transit and less on locking people in jails.
They also agreed that Hogan had damaged Baltimore by canceling the proposed Red Line transit project and by not engaging enough to help the city deal with the more than 1,100 homicides during the GOP governor’s term. They criticized Hogan for not investing more in education and for what they described as an unfriendly business climate.
The Maryland Republican Party pre-emptively hit back in Hogan’s defense, releasing a video spoof calling the Democratic field “uninspiring” and warning that debates “should come with a viewer warning message: ‘Be advised prolonged exposure will result in extreme boredom and likely deep sleep.’ ”
The event opened with moderator Jason Newton acknowledging the absence of former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who died suddenly May 10. In Kamenetz’s place was his former running mate, Valerie Ervin, who four days ago announced she would run for governor.
Ervin joked afterward that it felt like transitioning from the kids’ table to the grown-up table at Thanksgiving dinner.
The structure of the debate prevented candidates from jabbing at each other, much to the disappointment of tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, who had hoped to challenge former NAACP chief Ben Jealous’ universal health care plan and question the residency of Krish Vignarajah, a former Michelle Obama adviser.
“I’d love for there to be a debate. That was a forum on TV,” Ross said.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, who has not hesitated to criticize his rivals at previous events, said the 45-second limit on answers discouraged the candidates from going after each other.
“You would have wasted your whole answer on somebody else instead of displaying your depth of experience and your record,” the Montgomery County Democrat said
There are nine candidates on the Democratic ballot for governor. Seven have raised enough money and built campaign infrastructures capable of pulling off a statewide win: Ross, Jealous, Vignarajah, Madaleno, Ervin, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, and Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea.
Baltimore resident James Jones also participated in the debate. Another candidate, Ralph Jaffe, who is running his fifth campaign in 10 years, provided a taped statement.
Goucher College political scientist Mileah Kromer said she noticed the candidates criticized Hogan about four times as often as President Donald Trump — marking a shift in strategy from earlier in the campaign.
“They’re shifting the focus away from Trump,” said Kromer, who runs the Goucher Poll. “Our poll suggests that it’s undeniable that if you like Hogan you’re more likely to vote for him. Decreasing his popularity is important to them.”
Kromer said she didn’t see a clear winner from the debate.
“In an election where every candidate needs increased name recognition, every opportunity to connect with Marylanders is an important opportunity,” she said. “This might be the first time their messages get pushed out to a larger audience.”
Although much of the sharp elbows were thrown toward Hogan, the candidates did draw some distinctions on tax policy.
Jealous promised to pay for his ambitious policy agenda by raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. “We will tax the 1 percent more,” he said.
Shea pledged not to raise taxes, “but I will not promise that I will lower taxes.”
The candidates also differed on whether they would embrace former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s legacy on helping local jurisdictions like Baltimore fight crime.
Madaleno and Baker complimented the Democrat’s statistics-driven efforts as governor.
“Say what you want about CitiStat or StateStat, Governor O’Malley was making sure the state was a partner to fight crime to build a stronger city,” Madaleno said. “Governor Hogan has walked away from the city.”
Baker said O’Malley took an active role in helping him drive down the murder rate in Prince George’s County.
“Governor O’Malley came in with resources to help us get a hold of the crime,” Baker said. “Right now, there are Marylanders dying in Baltimore city and the governor acts like they’re from some foreign place. He’s MIA.”
But Ervin, a labor organizer, and Vignarajah pushed back by saying crime-fighting requires more than deploying resources effectively.
“We have deep, structural racism in Baltimore City ... that has to be dealt with,” Ervin said.
Vignarajah echoed a similar theme, saying “mass incarceration, this racist war on drugs ... is not working.”
Because there were so many candidates, introductions took 12 minutes and the candidates only had less than a minute to answer each of three or four questions.
Former Baltimore State Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV, who hosts the “C4” radio show on WBAL and helped moderate the debate, said he didn’t hear good answers to his question about solutions to the city’s crime problem.
Mitchell said candidates generally offered talking points rooted in emotion rather than practical solutions.
“You still have 30 percent or so who are undecided,” he said. “That undecided could break toward one of these candidates who have never held office before.”
Shea called the debate an “opportunity,” but said the time limit to answer questions “made it pretty much impossible” to lay out all his plans to improve the state.
“I got a couple points in about what I’ve been able to accomplish in the past and at least the direction I want to take the state,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the next ones. It’s an opportunity to break out a little.”
Scott Sloofman, Hogan’s campaign spokesman, critized the Democrats’ performance.
“These candidates might be appearing on primetime, but it’s clear they’re not ready for it,” he said. “Between their willful distortions of Governor Hogan’s record and their support for the failed policies of the past, like higher taxes, each of the candidates on stage showed voters why they’re not up to the task of leading Maryland.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.