Pot, polls and pizza: Maryland Democratic candidates for governor end debate on high note

All six Democratic candidates for Maryland governor said during a debate Thursday that they support legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

But only two — Ben Jealous and Alec Ross — admitted to using the drug.

Jealous said that, years ago, he had smoked marijuana with his friend, comedian Dave Chappelle. Chappelle has been stumping in Maryland for the former NAACP leader.

Ross, who said he had used marijuana as a much younger man, dismissed concerns that it is a “gateway drug.”

“If it’s a gateway to anything, it’s a gateway to pizza,” Ross said.

As early voting began across the state Thursday, the six top Democratic candidates for governor engaged in their final debate before the June 26 primary election.

Only six candidates gathered at the NBC4 studio in Washington after former Montgomery County County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin dropped out of the race Wednesday and endorsed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. The debate will air on Washington’s Channel 4 Sunday morning at 11:30 and be available on the station’s website.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Jealous and Baker, the two front-runners in recent polls, did not clash directly. The two candidates have been attacking each other recently but avoided all but passing remarks as they taped the final televised debate.

Marijuana provided one opportunity for the candidates to highlight differences.

Baker supports legalization but said he has never tried the drug. And his late arrival to legalization comes with reservations. He said he first would want to see new laws such as allowing for the expungement of nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. He also cautioned that under the most optimistic scenario, the revenue from taxing cannabis sales would not start flowing for three or four years.

Other candidates, especially Jealous, have expressed an eagerness to use that revenue to finance their ambitious plans.

Jealous and Baker are statistically tied in the race to oppose Gov. Larry Hogan, according to a poll conducted by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.

State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea, and former Obama administration officials Alec Ross and Krish Vignarajah are still trying to climb out of single digits by appealing to the more that 40 percent of Maryland Democrats who remain undecided, according to the poll.

Moderator Tom Sherwood put his first question to Baker and Jealous only, asking them about their poll numbers.

“We’re in the lead,” Baker said. “That’s why you see the attacks coming.”

Jealous declined the bait and talked about his endorsements by labor and progressive groups.

Madaleno interjected to make it clear that there were still many voters who haven’t made up their minds.

“Undecided voters are in the lead,” he said.

It was Shea who opened the first broadside of the debate with a shot at the two front-runners.

“My opponents, particularly Mr. Baker and Mr. Jealous, can’t beat Larry Hogan,” he said. Shea said he could do so by appealing to voters with “practical, solid solutions.”

Shea said Hogan would attack Baker’s oft-criticized oversight of the Prince George’s County school system and portray Jealous as a “tax-and-spend Democrat.”

Baker and Jealous both said they would welcome that debate with Hogan.

But any other potential clashes between the candidates were constrained by the no-rebuttal format. Near the end, Madaleno rebelled against those rules by interjecting that many of his opponents were misleading voters into thinking most of the revenue Maryland gets from casinos does not go to education.

Madaleno, vice chairman of the Senate’s Budget & Taxation Committee, insisted 80 percent does go toward the schools. He also criticized Jealous for receiving about 80 percent of his contributions from out of state.

While he has lagged around the middle of the pack in polls, Madaleno became the early front-runner for another state government job if one of his primary rivals goes on to defeat Hogan in November.

When asked whether they could see including some of their Democratic rivals in the cabinet, Shea and Jealous both volunteered that Madaleno would make an excellent budget secretary.

Another telling moment came when all of the candidates were asked to state whether they had filed Maryland income taxes for the last five years. All said they had.

Ross would later challenge his rivals to prove it. Vignarajah said afterward that she would release her returns only if all of her rivals, all male, did so first. She said that to ask her to do so if they did not would amount to discrimination against her as a woman of color.

Madaleno, Shea and Ross have released their tax returns. Baker and Jealous have not. Jealous said he plans to. Baker said he won’t release them before the primary.

The candidates agreed more than they disagreed on the issues Marylanders have identified as their top concerns. All said they would do more than Hogan has to improve education. All promised to stand up to President Donald J. Trump more forcefully.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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