Maryland's Democratic hopefuls for governor try to appeal to college voters at Goucher forum

Seven of the Democrats hoping for a chance to unseat Gov. Larry Hogan took their message to students at Goucher College on Friday, promising to work to make college more affordable and create better job opportunities for young Marylanders.

The candidates tailored their pitches for the younger crowd and urged them to get active in politics and to turn out to vote.

“It is time for us to bring a sense of direction and hope back to the state of Maryland,” said state Sen. Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County.

Madaleno was joined on stage at Goucher’s Young Voters Forum by five other contenders in the Democratic primary: Ben Jealous, the former NAACP national leader; Jim Shea, former chairman of Venable law firm; Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz; Krish Vignarajah, former policy director for First Lady Michelle Obama, tech author Alec Ross, and Ralph Jaffe, the only candidate who has officially filed to run.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who has announced his candidacy for the office, did not participate in the forum. He was attending previously scheduled county budget meetings, his campaign said.

The event was put on by students, who solicited questions from college students around the state. And in a twist, each candidate was posed just one question directly. In addition to answering their own question, the candidates each had a chance to answer two other questions during the forum.

Many of the candidates’ statements focused on improving the quality and affordability of education.

“I’m going to be the advocate for education that all Maryland schools need,” said Kamenetz, who said he’d start with universal prekindergarten as a way to prevent the achievement gap “before it begins.”

Vignarajah relayed her story of her parents fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka when she was a baby and ending up in Maryland. Her parents became teachers and education enabled Vignarajah to go “from Woodlawn to the White House.”

“In no country in this world, maybe no other state in this country, is that opportunity, that type of trajectory, possible,” Vignarajah said.

Jealous expressed his indignation that when he has suggested free college for Marylanders as a policy proposal, he has been pressed for details on how to pay for it — yet a proposal for “a return to the war on drugs” has not been greeted with the same financial questions.

“When it comes to educating our kids, they always ask the price. When it comes to locking them up, they never ask the price,” he said.

Shea said that when he hired young lawyers while running the Venable law firm, he saw how they struggled with student loan debt that kept some from buying homes. He suggested expanding programs that forgive student loan debt for graduates who work in public service.

Ross recalled his stint as a teacher in West Baltimore, where he saw “absolute genius” in his classroom, but not many opportunities. “Talent exists in every ZIP code in our country, but the opportunity doesn’t,” he said.

For his part, Jaffe said he represents a movement against “career politician.” He said he won’t accept campaign donations, which he said amount to a legal form of bribery.

Some candidates took a few swipes at Hogan, the popular Republican governor who is expected to run for re-election.

Kamenetz called Hogan’s $5 billion incentive package to lure Amazon to build a second headquarters campus in Mongtomery County as a move that will mortgage the state’s future. And Shea said Hogan should be working with Virginia and the District of Columbia on a joint bid for Amazon that would benefit the whole region. “He is not stepping forward,” Shea said. “He is interested in the PR values of what’s happening.”

Madaleno, meanwhile, criticized the “Hogan hype machine” that he said has overstated investment in fighting opioid addiction.

Ross raised a few eyebrows when answering a question about ensuring the protection of Maryland’s environment in the wake of federal budget cuts to environmental programs. He said Maryland needs to contest all of the “crack-smoking crazy environmental policy” from President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Our environment is under assault by the pterodactyl-like mentality being brought to environmental issues by Donald Trump’s administration,” he said.

The field of Democrats has dozens more forums planned between now and the primary on June 26. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 6.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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