In Maryland's 'I'm the only candidate who..." debate, here's one real distinction

When the most commonly used phrase in a debate is “I’m the only candidate who,” you know you’ve got a field of Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls who are struggling to differentiate themselves in the race to see who will challenge Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

The first televised forum before next month’s primary, broadcast Monday night by MPT and WBAL, gave voters some ideas for how to tell one of the major seven candidates from another. Looking for a young, energetic Obama administration veteran? You’ve got your pick of Alec Ross and Krish Vignarajah. Prefer some gray hair (literally and figuratively)? Try attorney Jim Shea, a veteran of Baltimore’s business and civic circles, or Sen. Rich Madaleno, who has years of State House experience. Want someone who has served in local government? There’s Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker or former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin. Hoping for Bernie Sanders’ ideas in the voice of a civil rights activist? Ben Jealous.

On the issues, though, it would be hard to slide a sheet of paper between them. Even when they sound like they’re saying different things, they tend actually to be giving different parts of the same answer. Take the first question of the debate, about how they would improve education. You got responses focusing on universal pre-K; supports for parents of young children; one-on-one tutoring in early grades; better pathways for teacher training and career advancement; improved career training and apprenticeships; and the availability of community college coursework in the last two years of high school. Those are all part of the same agenda: the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, on which — while we’re on the “I’m the only candidate who” theme — Senator Madaleno will happily inform you he serves.

The last question of the debate, though, is one area where the candidates may sound like they’re all saying the same thing, but they’re really not. Former state senator and radio host Clarence Mitchell IV asked the candidates whether they favor changing the way Maryland draws congressional and legislative districts, and, unfortunately, most of the candidates didn’t get to answer because time ran out. Fortunately, we asked them the same question for The Sun’s voter guide, and we can tell you that all the major candidates say they support reform to end gerrymandering.

But they don’t really.

Mr. Shea was the first to answer the question on air, and he demonstrated the problem right off. “We should have a bipartisan approach to gerrymandering,” he said. “Gerrymandering is responsible, I believe, for creating the polarized debate we’ve got in this country. On the other hand, I’m not in favor of unilateral disarmament.” He pitched the idea that Maryland should first strike a deal with other states (presumably red ones) to get out of the gerrymandering business at the same time. In other words, Maryland shouldn’t stop doing the wrong thing because other states might still draw the lines to favor Republicans. Don’t hold your breath, folks. Mr. Jealous, the former resident and CEO of the NAACP, also said “we have to get together with other states. We can’t unilaterally disarm.”

The third and final candidate who got a chance to answer, Mr. Baker, voiced support for an independent redistricting commission without caveat. He’s not the only one who would have done so, given a chance. Mr. Ross not only says we should move forward with an independent commission to draw lines but should also consider other voting reforms, such as open primaries and ranked-choice voting, both of which could increase the level of democracy in this state. Ms. Ervin, who opposed the current congressional maps before they were approved, said in an interview that she would “unilaterally disarm” and take the task out of partisan hands. Ms. Vignarajah said in her response to The Sun’s questionnaire that she would move forward with an independent commission and would try to convince other governors to do the same. She might at least have a chance if Maryland can show some leadership. Mr. Madaleno is somewhere in the middle. He supports independent redistricting but also touts his role in passing a Democratic fig leaf in the General Assembly that would have committed the state to an independent commission only if several neighboring states did the same thing. Governor Hogan vetoed it.

Making an argument that Maryland can’t do anything to hurt Democrats’ chances of controlling the House of Representatives might sound good in a party primary. But how’s it going to sound in the general election when Governor Hogan and his $9 million in cash on hand (so far) hammer home his unqualified support for a piece of good government most Marylanders say they want? If voters are looking for a way to differentiate the Democratic candidates both on good policy and their ability to compete with Mr. Hogan, this is a good place to start.

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