One might have sympathized with Del. Heather Mizeur during Wednesday night's debate among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates when it came her turn to answer a question about whether the Washington Redskins should change its name. It's not that she was unprepared for the question — quite the contrary, she and the other candidates all believe that it should be changed and have said so before — but that she seized the occasion for a rather desperate segue into an issue that a Maryland governor actually has something to do with: her proposal to require a "living wage" substantially higher the increased minimum wage the state just enacted.
Ms. Mizeur repeatedly stated her belief that the voters are looking for a governor who would run a positive campaign focused on the issues, and she stuck by it despite a debate format seemingly dedicated to the hope that the moderators could produce fisticuffs between the candidates, particularly Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Even those two, who have been notably combative during the campaign, appeared somewhat taken aback by how little attention was being paid to the attorney general's plans to reduce recidivism, say, or the lieutenant governor's five-point proposal for job creation, and how much attention was paid to ensuring that no opportunity for bickering would go by. Moderator David Gregory of NBC News' "Meet the Press" actually had to press Mr. Gansler to explicitly say that Mr. Brown was personally to blame for the state's botched health insurance exchange website after he had given a relatively high-minded answer (at least by campaign standards) focused on the difficulty Marylanders had getting coverage as a result of the problems.
Of course, Mr. Gansler didn't have to be asked twice to go after Mr. Brown on that score, and Mr. Brown didn't have to be asked at all to go after Mr. Gansler at various points — for example, turning a question about marijuana decriminalization into an attack on Mr. Gansler's support of the death penalty, or bringing up an incident from long ago when Mr. Gansler was reprimanded by the Court of Appeals for remarks he made about a case during his time as Montgomery County state's attorney. For long stretches, Ms. Mizeur was relegated to standing silent while Mr. Gregory egged on her competitors.
Nonetheless, anyone tuning in to the governor's race for the first time Thursday night would have gotten a pretty good sense of the shape of this contest. All three candidates managed to convey what they are about. Mr. Brown presented himself as a partner in the legacy of Gov. Martin O'Malley who would work to resolve the state's remaining issues, such as economic development and achievement gaps in the schools. Mr. Gansler took on the mantle of a fighter, someone whose experience in the courtroom showed a willingness to stand up for those who need help. And Ms. Mizeur took the role of the progressive reformer who would not engage in negative politics, declaring at one point that "I am the governor that this state is ready for."
They all had strong moments. Mr. Gansler gave a better answer than he has in the past about a story first reported in The Sun about a raucous teen party in Delaware his son attended and he visited, casting himself as a loving parent trying to do his best. Mr. Brown mounted a fair defense of the health insurance exchange by noting that, in the end, more than 300,000 Marylanders got coverage. And Ms. Mizeur, better than the others, was able to succinctly convey specifics of how she would change the policy direction of the state by using proceeds of new taxes on millionaires, multi-state corporations and sales of legalized marijuana to provide universal pre-K and tax cuts for small businesses and middle- and low-income Marylanders.
There were no huge gaffes, but there were weak spots for all three, too. Ms. Mizeur was confronted with the difficulty of explaining how her career as a state delegate provided her with the experience to lead the state. Based on her statements, one might think she had single-handedly "expanded health insurance to 50,000 more children in our state" and decriminalized marijuana, when her role in those and other accomplishments, as is the case with any legislator, is more nuanced. Mr. Gansler repeated a somewhat tone deaf joke about how his wife wished he would have been impeached for his stance on gay marriage so he could get a "real job;" most voters probably would consider a job that pays $125,000 and comes with a pension and a car and driver to be sufficiently "real." And Mr. Brown's surprising eagerness to attack Mr. Gansler, even when unbidden, robbed him of the opportunity to appear above the fray.
On the whole, and despite a disappointing format, the event showed why debates are important. It showed a clear contrast between three candidates' personalities, styles and priorities. One more televised debate is scheduled for early June, and the contenders are slated to appear on a radio debate. There is simply no substitute for seeing the three candidates on stage at the same time, and we continue to hope that they will agree to more such encounters before the primary on June 24.
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