Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, in a late-night turnaround, has backed off his veto of a western Maryland newspaper’s statehouse reporter as a panelist for his sole debate with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Jealous dropped his strike of Tamela Baker of The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown from the panel Tuesday night, just hours after The Baltimore Sun said it was reconsidering its participation in the questioning as a result of the veto.
Monday’s debate, sponsored by Maryland Public Television, is the only one the two campaigns agreed upon before the Nov. 6 election. Under the candidates’ agreement, either could reject participating news outlets’ choice of reporters to serve on the panel. Only the Jealous campaign chose to do so.
Kevin Harris, senior adviser to Jealous, issued a statement attempting to shift the blame for its widely criticized decision to the Hogan campaign and to the debate selection process it had previously agreed to.
"We regret the way the debate negotiations between our campaign and the Larry Hogan campaign have excluded news outlets and reporters, including Tamela Baker of The Hagerstown Herald-Mail, and our part in that process,” Harris said. "We want to be clear: the Jealous campaign does not have a problem with Tamela Baker being on the debate panel.”
The statement followed a day during which the Jealous campaign refused to explain its veto of Baker and declined to comment on The Sun’s warning it could drop its participation in the panel. With the latest comment, Harris reopened the debate over debates that had appeared to have ended with the two campaigns’ agreement on a single debate.
“We have a problem with the entire debate panel selection process, which was severely limited by the Hogan campaign's unwillingness to simply participate in additional debates, as we originally put forward when we proposed five debates,” Harris said. “It is clear that reaching a good-faith agreement with our opponents is impossible, as they’d rather play politics than have an open process. Therefore, we will drop our veto and look forward to participating in next week’s debate.”
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer mocked the Jealous campaign’s statement as a “completely illogical mess.”
“Whatever little credibility Ben Jealous still had, it quickly evaporated with this latest ridiculous statement trying to dodge accountability for first turning down multiple debate opportunities, then trying to maneuver around media outlets he didn’t want involved, and then vetoing reporters he doesn’t like,” Mayer said. “But if it means we can get on with the debate on Monday, then we’re happy.”
The Jealous campaign’s veto launched a news cycle in which it came under severe criticism from press advocates and ridicule on social media.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, called the veto “ill-conceived and short-sighted” and urged the Jealous campaign to reconsider. She said Baker has extensive experience in covering state politics from the point of view of western Maryland.
“To cut her out of the room is just kind of crazy,” Snyder said.
In addition to Baker, the panelists were expected to be Pamela Wood of the Sun, Ovetta Wiggins of The Washington Post and Ryan Eldredge of WMDT-TV in Salisbury.
With Baker still off the panel late Tuesday afternoon, Sun editor-in-chief and publisher Trif Alatzas said the Sun’s role was under evaluation.
“We don’t believe it is in the public interest for candidates to determine the journalists who ask questions in a debate,” he said. “We are concerned about setting such a precedent, therefore we are reconsidering our participation in Monday’s gubernatorial debate.”
Spokeswomen for the Post and WMDT said at that time that their plans were unchanged.
After Baker’s removal, the Herald-Mail substituted Mike Lewis, a business and general assignment reporter, and both campaigns said they had approved his participation. It was not clear Tuesday night whether the newspaper would send Baker or Lewis.
Herald-Mail Executive Editor Jake Womer defended his newspaper’s first choice.
"Tamela Baker is a consummate statehouse reporter who has covered the General Assembly for years and has written about legislative issues that matter to western Maryland residents," he said.
Womer told the Sun the Jealous campaign had not explained why it objected to Baker.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me why they wouldn’t want the most qualified person to ask them questions,” he said.
Mayer said the campaigns agreed in their negotiations on the outlets that would participate. He said the Hogan campaign offered to include the provision in the agreement allowing either candidate to exclude individual panelists to make Jealous more comfortable with the arrangements.
“It was clearly nothing we were going to take up and we were very surprised that they did,” Mayer said.