Brown on the defensive

Monday night’s debate among the leading Democratic candidates for governor produced some sharp exchanges but also gave the undecided voters watching in the Maryland Public Television Studio – and their many counterparts around the state – some useful information as they seek to make up their minds in the three weeks before the primary election. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler turned in a much stronger performance than he had in two previous televised debates; Del. Heather Mizeur, while again offering voters a cohesive summary of her views, drew a clear contrast with her opponents in how she would govern; and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown finally gave a coherent, if not entirely flattering, answer about his role in putting together the state’s failed health insurance exchange website.

That last part was probably the most important development of the night, and MPT’s Jeff Salkin deserves thanks for using his prerogative as the debate’s moderator to make sure it happened. Breaking from the format in which all three candidates addressed each question, either from him or from a group of undecided voters assembled by the League of Women Voters, Mr. Salkin pressed Mr. Brown on whether his role as the state’s point person for Affordable Care Act implementation was a symbolic title or one that indicated he was really in charge.

What Mr. Brown said, in essence, was this: He was chairman of a coordinating council that set up the broad framework for implementing Obamacare, which included the decision to create a separate state entity to develop the health insurance exchange. Then, apparently, he was out of the loop until the website crashed on its first day, at which point (in his telling) he became Mr. hands-on in the effort to fix things.

Considering how much was riding on the success of the exchange, and the extent to which Mr. Brown was the face of the effort – for example appearing in a Business Week spread on Maryland’s supposed status as a leader in Affordable Care Act expansion shortly before the launch – it was a curious decision for him to not even check on its progress before the fact, and it’s one he said Monday night that he would do differently if he had the chance. Mr. Brown also expressed “regret” for those inconvenienced, which is as close as he’s come to apologizing. Mr. Brown is right to point out that, in the end, more than 340,000 people got health care through the exchange, but neither that nor his response to Mr. Salkin’s question entirely erases questions about what kind of manager he would be for the state.

A stronger point for Mr. Brown during the evening was his announcement that he opposed Maryland’s’ recent estate tax cut, which he properly characterized as a give-away to a small number of wealthy families. It was a rare moment in the campaign in which he staked out a position different from his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley, though he missed the opportunity to note that contrast for viewers. It also would have been nice if he had spoken up about the matter before Mr. O’Malley signed the bill into law.

Mr. Gansler again served the role of Mr. Brown’s chief antagonist, but he did so with considerably more polish than in the first time the two met in a debate. He effectively delivered his message that the O’Malley-Brown administration had damaged the state’s business climate, and his answers tended to be more focused and his attacks on Mr. Brown more trenchant. However, his answers about taxes left something to be desired. He criticized the O’Malley-Brown tax increases but did not say which of them he would seek to roll back other than the corporate tax, and when pressed about that, he defended himself against Mr. Brown’s contention that it amounted to a $1.6 billion give-away but did not explain why he thought that and not some other levy ought to be the top priority for reduction.

Ms. Mizeur again found herself in the position of receiving more compliments than brickbats from her opponents – Mr. Salkin at one point joked that she should be so lucky as to have someone attack her so she could get rebuttal time under the debate’s rules. She finally got her chance when Mr. Gansler made off-hand (and not entirely pejorative) reference to her work as a lobbyist in Washington. It was her best moment of the debate, in that it allowed her to tell voters that she brought not just different ideas to the contest but also a different attitude; her promises to end gerrymandering, reform campaign finance and put the people and not special interests at the heart of governance no doubt resonated with those who are disillusioned with Annapolis.

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