Zurawik: First TV debate with Democratic candidates for governor reveals more than you might expect

The first TV debate with Democratic candidates was more revealing than you might think.

With eight not-so-widely known candidates and eight platforms that overlap quite a bit, it might seem wishful thinking to expect any kind of separation after just 50 minutes of television.

But some things were surpisingly clear at the end of Monday’s debate, which was produced by Maryland Public Television in partnership with WBAL.

In TV terms, Krish Vignarajah, a former adviser to Michele Obama, stood out from the pack — in a good way.

She has a comfort level with the camera that none of the other candidates enjoys. She literally leans into the camera which draws you as a viewer toward the screen to hear what she is saying.

And she has something strong to say with a biography that includes being the daughter of two Baltimore City public school teachers and the only candidate who is a product of Maryland public schools through the 12th grade. That’s a powerful narrative, and she knows enough about TV to sound it as often as she can. She hit it hard in two of her first four answers.

Vignarajah seems to have learned something about media from her time with the Michelle Obama, who was not so great at TV at the start of her husband’s administration but had mastered it to the point where she seemed to own the camera by the time she and her husband left the White House.

I thought Vignarajah was also impressive in the way she handled a gender-based question from Charles Robinson of MPT. While the men were asked non-gender-based questions about the economy, the two women candidates, Vignarajah and Valerie Ervin, were asked how the state can help reduce what Robinson called “barriers” to female entrepreneurs.

Vignarajah first answered how the state can become more business friendly to everyone, and then she went beyond only women to talk about all minorities. Ervin handled the matter well, too, all but ignoring the gender-based question to answer the same one Robinson had posed to the men.

One of the worst candidates TV-wise was tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, who was over the top in several ways.

In terms of rhetoric, he used the term “soul-crushing commutes” three times to discuss transportation issues in the state. I’ve been here 29 years and sat in some really bad traffic jams while commuting between here and College Park on both beltways, and while they frustrated and angered me, I’m pretty sure they haven’t crushed my soul.

His gestures and body language were also too much. The deep looks into the camera, the outstrenched hands, the rising and falling vocal inflection — were all too-too much for this TV forum. I can’t tell if he’s being coached too much or not enough.

Perhaps because I have seen more of Ben Jealous’ TV ads than those of any other candidate, I expected to be more impressed by the former NAACP chief. I am going to hold back my judgment of him as a media candidate until I have seen more of him on television both in ads and debates. He stumbled in is opening statement, and it appeared to take him a while to recover.

Two candidates who gave solid TV performances were Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea and Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III.

I was especially impressed by the moral clarity of Shea’s answer to a question from WBAL radio host Clarence Mitchell IV who asked about solutions to the crime problem in Baltimore.

Shea listed three problems in Baltimore that need to be faced before you can start to make Baltimore safer.

The one that caught my ear: “The community’s lost its trust in the police department,” he said.

That kind of clear, clean statement from a candidate immediately separates her or him from those who are afraid of offending potential voters by speaking the truth.

As for the format, it was awkward to go from the eight candidates standing side by side at podiums to a taped segment with a ninth, Ralph Jaffe, talking one on one with a questioner. Jaffe was unable to attend the forum live because of a Jewish holiday.

But with the Democratic primary just over a month away on June 26, I give any media outlet praise for getting these candidates to stand before us and answer some questions.

WBAL-TV, which planned to air the debate on its main channel Monday night, switched it to Channel 11-2, its digital outlet,to stay in live coverage of the search for the killers of a Baltimore Count police officer Monday afternoon.

I would have made the same choice. Area viewers could watch the debate on MPT or WBAL’s 11-2.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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