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Hogan and Brown: Round one, no knockout [Editorial]

Marylanders who have been barraged with attack ads in the governor's race will get to see the live version tonight when the first of three debates between Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and businessman Larry Hogan is broadcast. The attacks from both sides — Mr. Brown's contention that Mr. Hogan is an arch conservative with a "dangerous" agenda on guns and abortion, and Mr. Hogan's claims that Mr. Brown has helped drive Maryland's economy into the ground — were repeated again and again, almost irrespective of what question was being asked. Still, voters interested in the two candidates actual positions on the issues could get something out of the encounter.

First, a bit of good news for the cause of good government. Both Mr. Hogan, the Republican, and Mr. Brown, the Democrat, committed personally, on camera, to throwing out the redistricting process that has given Maryland some of the most gerrymandered Congressional districts in the country and instead establishing an independent commission to do the job. Whoever wins should be held accountable for proposing such reforms, which have been effective in the handful of states that have tried them in establishing districts that reflect community interests, not political ones.

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If Mr. Brown wins, he should be able to convince his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly to enact redistricting reform. If Mr. Hogan wins, he should have an even easier time — the Democrats who control the legislature certainly wouldn't want to risk the chance that he could win a second term and effectively control the process, which is how the law presently works. Mr. Brown said this would be an issue for his second term, should he get one, because the state won't draw new lines until after the next census. He's wrong about that. It needs to be a first term issue so the temptation to use the power of the gerrymander doesn't overwhelm election-year good intentions.

Another revelation of the debate, which was sponsored by The Sun and WJZ-TV, was that the two candidates are not nearly so far apart on a number of issues as their ads might suggest. Both, for example, want to make improving Maryland's business economy a top priority during the next four years, and both believe that the state's middle class and small businesses need tax relief. (Exactly what that would entail and who would be better qualified to carry it out, of course, was a matter of much debate.) Mr. Hogan was quite complimentary of Mr. Brown's efforts to address domestic violence, and both said the unaccompanied minor children who have crossed the U.S. border in recent months constitute a humanitarian crisis that demands our help to one extent or another.

Much of the debate consisted of Mr. Brown reiterating attacks from his ads — for example, that Mr. Hogan wants to ban abortion and reduce access to birth control — and Mr. Hogan responding that the lieutenant governor wasn't telling the truth. Then Mr. Brown would repeat his assertions. The lieutenant governor is right that Mr. Hogan's views on reproductive health, gun control, college tuition and other matters are important and merit scrutiny. But voters deserve an actual conversation about the candidates' stances on those issues, not just a barrage of questionably sourced attacks. To the extent that Mr. Hogan got past accusing Mr. Brown of lying and explained what he actually thinks — for example, that Maryland's abortion laws should not be changed — he did himself and the voters some good. He needs to do more of it.

Who won the debate? Both candidates were polished and effective in delivering their messages. Which one is the victor will depend on what this election is really about. Mr. Hogan is obviously betting that the contest will turn on economic issues — taxes, state spending and job growth. He was able to mount a coherent critique of Mr. Brown and his current boss, Gov. Martin O'Malley, on those topics. Given how eager Mr. Brown was to promise no new taxes in a Brown administration, Mr. Hogan may be on to something.

But when Mr. Hogan was asked about other things, he lacked depth. In talking about crime, for example, Mr. Hogan mentioned heroin addiction as a major problem statewide, but it quickly became clear that he had little idea what Maryland is doing now to combat the problem, what has proved effective and what has not. Mr. Brown did. If voters care about more than pocketbook issues, it's advantage Brown.

In Mr. Hogan's closing statement, he said that Marylanders who believe the O'Malley-Brown administration has been good for them and for the state should vote for the lieutenant governor, and those who don't, those who want change, should vote for him. But change is not always change for the better. Mr. Hogan used this debate to establish that he is not Martin O'Malley but was less effective in showing what, specifically, he would do if elected. Mr. Brown, meanwhile, expended a lot of effort in trying to make Mr. Hogan seem incompatible with Maryland voters. But if a Brown administration would amount to something other than a third O'Malley term — as Mr. Hogan asserts — the lieutenant governor hasn't done much to demonstrate it. For all the good that came from seeing the two engage each other, both remained somewhat one-dimensional. They need to use the next two debates to change that.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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