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That's the ticket [Editorial]

Anyone who is completely dispirited by Maryland's governor's race (and by this point, who isn't?) was in for a pleasant surprise today with the campaign's sole debate between the nominees for lieutenant governor, Republican Boyd Rutherford and Democrat Ken Ulman. The candidates disagreed with each other, to be sure, and engaged in some of the lines of attack that their respective ticket-leaders unleash on each other every time they meet. But the exchange was tempered by a kind of intellectual honesty that has been sorely lacking in this race so far.

Take, for example, Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's recent accusation that Republican Larry Hogan intends to cut school construction by $450 million. Mr. Ulman duly trotted out his ticket mate's line, and Mr. Rutherford duly swatted it away as "ridiculous," but then the Republican went on to do something highly unusual: admit an obvious error.

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The origin of the Brown-Ulman claim about the supposed Hogan-Rutherford school construction cut is a document the Republican campaign put out purporting to catalog $1.75 billion in waste, fraud and abuse identified in state and federal audits but never addressed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mr. Brown. One of the items on the list is an audit finding that $450 million in school construction projects were inadequately documented, a fault that was subsequently corrected. Mr. Brown knows full well that Mr. Hogan would not cut $450 million from school construction — indeed, as Mr. Rutherford pointed out, that's the entire budget for it — but Mr. Hogan's refusal to acknowledge error in the original document provided Mr. Brown with a slender reed of cover to keep making the claim.

With a simple admission that "mistakes were made with regard to the full amount," Mr. Rutherford made short work of that and went on to note that both sides say there is room for savings in the budget. The question, he said, is whom voters trust to find them.

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When confronted with contradictions of his attack lines, Mr. Brown has typically responded by repeating them. Mr. Ulman, by contrast, pivoted to the heart of the actual issue: The cost savings plan is the only one the Hogan campaign has released with "actual numbers," Mr. Ulman said, and it doesn't add up.

Similarly, the debate, hosted by WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi, veered toward the substantive in the discussion about the disastrous rollout of Maryland's health insurance exchange, over which Mr. Brown was (at least officially) in charge. Mr. Brown has responded to criticism of the debacle recently by noting that despite the troubles, some 450,000 people enrolled in health insurance through the state's exchange this year. Mr. Ulman took a similar line but explained why that matters to everyone else: Under Maryland's unique health care system, the costs for uncompensated care at hospitals are passed along to all paying customers. The reductions the state is already seeing in uncompensated care, he said, are already creating savings for those who have insurance.

Mr. Rutherford's criticism of the O'Malley/Brown administration's handling of the exchange was, likewise, more sophisticated. Rather than repeating words like "failure" and "incompetent," as Mr. Hogan is wont to do, he noted that the General Assembly, at the administration's behest, exempted the exchange from normal procurement rules, so there was no bidding either for the company that was initially supposed to build the exchange and for the one that was hired to fix it. The latter, he said, was owned by a company that had donated heavily to the Democratic Governors Association, which is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads on Mr. Brown's behalf. "I was involved in procurement on both the federal level and [at the Maryland Department of General Services]," Mr. Rutherford said. "There's something fishy there."

Mr. Hogan boasts that he isn't a politician, but Mr. Rutherford really isn't. He was even impolitic enough to say that, in his heart as a native Washingtonian, he would rather see the Redskins play in the District than in Maryland. He is a career businessman and manager at high levels of state and federal government, and that experience shone through. And although Mr. Brown highlights his responsibilities and experience as lieutenant governor, Mr. Ulman has really been running things in Howard County during his two terms as county executive. He threw in some paeans to the accomplishments of Mr. Brown, but he hasn't quite mastered sounding like a No. 2.

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In all, the contrast between Mr. Ulman and Mr. Rutherford may have produced the odd experience for voters of trying to decide which candidate they like more and not which one they dislike less. Messrs. Brown and Hogan, please take note.

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

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