The two leading Democratic candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat battled Friday over Social Security and trade deals in their first televised debate, offering widely different approaches for how they would continue Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's legacy.
Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, locked in one of the nation's most competitive primary contests, broadly agreed on the issues. But Edwards accused her opponent of being too quick to compromise progressive principles and Van Hollen said she is a "dreamer" who hadn't worked closely on the policies she is now touting as a candidate.
Echoing themes that have played out for months on the campaign, Edwards noted Van Hollen's past support for some free trade deals that were opposed by labor unions, and she reiterated claims that he has been wishy washy on Social Security.
"Social Security is an earned benefit," Edwards said in one of the more heated exchanges of the hour-long debate, which will air on WJZ-TV on Monday. "Mr. Van Hollen wanted to trade it away in an effort to cut a deal — and I just think there is no deal to be cut on the backs of our senior citizens."
Edwards, a Prince George's County lawmaker elected in 2008, has long pointed to Van Hollen's statemnet as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee in which he said a series of recommendations made by a deficit reduction panel in 2010 could serve as a "framework" for a broader budget deal.
Van Hollen did not embrace the plan, nor did he support its individual recommendations, such as raising the retirement age and slowing cost-of-living adjustments for seniors.
As he did throughout the debate, Van Hollen argued that Edwards was distorting his record.
"Congresswoman Edwards is not telling the truth," the Montgomery County lawmaker said. "The one difference between us up here on this is, actually, I've been in the trenches leading the fight to protect Social Security and Medicare; Congresswoman Edwards talks about it on the campaign trail."
The two are running in one of the country's most hotly contested races — a match up that increasingly is luring outside money into the state. Three polls this year found the two neck-and-neck, though a recent survey conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore showed Edwards with a lead in the single digits.
The primary is April 26.
In a debate that was heated at times but more low-key overall than previous exchanges, Van Hollen and Edwards drew different lessons from Mikulski's 30-year tenure. Van Hollen, first elected in 2002, said when he reflected on Mikulski he thought of someone who focused on "delivering real results" for Maryland — a theme that mirrors his campaign message.
"You have to put forward solutions if you want to move the country forward," he said. "One of my favorite sayings is that the world needs dreamers, and the world needs doers, but most of all the world needs dreamers who do."
Edwards offered a different reading of Mikulski legacy, noting that she was the first woman elected to the Senate without following a male relative into the job. Edwards has frequently noted that she would be the first African American to represent the state in the mostly-white Senate, and only the second black woman elected in U.S. history.
"People told her that she couldn't do it," Edwards said of Mikulski. "We have an opportunity to make history again and to add a perspective to the United States Senate that really reflects the great vision of who we are."
The candidates found some things to agree on: Both sided with Apple in the dispute over whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation should be able to force the company to hack into an iPhone owned by San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook. They both praised President Barack Obama on foreign policy, specifically on his efforts on Iran and Cuba.
But they also clashed over familiar issues like trade. Edwards criticized Van Hollen for supporting nine free trade agreements in recent years, deals opposed by labor because of a concern that they lower working standards and wages.
"You cannot, on the one hand, vote for these free trade deals and on other hand say that you support American workers," Edwards said.
Van Hollen noted an extensive roster of labor unions who have endorsed him despite those votes, and said he judges each of the trade deals on their individual merits. Both candidates said they oppose a pending trade agreement the Obama administration has negotiated with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
Van Hollen went after Edwards for what he has described as lackluster constituent services in the 4th Congressional District, pointing to a union of NASA workers at the Greenbelt-based Goddard Space Flight Center who recently said they didn't receive help from Edwards dealing with a complaint of racial bias.
"In many cases, she has not been there for her constituents when they're in need," said Van Hollen, who represents the neighboring 8th Congressional District. "The question is, when you hear of a problem, what kind of action do you take?"
Edwards said her office did try to work with the group, and she dismissed the overall line of argument, noting she had been reelected four times.
The debate, which will air on WJZ-TV at 7 p.m. on Monday, was sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV, the University of Baltimore and the Baltimore City League of Women Voters.