Democrat Anthony G. Brown and Republican Larry Hogan brought their combative disagreement on Maryland's future to their third and final televised debate in the race for governor.
In their most wide-ranging exchange yet, Brown and Hogan disagreed Saturday on whether more pre-K or charter schools is the better way to close Maryland's achievement gap and whether the poultry industry needs protection from environmental initiatives.
Hogan launched another testy exchange over Brown's role in the O'Malley administration's flubbed online health insurance marketplace. Brown, in turn, bashed Hogan for his role in an Ehrlich administration's personnel controversy.
The hourlong debate, taped Saturday afternoon at Maryland Public Television studios in Owings Mills, provided the sharpest contrast yet between the two men. It aired Saturday night on MPT, WBAL-TV Channel 11, and smaller stations across the state. Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins Thursday.
The debate was marked by the open hostility that has characterized the contest since the primary.
Hogan pressed the pocketbook issues that have defined his campaign, arguing that dozens of tax and fee increases passed under the O'Malley-Brown administration have stymied the economy and hurt middle-class families.
"I've been focused on this like a laser for the past three and half years," Hogan said.
Brown portrayed Hogan as a social extremist who, Brown insisted, plans to roll back Maryland's new gun control law. Hogan has repeatedly pledged not to. "He's not going to tell Marylanders he opposed it," Brown said.
The lieutenant governor defended the state's botched health exchange, pointing out that hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have signed up for insurance. He also said he took a more active role after the website crashed the day it was launched.
"When you have adversity or challenges, you don't run away, you don't join those on the sidelines who are rooting for failure," Brown said. ""But what you do is roll up your sleeves and get it done."
Hogan countered: "He seems like he's proud of the rollout. ... This has been an unmitigated disaster."
Brown blamed Hogan, who was appointments secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for the firing of mid-level state employees who critics said were replaced by Republican operatives.
Hogan dismissed a General Assembly investigation of the matter as a "witch hunt." He promised that if elected, he would call Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, the very next day. The Republican said his election would "send a loud and clear message to people in Annapolis that we've got to work together."
Brown contended that Hogan actually believes the opposite. He cited a recent interview in which Hogan was quoted as saying he would be a "goalie," trying to stop the Democratic-led General Assembly from passing legislation he thought went too far.
"Goalies play defense," Brown said. "You can't play defense and be effective."
When asked how to improve the disparity between white and black students, Brown cited the signature issue of his campaign: eventually offering free half-day pre-kindergarten for all Maryland 4-year-olds. He added that he would fund more meal programs and health clinics in public schools.
Hogan criticized the state's record on charter schools, calling it the worst in the nation and vowing to work on reforms if elected.
Asked about the significance of race in the contest, Brown said he "understands the historical significance" that he would be the first African-American governor in Maryland and only the third elected in U.S. history. But he said the important thing is to resolve disparities among communities.
"Race is important to the extent that the quality-of-life goals we achieve should be experienced by all Marylanders," Brown said.
Hogan was characteristically quick with a retort.
"I don't know about you at home, but I have no idea what he just said," Hogan said. "The people I talk to around the state don't care if the next governor is white or black or Asian or Hispanic. They're looking for someone who can turn this state around."
Hogan and Brown were also divided on which would be better suited to develop a fracking industry in Western Maryland to extract natural gas.
"We're sitting on an economic gold mine," Hogan said, criticizing the O'Malley-Brown administration for "just kicking the can down the road and trying not to make any decision."
Brown shot back that there were no current fracking applications pending. He said that he supported fracking and the jobs it would bring to Western Maryland, as long as it could be done without harming the environment.
After the debate, the two candidates held separate news conferences to put their performances in the best possible light.
An exuberant Hogan called it "the best debate so far."
"I think the voters got more out of it than the previous two ones," he said.
Not to be outdone, a beaming Brown said "I wish we could have gone for two hours."
Hogan bristled at questions about whether he would release a questionnaire he filled out for the National Rifle Association that earned him an A-minus grade from that group.
"This is just nonsense," he said. "People don't care about questionnaires. "
Hogan challenged the reporters to ask Brown why he hadn't released his income tax returns. Brown has said he believes the financial disclosures he files with the state each year provide sufficient information.
A spokesman for Hogan later acknowledged that Hogan has not released his tax returns and was not sure whether he would.
Asked about the mutual charges of deception that took of much of the debate, Hogan expressed confidence that viewers would see that he was telling the truth. Hogan contended that he has made himself more available to the news media than Brown.
"He's been hiding. He's been in some kind of communications bunker," Hogan said.
A few minutes later, Brown – who had previously sent running mate Ken Ulman and state Sen. Catherine Pugh out to speak for him – stepped to the podium. The lieutenant governor said he has been easily accessible and accused Hogan of hiding from the issue of gun control.
"I don't think it's for candidates to decide which issues are important and which issues are not important," Brown said. "A lot of people care about it, particularly the families that have lost a loved one to gun violence."