OCEAN CITY — One by one over the course of two days, the eight Democrats running for governor climbed a convention center stage here, courting one of the most coveted endorsements in Maryland: the support of the sprawling and powerful teachers union.
The candidates offered big promises to increase funding for public schools — sometimes by more than $2 billion per year.
They promised members of the state's biggest teachers union to provide universal pre-kindergarten statewide, to raise teacher pay, to invest in school buildings, to better help students from high poverty areas, and to listen to teachers more than incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan does.
During the Maryland State Education Association's fall convention this weekend, candidates recruited volunteers, hosted receptions and tried to persuade leaders of the 73,000-member union to bestow on them the union's lucrative and influential endorsement.
"It's very important," said Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker. "Everybody wants it."
Education is always a top issue in Democratic primary elections, but observers and candidates say the topic takes even more prominence during the 2018 campaign. The state is in the middle of a rare process to reassess how and how much Maryland pays for schools.
"The next governor is going to have generational influence over our schools," said Sean Johnson, political director of the union.
The teachers union, which spent more than $2 million in the last race for governor and provided 2,000 volunteers, has the influence and resources to elevate a candidate in a crowded eight-way contest.
Johnson said the union expects to spend more this cycle, plus dispatch thousands of volunteers to staff phone banks and canvass on behalf of the candidate they endorse, "both in the primary and in the general."
"We're ready to be all in, and to be the biggest player on the progressive side of Maryland politics," he said.
The endorsement will be made in April, about two months before the June 26 primary.
Hogan, who has a frosty relationship with the group and once called its leadership "union thugs," did not seek the teachers endorsement.
"The governor's real concern is about the children, the students in the classroom," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. "He could care less about what the teachers' union's political operatives want."
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno came to Ocean City for two days to work the convention halls and talk to local groups of teachers, promising to make sure more money goes to students in high-poverty areas, that teachers are paid more and are treated with as much respect as doctors and lawyers.
The audience of about 700 gasped and applauded when he said politicians don't talk enough about how teachers spend too much time in a classroom and not enough time preparing to be there.
Jim Shea, former chair of the Venable law firm in Baltimore, also came early and held a reception for teachers.
He promised universal pre-kindergarten and better prenatal care for pregnant mothers, paying teachers more and improving their pensions, and letting educators have greater control over curriculum. He promised to provide more resources to high-poverty areas and greater future funding across the board.
"We will argue about whether we can afford it, and I will say, 'How can we not?' " Shea said.
He later added that he doubted Maryland would have to increase taxes to fund his plan. "It is about how you spend your money. Not if you have it."
Baker said Maryland's schools are underfunded, and pointed out that he proposed an unpopular 15 percent increase in Prince George's property tax to send more resources to schools. A 4 percent tax increase was eventually approved. He said he'd fight to bring more money to schools across Maryland.
"Where you spend the bulk of your money shows what you believe in," Baker said. "Marylanders are willing to pay for education. They just want accountability."
The entire Prince George's County delegation walked out of the room in protest when Baker began speaking. That county's teachers union and Baker have a longstanding dispute over pay.
Author and technology entrepreneur Alec Ross highlighted his work as a Baltimore teacher decades ago, and promised to "reset equity in education."
He said that many of the state's educational inequities could be solved by policies that recruit talented educators and pay them more to do the hardest jobs — most often in low-income areas. He backed universal pre-K and said he has eight pages of policies on education on his website.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a public policy consultant, called Hogan an "anti-education governor," and said it was "unacceptable" for teachers to be asked to do more with less. She promised universal pre-K, technology-enriched classrooms, better support for teachers and preparing high school students for careers that don't require college.
"We need to be making sure that our students are connected to future jobs," she said.
Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director to Michelle Obama promised to invest heavily in teachers. She promised universal pre-kindergarten, $50,000 in science and technology investments in every school, and an across-the-board funding increase to the tune of $2 billion a year.
"I know the most important investment we can make in this state is in you guys," she said. "I know you do whatever it takes to support every child, I want to be the governor to support you."
Ben Jealous, former CEO of the NAACP, hosted a reception and visited individually with local leaders as he courted the union's endorsement — and he was the only candidate to get a standing ovation.
Jealous said he could find enough efficiencies to carve out about 5 percent of Maryland's budget and give it to education — roughly $2 billion.
He said he'd use casino money to supplement, not supplant, the state's investment in education, teach trades in schools for students who don't want to go to college, and that the state's achievement gap was driven by a lack of support for low-income children. He also said he would save money by reducing mass incarceration, but he did not specify how.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, whose home delegation cheered loudly for him, spoke mainly about the education system in Baltimore County, which he said has rising graduation rates and little achievement disparity among black and white students. He spoke little about his plans if elected.
Kamenetz accused Hogan of "gutting schools" and not supporting the public education system.
"Is it any wonder that he has dismissed teachers as union thugs?" Kamenetz asked the applauding crowd. "I'm proud to see a room full of union thugs."