Democratic candidates for Maryland governor struggle to break away from pack at GBC forum

From left are Rushern L. Baker III, Ben Jealous, Kevin Kamenetz, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross, Kim Shea and Krish Vignarajah.
From left are Rushern L. Baker III, Ben Jealous, Kevin Kamenetz, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross, Kim Shea and Krish Vignarajah. (Michael Dresser / Baltimore Sun)

The seven Democratic contenders for the party's nomination for governor struggled mightily to distinguish themselves from the herd at a forum in Baltimore on Thursday night.

None obviously succeeded.


The gathering, hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Associated Black Charities, illustrated the difficulties of breaking away from the pack in a race with few deep philosophical differences.

"All of us agree for the most part on issues," said author and entrepreneur Alec Ross, one of the four candidates in the June 26 primary who has not held elected office.

The Democratic primary race for governor is so crowded that the winner may only need 125,000 of Maryland's 2 million Democrats to secure the nomination. The low threshold has launched unusual strategies from candidates seeking to win not the majority of voters, just the most voters.

It was yet another in a long string of forums in which all of the candidates were nice to each other. Nobody tried to belittle a rival with an insulting nickname. Nobody confronted another candidate in a direct manner. No tempers were lost. In a way, it illustrated why pro wrestling has heroes and villains.

It was only President Donald J.Trump that seemed to bring out much passion in the candidates.

"You want to make Donald Trump's blood pressure go up?" said former NAACP President Ben Jealous. "Send a civil rights leader to be governor."

Even the swipes at Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who led all of them by double digits in a Goucher Poll released this week, were relatively restrained.


"I'll match my business record against Larry Hogan any day," said Jim Shea, the former managing partner of the prestigious Venable law firm.

That was about as strong as it got. Even Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., an acerbic critic of Hogan since the governor took office, appeared to have left his best zingers back in Montgomery County.

For the most part, even the "outsider" candidates appeared rather inside at the forum.

Ross made a stab at rebelling against orthodoxy when he said he was unhappy with the Democratic Party because for a long time it had used rhetoric implying a young person had to go to a four-year college to be a winner. He promised that as governor he would put increased emphasis on vocational programs for the skilled trades.

His effort to differentiate fell flat when every other candidate on stage said roughly the same thing.

"We've got to de-stigmatize the trades," said Krish Vignarajah, the former Obama White House official who was the only woman on the stage.

The only notable gaffe of the night came in a discussion of transportation in which all of the candidates agreed that Hogan had severely hurt Baltimore by canceling the $3 billion Red Line light rail project.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was one of several candidates who spoke of a need to revive the project. Only he called it the Purple Line, the Washington-area project Hogan allowed to go through at the same time he killed the Baltimore system.

None of his rivals was unkind enough to point out the error.

Gov. Larry Hogan, widely perceived by Marylanders as a moderate, is dominating all of his prospective Democratic rivals by double digits in a Goucher Poll released Tuesday.   

Shea introduced a moment of candor to the discussion when he pointed out that the Red Line would not be so easy to revive since Hogan decided to turn away the nearly $1 billion the federal government had been poised to contribute to the Woodlawn-to-Bayview project under the Obama administration.

"We have to go back to the beginning of the queue, but right now under Donald Trump there is no queue," he said.

For the most part the candidates sounded familiar themes.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Baker boasted of their accomplishments in the seven years they have led their jurisdictions.

Kamenetz emphasized the cut in unemployment on his watch and holding the line on taxes. Baker spoke of cleaning up corruption in a county where his predecessor went to federal prison.

"We ended the pay-to-play culture by passing tough, equitable reforms," he said.

Madaleno emphasized his decades of experience in state government, including 20 years in the General Assembly. He emphasized that he wasn't just a guy from Montgomery by calling for an expansion Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel and having the state pay more for city road projects.

Jealous boasted of his recent endorsement by the Maryland State Education Association.

"Why do they support me?" he said. "They know what I specialize in — getting people together to get things done."

Amid the hyper-serious discussion, Kamenetz actually threw in a joke.

He told the audience he recently had a plumber to his house and was charged $500 for an hour's work. Kamenetz said he protested that was how much it cost to hire a lawyer.

"He said that's what I charged when I was a lawyer, too."

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