For 60 minutes Monday, Democrat Ben Jealous portrayed Maryland as failing under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s leadership.
The schools? Sliding backward. The economy? Stagnant. Crime? On the rise.
Hogan’s response: “Nothing you said is even remotely true. It’s like you’re living in a dream world."
During the only debate of the governor’s race at the studios of Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills, it appeared Hogan and Jealous lived in two different Marylands.
It was the first time the two men had met in person, and they did not hold back in attacking each other.
Leading big in the polls with a $9 million campaign cash advantage, Hogan repeatedly talked of the state’s improving economy and “fully funded” schools. The Republican leader of a blue state said he ran for office four years ago because of disgust over more than 40 tax hikes passed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley and his fellow Democrats in Annapolis.
“We promised to put Maryland on a new path and we did exactly what we said we would do,” Hogan said, citing cuts to tolls and taxes under his watch. “We now have more businesses open and more people working than ever before in the history of the state.”
Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and a father to two students in Maryland’s public schools, said much more should be done — and his bolder vision is needed. He argued the state is trailing its neighbors, including Delaware and Virginia.
“We have the lowest job growth, the lowest income growth in the region,” Jealous said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the differences between the two men were on display in the debate.
“Hogan,” she said, “is the stability candidate. Hogan would say that’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, Jealous is making the argument that it is.”
Fielding questions from reporters from The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown and WMDT-TV in Salisbury, Jealous presented himself as a candidate of bold, new ideas. Jealous said he wants to create a Medicare-for-all system, offer debt-free college, give teachers a large raise and reduce the prison population by 30 percent.
“Folks will tell you the things I want to do are hard. And they’re right,” Jealous said. “Nothing worth doing is easy.”
Hogan repeatedly portrayed Jealous’ ideas as too expensive or, in his words, “reckless.”
“Your only plan is to double the state’s budget and increase taxes 100 percent,” Hogan said.
Of Jealous’ proposal to raise teacher pay by 29 percent, Hogan said the Democrat has “no ability to deliver” on his promise. Hogan said local school boards — not the governor — negotiate teachers’ salaries.
Hogan also took aim at Jealous’ plan to reduce the state prison population, which the Republican said would result in the firing of thousands of correctional officers and the release of dangerous criminals.
Jealous countered that Hogan was using scare tactics. The Democrat has pledged to not release violent criminals while shrinking the prison population.
“From Willie Horton to Donald Trump, your party plays by the same playbook,” Jealous said, referring to an attack ad used to benefit the campaign of former Republican President George H. W. Bush. “You lie and you scare people.”
Hogan responded: “I don’t have anything to do with Willie Horton or Donald Trump.”
In a recent poll by Goucher College, more Marylanders than not said they thought the state was moving in the right direction and they were doing better financially than in the past. By a margin of 22 percentage points, the surveyed voters said they preferred Hogan over Jealous. But they backed several of the Democrat’s key proposals and said they wanted a governor who brings about “change.”
Richard Vatz, a conservative communications professor from Towson University who watched the debate at the studio, said he didn’t think Jealous gave voters a strong enough reason to defect from Hogan.
“I didn’t think there were arguments made for why the incumbent should be removed and be replaced by Mr. Jealous,” Vatz said.
In the past few years, overdose deaths have risen sharply in many American cities and states — including Maryland. The number of drug- and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland soared to an all-time high of 2,282 last year. When Jealous blamed Hogan for the state’s surging opioid crisis, Hogan accused his Democratic opponent of playing politics.
“You have not led,” Jealous told Hogan. “Don’t tell me this is about politics. This is about lives.”
Hogan repeatedly portrayed Jealous as an outsider from California — where residents have donated generously to Jealous — who lacks a deep enough understanding of Maryland to lead the state.
Jealous cited his parents' interracial marriage as why his family moved west.
"If you're wondering why I didn't grow up here, sir, it's because my parents' marriage was against the law,” Jealous said.
Those comments prompted a moment of civility between the two men.
Hogan said he had “tremendous respect” for Jealous’ family and what they went through during the segregation era. “I admire your service at the NAACP and I respect you,” Hogan said.
Hogan has 24 times as much campaign cash as Jealous. To date, Hogan and allies from the Republican Governors Association have run millions of ads promoting the incumbent and attacking the Democrat. But Jealous’ allies hit back last week as a PAC began running negative ads against Hogan, trying to tie him to Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
During the debate, Jealous repeatedly invoked DeVos — who is disliked by many Democrats — while Hogan sought to minimize any link. The governor said he appeared with DeVos when she read to students at a Maryland school.
“That’s about as far as the connection goes,” Hogan said.
An emotional moment came when panelist Pamela Wood of The Sun asked what more could be done to prevent gun violence following the workplace shooting deaths this year at the Capital Gazette news organization in Annapolis and at a Rite Aid warehouse in Aberdeen. She slowly spoke the first names of each staffer killed at the warehouse and at the Capital Gazette, which is part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group.
“My heart goes out to you,” Jealous told Wood. “You and your colleagues are heroes.” Jealous said he would provide greater mental health services to Marylanders, if elected.
Said Hogan, “My heart was broken that day. This is our hometown newspaper in Annapolis.” Hogan said he wants tougher laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and “the mentally ill.”
The debate also had some light moments. At one point, Jealous urged Hogan to go to his website to better learn about the Democrat’s plans. “I’m not going to go to benjealous.com,” Hogan quipped.
After the debate, Democratic leaders said the debate marked a “turning point” in the race. Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott argued Hogan referred to O’Malley too frequently.
“We can’t progress and go forward with a governor who is stuck in the past,” Scott said.
The Hogan camp, however, predicted the race — and the incumbent governor’s lead — would be unmoved by the debate.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” Hogan told reporters afterward. “I’m working seven days a week. Like last time, I’m running like I’m 20 points down.”