WASHINGTON — The two major-party candidates running for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat sparred Friday over their legislative records as well as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as they took part in the first debate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who holds a significant lead in polling, used the debate on WAMU-FM to criticize Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga's voting history in Annapolis — noting her opposition to increasing the state minimum wage as well as a law that provides state-funded incentives for college savings.
"The reality is there are lots of people struggling," said Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker who has supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. "Whether it's the minimum wage or trying to make sure that people can afford college, we need to be there for working people."
Szeliga, a Baltimore County lawmaker and the minority whip in the Maryland House of Delegates, said she lived on the minimum wage as a "maid, a waitress, a dishwasher" before starting a contracting firm with her husband. Szeliga, who opposes raising the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, said low-wage earners are more interested in a career than a bump in salary.
Szeliga went on the attack in her opening statement, pointing to Van Hollen's 14 years in Congress, casting him as an insider and suggesting he has done little to address a wide range of problems, including the national debt, backlogs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and even traffic in the Washington suburbs.
"It goes back to election-year promises," Szeliga said during the debate, which was hosted by
"The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
Voters, she said, "are tired of lip service coming from Washington."
One of the fiercest exchanges came during a discussion of Trump. Van Hollen noted that Szeliga supports the GOP nominee even though Maryland's Republican governor, Larry Hogan, does not. Polling has indicated Trump is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
Hogan "made the decision not to support Donald Trump because he decided, in this case, to put country over party and not elect somebody who is erratic and could be dangerous," Van Hollen said.
Szeliga has said she is supporting Trump but doesn't always agree with his positions.
"Just like Congressman Van Hollen is supporting his nominee, I'm supporting my nominee," she said.
Szeliga fired back at her opponent by pointing out that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, took money from Trump when Van Hollen served as its chairman. "I will tell you that there is only one person who has taken money from Donald Trump, and it's Chris Van Hollen," Szeliga said. "I have not taken money."
While it is true that the DCCC accepted contributions from Trump under Van Hollen's leadership, it is also the case that many Republicans and Democrats — including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — previously took money from the New York businessman.
Despite Hogan's unexpected win in 2014, Szeliga faces an uphill fight in Maryland. Three independent polls — the latest of which was released Thursday — have indicated Van Hollen is leading by about 30 points. That is a much larger polling deficit than Hogan ever faced in his race against Democrat Anthony G. Brown.
Van Hollen delved into Szeliga's voting record, noting not only the minimum-wage proposal but also a measure approved by the General Assembly this year that will match contributions to state-sponsored college savings accounts with state grants. Republicans objected to the bill because of the cost, but Hogan ultimately signed it in May.
Szeliga criticized Van Hollen for voting against a bill approved by the House last month that would make it easier to fire employees at Veterans Affairs. Democrats were split on that legislation, but many of those who opposed it said it violates employees' due process.
While Szeliga has been eager to draw contrasts with Van Hollen on some issues, the two candidates have rarely been pinned down on specifics. On Friday, Szeliga staked out a number of moderate positions that are likely to be popular with voters statewide. She said she does not support repealing the controversial Affordable Care Act, for instance, but rather making adjustments to it.
She said Trump should release his tax returns, a move he has been reluctant to make. And she said she does not support the idea of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, a central component of Trump's campaign.
Szeliga has been critical of Van Hollen's support of President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear agreement, arguing that the administration lifted sanctions on the country for too little in return. At one point, as she was asked about the death of Freddie Gray and what role the federal government has in helping distressed cities like Baltimore, Szeliga said: "I would rather talk about Iran."
While a handful of forums have been scheduled, the candidates have announced only two more broadcast debates. Szeliga and Van Hollen will meet Oct. 26 in a televised debate sponsored by WJZ-TV, The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
That debate will broadcast on WJZ-Channel 13.
Aides to both campaigns said Friday that the candidates have agreed to another radio debate, scheduled for Oct. 31 on Baltimore's WOLB-AM.
Szeliga used her closing remarks to challenge Van Hollen to a second televised debate. Van Hollen responded by noting the new radio debate on WOLB and the previously scheduled television debate on WJZ. He did not directly address Szeliga's challenge for a second TV debate.
"You will not commit," she said, "He does not want to debate me on TV."
Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers, who was not included in the WAMU debate, has also sought opportunities to appear on stage with the candidates. WAMU required candidates to have at least 10 percent support in polling to take part. Flowers has polled in the single digits.
Flowers will appear separately on the "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" next week.