Hours after meeting for the first debate of their hotly contested rematch, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. shared a stage again Monday afternoon to address the concerns of people with disabilities.
Both candidates promoted their records on disability issues — Ehrlich created a state Department of Disabilities and O'Malley said he nearly doubled funding for programs for infants and toddlers with developmental issues — but hammered home differences on key issues.
Ehrlich focused on the importance of "personal empowerment" and capitalizing on new technology to make it easier for disabled people to find — and commute to — jobs.
"This country is about freedom," he said. "And sometimes the government needs to get out of the way."
O'Malley repeatedly questioned whether his opponent, who has vowed to reduce the state sales tax rate to 5 percent, would fund the programs and services on which people with disabilities and their advocates rely.
"There are some things in this world that are more important than a penny on a sales tax," O'Malley said to applause. The governor ticked off several programs for the disabled for which he had boosted funding and asked the crowd to consider how they would fare under Ehrlich's proposed tax cut.
"How many of you believe the solutions to these challenges will be found in cutting government? In making government smaller?" he asked.
O'Malley also elicited cheers when he mentioned closing Rosewood, the long-troubled facility for the severely disabled, which was shut down under orders from his administration in 2009.
Several hundred people, many of whom used wheelchairs and canes or needed sign language interpreters, attended the forum at the BWI Marriott, which was organized by the Maryland Disabilities Forum and moderated by board chairman C. David Ward.
Both candidates claimed improvements in paratransit services during their administrations and said more must be done to expedite help for more than 15,000 people with developmental disabilities on a waiting list for services.
But partisan differences came into focus when an audience member asked about stem cell research.
Ehrlich said he supported using adult stem cells and stem cells from "discarded embryos," and noted that he had convened a panel on the issue with those on both sides of the abortion debate.
The governor trumpeted President Barack Obama's decision to overturn the stem cell research ban, saying it was "taking the handcuffs off science."
O'Malley also proclaimed his support for Obama's health care reforms, which he called a "courageous drive to provide health care for all."
Ehrlich did not discuss Obama's health care plan publicly, but said in private remarks to a supporter that he opposed it and would advocate for its repeal.
Robert Watson, who was born with cerebral palsy and runs two nonprofits —a dating service that connects people with disabilities and a networking group for adults with cerebral palsy — said that Ehrlich's message resonated with him.
"Empowerment is the key to success," said Watson, who lives in Brandywine in Prince George's County. "You need to teach people how to do things for themselves."
Sheri Thomas, a disability advocate from Columbia, said there were few significant differences between the candidates' positions, but she praised O'Malley's closing remarks in which he criticized Ehrlich's proposed sales tax cut.
"I was glad to see one of the candidates show some passion," Thomas said.