Democrat Anthony G. Brown and Republican Larry Hogan traded accusations of deception Tuesday in their first debate before the Nov. 4 election for governor.
The rivals clashed repeatedly over social issues, education, the environment and Maryland's economy.
Hogan bristled at allegations in Brown's campaign ads about his position on abortion and birth control.
"He says that I oppose abortion even in the cases of rape and incest, and that I want to take away birth control. That is just absolutely not true," Hogan said. "I'm not going to roll back anything. Nothing is going to change with respect to reproductive rights," Hogan said.
Hogan, meanwhile, attacked Brown relentlessly over what he called "40 consecutive tax increases" under the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley. Brown declared unequivocally that he would not raise taxes.
"I don't see the need, as governor, to raise taxes. There will be no new taxes in the Brown-Ulman administration," he declared.
Hogan dismissed the value of that promise. "It's the complete opposite of his eight-year record of failure," Hogan said.
The hourlong debate, taped Tuesday morning, was sponsored by The Baltimore Sun and WJZ and broadcast on that station and Maryland Public Television Tuesday night.
For Hogan, a businessman, the debate was an opportunity to introduce himself to the nearly half of Maryland voters who don't know much about him. A Goucher College poll released Tuesday found that 45 percent of voters had neither a favorable nor an unfavorable opinion of him.
The debate gave Brown an opportunity to step out from the shadows of O'Malley and craft his own image. The same poll showed that nearly one-third of voters haven't formed a firm impression of the former Prince George's County lawmaker.
Neither candidate minced words about the other's proposals and record as they repeated comments they have made on the campaign trail. Neither appeared to land a decisive blow against his opponent.
Brown criticized Hogan's comments favoring a cut in the corporate income tax from 8.25 percent to 6 percent, charging that most of the benefits would go to large corporations — many based outside Maryland. The lieutenant governor vowed to pass targeted tax cuts that would go to the smaller companies that he said create two of every three jobs in the state.
"It starts with small entrepreneurial businesses," Brown said.
Hogan suggested that while the Democrat has been promising to improve Maryland's business climate, the pledge is belated. "Why haven't you done anything about it for the past eight years," Hogan asked.
Some of the sharpest clashes came over emotionally charged issues such as gun control that Hogan has been trying to play down in his economy-oriented campaign.
Brown accused Hogan of quietly telling gun rights advocates he would seek to undermine enforcement of Maryland's tough new control law passed last year. While Hogan did not directly respond the charge, he pledged that he would not attempt to repeal the law.
Both candidates were asked if they disagreed with any of the policies of the governor they served. Hogan, who was appointments secretary in the Cabinet of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he disagreed with that administration's decision to let public college tuition increase by 40 percent – a policy for which Brown has attacked Hogan in campaign ads.
"I've never supported one penny of tuition increases," Hogan said.
Brown said he disagreed with O'Malley over a proposal to reduce income tax deductions, and was happy when the General Assembly dropped the idea. He defended his record of loyalty to O'Malley, comparing the relationship to the confidential discussions of an executive officer in the Army with a company commander.
"I wasn't coming out of the door and throwing my governor under the bus," he said.
Asked whether there was anything in the Ehrlich administration's record he approved of, Brown pointed to the establishment of the Chesapeake Bay restoration fund financed by the so-called "flush tax," which provides funding for improving sewage treatment plants.
Hogan, however, had no compliments to spare for the O'Malley administration.
"I think they've done a very good job of spinning the numbers and confusing people on facts," Hogan said.
The two men also clashed on education. Hogan proposed that the state "push the pause button" on the Common Core curriculum standards, which he described as a "complete disaster."
Brown charged that Hogan's spending cut plans include a $450 million cut in school construction spending. Hogan said after the debate he didn't know what Brown was talking about. Hogan has not expressly proposed such a cut, though he did mistakenly include the figure in a list of spending items he said state auditors had identified as wasteful. Even after being confronted with that mistake, Hogan told reporters Saturday he stood by the numbers.
Pre-kindergarten education, a major focus of Brown's TV ads criticizing Hogan, became a debate flash point.
Brown charged that Hogan opposes moving forward with an expansion of pre-K to all 4-year-olds. Hogan said he's a big proponent of the concept but doesn't think Maryland has the money to expand dramatically now. "I don't want to over-promise and under-deliver," Hogan said.
The issue of the environment brought a sharp exchange as Hogan promised to refocus the state's anti-pollution efforts away from farmers and Maryland property owners and toward pushing other states in the region to pay more for cleanup of the Susquehanna River and the silt behind the Conowingo Dam.
"We'll push back on the Conowingo to make sure that Pennsylvania and New York pay their fair share," he said.
Brown accused Hogan of shirking Maryland's traditional leadership role in protecting the Chesapeake Bay. "You stand somewhere upstream in the Susquehanna River pointing your finger at Pennsylvania and New York accusing them of not doing what you're unwilling to do in Maryland," Brown said.
Neither Hogan nor the moderators raised the issue of the state's failed first attempt at setting up a website for its health care exchange — a project for which Brown had a broad oversight role that has been severely criticized. Hogan said afterward it was "shameful" that the moderators did not raise the issue. Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, said the candidate had himself to blame.
"He had every opportunity to bring it up if he wanted to," Crenson said.
Despite a 2-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration, the race is believed to have tightened in recent weeks. The Cook Political Report moved the contest from its "Solid Democratic" to "Leans Democratic" last week. A Washington Post poll released Monday showed Brown ahead 47 percent to 38 percent.
Afterward, both candidates declared themselves delighted with their performances.
Appearing confident, Hogan met reporters outside the television studio to do his own spin on how the debate went.
"I was pleased to see that six or seven times the lieutenant governor agreed with me on the need for change," Hogan said. "I'm not sure why he hasn't implemented all those changes over the past eight years, but I think his spin is starting to sound a lot like mine."
Brown did not stay to take questions from reporters, but said in a later telephone interview that he was happy with his presentation.
"My primary goal was to clearly and succinctly present my ideas and my issues and my thoughts so Maryland voters could consider me and join me in my efforts to became Maryland's next governor and I achieved that goal," he said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said both candidates performed very well. "I thought it was a great debate for both of them," he said. However, Eberly said Hogan benefited from a "tie" because he entered the debate with lower name recognition.
Crenson said the encounter illustrated why it is difficult for lieutenant governors to ascend to the top spot. He said they are inevitably identified with the governor's record and can't disavow it without seeming disloyal.
"Brown was on the defensive for a lot of the debate but he gave pretty much as good as he got," Crenson said. "The debate was civil. Nobody lost his temper."
The campaigns plan two more gubernatorial debates — one to be taped in Washington next Monday and broadcast that night. A third will be recorded at Maryland Public Television the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 18, and shown that night on multiple stations.