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Democrat Governor Candidates Try to Stand Out in First Debate

Rachel Baye

Eight Democrats vying for their party’s nomination for governor shared the stage at their first televised debate Monday. The debate was taped Monday morning and aired at 7 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, WBAL-TV, WBAL Radio and WEAA. In addition, it was simulcast online.

At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture in Baltimore, the large group of candidates struggled to distinguish themselves in just one hour of debate.

They were limited to 90-second opening statements and 45-second answers to each question. Afterward, they acknowledged that it was hardly enough time for a substantive policy debate.

“Everyone’s saying the same thing, so it’s very hard for voters to determine who and why they should support an individual,” said former Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin.

Ervin joined the race as a gubernatorial candidate just last week, after her running mate, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, died suddenly. This was her first real chance to introduce herself to voters as the top of the ticket, and she said she had hoped it would be more of a “real debate,” with time to rebut her opponents.

“We have eight people running, five weeks to go,” she said. “It’s very hard to determine why you would choose any one of us as candidates, and I think that these debates aren’t actually set up to do that.”

The candidates were asked about education, transit, the economy, policing and gerrymandering. On the surface, each seemed to have similar positions on the issues.

For example, WBAL’s Jayne Miller asked whether the candidates would replace the canceled Red Line light rail project in Baltimore with something comparable.

“I would come out in favor and push for at a federal level the Red Line coming back,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. “In addition to that, I’d look at our transit inside Baltimore City so we can make sure, working with the mayor, that we can get people to the job centers from where they are.”

Baltimore attorney Jim Shea said that, yes, Maryland needs the Red Line, but the federal funding the project was expecting is no longer available under the Trump Administration.

“In addition to pursuing that, we need alternatives — bus rapid transit, extending the Metro,” he said.

Entrepreneur Alec Ross echoed those calls.

“As governor, I will make bold efforts to take our absolutely pathetic, horrendous, God-awful public transportation system in this region, and bring it into the 21st century,” he said.

The candidates almost unanimously backed increasing school funding.

On gerrymandering, Shea, Baker and former NAACP leader Ben Jealous called for a fair and bipartisan process but said Maryland should not change its system before other states do.

In response to a question about preventing violence in Baltimore City, Baker and state Sen. Richard Madaleno both called for greater state involvement in the effort.

“The state needs to re-engage the way it did, frankly, during the O’Malley administration,” Madaleno said. “When you outlined the thousand murders that have occurred over the last three years, well that was also since Gov. [Larry] Hogan has pulled back its involvement, the state’s involvement with crime fighting in the state of Maryland.”

To be sure, many of the candidates’ policies start to differ at a more detailed level, but the debate did not provide enough time to examine issues that closely.

So the candidates used their backgrounds to differentiate themselves.

Madaleno said afterward that he tried to show how he is informed by 15 years in the General Assembly.

“When you listen to the questions, you saw me answer questions with specifics,” he said. “Like that first question on education, … [my answer] was a very specific thing about tutoring, as opposed to platitudes about education policy.”

During the debate, answers frequently began with a candidate’s background.

When asked about education, Baker highlighted his time running “the second-largest jurisdiction in the state and the second-largest school system.” Ervin cited her time on the Montgomery County Board of Education and the County Council. Ross mentioned that he once taught the sixth grade at a school in West Baltimore.

Monday’s debate was the first of five scheduled before the June 26 primary.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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