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At Coppin State forum, similar-seeming candidates flout their differences

coppin state forum_wypr.png
Seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates meet at a forum at Coppin State University. Credit: Coppin State University

On a stage at Coppin State University Tuesday night, seven of the 10 candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee for governor tried to differentiate themselves from the other members of the field.

The forum’s theme was the wealth gap and economic inequality. WMAR’s Kelly Swoope, the moderator, asked the candidates in attendance — Peter Franchot, Tom Perez, Jerome Segal, Wes Moore, Doug Gansler, Jon Baron and Rushern Baker — questions about education, transportation, police, income inequality, and COVID-19-driven workforce shortages.

From a policy standpoint, there appeared to be little disagreement among the candidates.

For example, when Swoope asked the candidates about their plans for implementing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the major education reform law passed last year, everyone except Segal expressed support for the new law.

But Gansler said the policies are almost beside the point in the primary election.

“We don’t have to invent the Blueprint. It's already there, ready for us. The key thing is, can we get a Democrat elected?” Gansler said. “Because if we don't have a Democrat that can actually beat [Republican candidate] Kelly Schulz this November, then the Blueprint will go into the trash can.”

There were a few policy differences.

On education, Franchot, currently state comptroller, pledged to reduce standardized tests, while Perez emphasized recruiting more people of color to teach and Baron suggested expanding KIPP charter schools, “which are no-excuses charter schools, extremely effective.”

But the candidates sold their real differences as their approaches to governing.

Baker highlighted his years of experience as Prince George’s County executive and in the state legislature.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, “you need somebody that knows what they're doing the moment that they walk into that office,” Baker said.

Likewise, every answer Gansler gave emphasized his time as state attorney general.

“What COVID has done is it's really highlighted the need for someone with experience, somebody who has actually worked the levers of government,” he said in response to a question about pandemic-driven workforce shortages.

Perez’s experience spans local, state and federal government, which he said is just the sort of experience a governor needs to address issues like poverty.

“What we need to do is a whole-of-government approach,” said Perez, who served on the Montgomery County Council and as former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s labor secretary before running the U.S. Department of Labor. “We need a governor who can understand the levers of local government, understand the levers of federal government, understand the levers of philanthropy, and understand and utilize the levers of state government, and that's where I have worked all around in my career.”

By contrast, Moore, a U.S. Army veteran and former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, pointed to the years some of his fellow candidates have spent in government as the problem.

“It's difficult to talk about how you are going to fix the system when you're not willing to acknowledge that your fingerprints are all over the system that needs fixing,” he said.

Baron, a former Obama Administration official, began every answer with statistics — more than a quarter of Maryland middle school students struggle with reading. The bottom 40% of Maryland workers have faced stagnant wages for the last 40 years. More than half a million Marylanders live below the poverty line.

He said he and running mate Natalie Williams would employ evidence-based solutions for every problem.

“All the candidates in this race share similar goals,” Baron said. “Natalie and my approach to achieving those goals is very different than the others’. What they are offering, and we've heard it tonight, is rolling out or expanding one unproven government program after another and hoping that's going to work.”

Coppin State Spokeswoman Robyne McCullough said all candidates who either raised at least $500,000 as of the January campaign finance reporting deadline or are using public financing were invited to participate in the forum.

Republican Kelly Schulz raised just under $1.5 million between April 14, 2021 and Jan. 12, 2022, state records show.