The Democrats running for governor in Maryland are largely united in their disdain for Republican incumbent Larry Hogan, their belief that more money is needed for education and transportation, and that Montgomery County is a thriving, diverse community whose challenges are often overlooked in Annapolis.
All eight Democrats running in the June primary attended a candidate forum Thursday morning at the Committee for Montgomery’s annual legislative breakfast. Always a popular event, where the 7 a.m. “coffee and networking” hour is crowded and boisterous, organizers say they set an attendance record this time, with more than 900 people squeezing their way into the Montgomery County Conference Center’s main ballroom.
There were few disagreements on policy, but the event showcased the styles and backgrounds of the field, which includes two county executives, two entrepreneurs, two veterans of the Obama administration, a state senator and a former NAACP president.
All of the candidates support a dedicated state funding stream for the Washington, D.C., region’s beleaguered Metro system, and most said the state should spend more on school construction. None of the candidates went after a primary rival in a direct manner.
If there was a competition, it was in trying to chip away at Maryland’s popular incumbent governor. Montgomery County Sen. Rich Madaleno, playing to his home-court advantage, taunted Hogan on his transportation plan, which includes widening Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
“Are we really going to double-deck the Beltway through Montgomery County?” Madaleno asked. “Where are you going to fit Holy Cross Hospital in all this? We all drive the Beltway. Where are you going to fit four [additional] lanes? It’s an example of how little he knows our community.”
Added tech entrepreneur Alec Ross: “When I read his plan, I was like, well, they’re not doing drug tests in the Office of the Governor. It read like the interns wrote it that morning.”
Attorney Jim Shea, former chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said, “When there are improvements, as occasionally there are, they’re scattered. They’re isolated. And you have roads to nowhere. The first thing we need is a [statewide] plan.”
Policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings said Hogan’s highway widening plan will harm the environment by encouraging people to drive more. “I embrace a truly multi-modal, interconnected transportation system. I think we need to think about it beyond just Baltimore city and Montgomery County.”
Former NAACP president Ben Jealous said Hogan is “trapped in the 1970s. We need to be forward-thinking and embrace solutions for this century — bus rapid transit… ensuring that we fund the Metro fully… making sure that we’re on the cutting edge, [not] living in some nostalgia.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker described how he, Montgomery Executive Ike Leggett and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz tried unsuccessfully to get state leaders to increase the school construction fund. “We were willing to put a 2-to-1 matchup,” Baker said, “but we couldn’t get that deal… We need a governor that understands the needs of school systems across the state, and be willing to step up and make the argument in front of the General Assembly, and that’s what I will do as governor.”
Said Kamenetz: “We need to increase [the school construction budget] to at least $400 million a year and then focus on the jurisdictions that have the greatest problems with growth and have the ability to match those funds immediately.”
Former Obama administration official Krish Vignarajah said her family moved from Baltimore County to Montgomery last summer because of the county’s quality schools and diversity, but she said, “There are two Marylands. There are disparities. There are schools that are world class and schools that are crumbling.”
Madaleno criticized former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), now a congressman, who lost to Hogan in the 2014 gubernatorial race. “I begged Lt. Gov. Brown to run on [increased school funding] four years ago, to come to Montgomery County and say, ‘I will deliver a billion dollars’ worth of school construction… He didn’t, and he lost. I’m not going to make that mistake.”
Ross, noting that Montgomery County has 17 percent of the state’s school population but only gets 11 percent of school construction funds, said: “You’re getting screwed right now, and it’s going to get worse” if Hogan is re-elected.
Hogan was invited to attend the forum but declined. A spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, hit back at the Democrats.
“Unlike the politicians who just talk about it, Governor Hogan is providing the long-overdue and balanced leadership to relieve traffic congestion including finally getting the Purple Line built and adding lanes to the Beltway through a $9 billion public-private partnership,” she said in a statement. “He has provided record funding for K-12 education, and school construction funding has increased every single year and will again this year. The governor has done all of this and more while putting an end to the years of nonstop tax increases that will no doubt return if he is not there to stop them. Sadly, it’s the political season, and facts are out of style these days.”
Jealous is the only Democratic candidate to have selected a running mate, former state Democratic chairwoman Susan Turnbull, who lives in Montgomery County. She attended the forum, but inexplicably Jealous neglected to mention her presence to a room full of Montgomery County politicos.