The Democratic candidates for governor who participated in a televised forum on Monday were strikingly gentle in their treatment of one another. Rather than use the first joint media event of the primary, now just five weeks away, to draw direct contrasts with one another, they instead focused their must cutting remarks on the man the party’s nominee will face in November, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), and, in a few instances, on President Trump.Speaking to reporters after the event, several candidates and campaign strategists said the lack of intramural sparring reflects the relatively narrow range of policy differences for candidates to exploit. Also, because candidates have participated in so many forums, they lack the personal animus needed for the knives to emerge, at least so far.The lack of direct attack — what some call negative campaigning — also represents a desire to avoid the salty nature of the 2014 Democratic primary.“That’s what we saw four years ago — a more contentious primary,” said state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. “And in the end, I think it disheartened the voters. With clear negative spillover into the general [election].”“Our interest is in making sure that the Democrats in the state have a chance to select a candidate based on their ideas,” said former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous. “And I applaud the rest of the field for practicing that. People just want to know what you stand for, and they want to be able to decide based on the facts, avoiding the mudslinging that you see in other states.” The Democratic candidates for governor prep for their first televised forum Monday in Baltimore. Photo by Bruce DePuyt The format for the debate, which aired on Maryland Public Television, provided a 30-second rebuttal opportunity for any candidate who was referenced by a rival, a feature that seemed to create a disincentive to attack.Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said he hopes the lack of ill will continues to be a feature of the campaign. “Any one of us would be better than Larry Hogan. But we’re not going to be able to take on a Republican who has a lot of money, who is popular, and who has no [primary] opponent… if we tear each other apart.”“The best thing for us to do, and I think you saw that today, is for each of us to make our case as to who would make the best governor. … I hope that continues for the next 38 days, because that will put us in the best position to win.”Former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie L. Ervin has only been a candidate for a few days, but in an interview she made it clear she thinks voters would be better served by more direct engagement. “Everybody’s being careful not to step on anybody’s toes, everybody agrees with everything, [so] it’s hard to distinguish.“Here’s what I hope we accomplish in the next several of these: We start to distinguish ourselves separate from each other,” she told Maryland Matters. Ervin said there were moments in the debate in which candidates tried to gain a leg up on a rival — but they were subtle. “When Rich started talking about having experience… he was trying to figure out how to get the Ben Jealous zinger in there. I knew what he was doing.”“The other one was [tech entrepreneur] Alec Ross. Alec Ross tweeted right before we went [into the studio] about [former Michelle Obama adviser] Krish [Vignarajah]. He said, ‘Why is Valerie Ervin not allowed on the ballot when Krish is on the ballot and she is disqualified?’ — and he [linked] to the Washington Post expose” on Vignarajah’s residency and voting history.Baker made frequent references to his executive experience, running one of Maryland’s largest and most complex subdivisions. Madaleno played up his strengths as an expert on the state’s budget and his “leadership on the issues that matter.”Ervin touted her experience as chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council after the fiscal crisis. Ross called himself the Obama administration’s “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” guy.Attorney James L. Shea focused on his tenure as a statewide transportation and education advocate, Jealous his advocacy for people at the margins.Vignarajah, perhaps the most verbally adroit candidate in the field, utilized a rapid-fire delivery style to delineate a host of policy proposals she would pursue as governor. And political newcomer James Jones said it was important that people understand where state monies go.All of them, at one time or another, attacked Hogan by name, as when Baker accused the governor of “not being involved” in the public safety challenges facing Baltimore City, a criticism Hogan’s campaign vehemently rejected.Will the campaigns keep up their “nice guy” routine as early-voting, now just three weeks away, approaches?It would seem unlikely. The death of Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, a frontrunner until his passing on May 10, grows an already large segment of undecided voters, meaning that — in theory — this is a still-fluid race, and that even candidates currently polling in the single digits may have a chance to cut to an outside lane and catch those now leading the pack, especially in the absence of a William Donald Schaefer or Martin J. O’Malley-style “favorite son” from the Baltimore area.“We all like each other. We agree on a lot of things,” said Jealous. “There are some big differences. I’m the only candidate up there with a plan to move us to state-based Medicare-for-all, the only one with a plan to actually make sure that we take on the big pharmaceutical companies.” “I have a record and an in-depth knowledge of the state,” said Madaleno. “Other people gave platitudes. I think you saw a big difference. There are people who have governing experience; there are people who have none.” “For me, it’s not Democrat vs. Republican, it’s politician vs innovator,” said Ross, an advocate of legalized, regulated marijuana and the use of smart-gun technology. “Where I’m trying to distinguish myself is that I’m not from the traditional merry-go-round of Maryland politics.”[email protected]
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va. He’s a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.