Analysis: A Forgettable Candidate Forum. But It May Not Be the Candidates’ Fault

Blame it on the format – 57 minutes for nine candidates to rush through their talking points, with puzzling, random opportunities for so-called rebuttals which should have been labeled something else. Or blame it on crazy Ralph Jaffe – the perennial candidate for high office who seemed to get more airtime than anyone else. Or on a moderator more concerned with keeping things moving than eliciting an illuminating discussion. The second televised forum of the Democratic gubernatorial primary that aired Wednesday evening – 27 days before the June 26 election – did very little to educate voters. That is, if anybody was watching. It aired on Newschannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., market and on CW 54 in Baltimore – hardly outlets that are making their competitors sweat, ratings-wise. 

The nine Democratic candidates for governor prepare for their forum Wednesday.

Newschannel 8 Twitter photo. So what happened, news-wise? To their credit, the reporters on the panel, Brad Bell of ABC 7 in Washington (actually, Arlington, Va., where the forum was held) and Chris Papst of Fox 45 Baltimore, tried to keep it current and relevant. They asked questions about the killing last week of Baltimore County police officer Amy Caprio, the devastating weekend floods in Ellicott City, and, more broadly, education and police-community relations. And the candidates gamely answered, to the extent possible given the short response time (20 seconds, in the case of the question about Ellicott City). Their bottom line: Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) hasn’t offered enough leadership. He hasn’t done enough, they agreed, to address issues of racial inequity. He hasn’t provided adequate funding, they argued, for public schools. He’s responsible, they suggested, for a broken juvenile justice system and maybe even for the flooding in Ellicott City, because his desire to eliminate the “rain tax” has weakened stormwater management. He hasn’t worked to defuse the angry rhetoric emanating from the White House, they asserted. One candidate, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., implied that Hogan and his allies benefit politically from despair in Baltimore and other depressed areas. “They realize that if the problems fester, the people turn to them,” Madaleno said. With general agreement on remedies for what ails the state – more investments in schools and forgotten communities; less automatic incarceration and a more compassionate justice system; more green energy and climate mitigation programs – the candidates tried to highlight their backgrounds and stylistic differences. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said he’s confronted many of the same problems the state is facing today – from police killings and tensions between cops and residents to educational challenges and economically struggling communities. “We have to move forward with leadership at the top,” he said. Former Montgomery County councilwoman Valerie L. Ervin, new to the race following the untimely death of Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz three weeks ago, discussed the accidental nature of her campaign – and of her political career, which, she said, started when one of her young sons was reading below grade level. She described her political trajectory as “an unlikely journey.” Former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous described his activist past and his aggressive progressive agenda. “Folks will tell you the things I want to do are big,” he said. “Well, I’ve already accomplished big things.” He touted his endorsements from “nurses, 74,000 teachers, and groups representing hundreds of thousands of working Marylanders.” Madaleno, with 16 years in the General Assembly under his belt, used his fluency on the state budget to spotlight specific fights he’s waged against Hogan. Tech entrepreneur Alec J. Ross talked extensively of his early years as a teacher in Baltimore City. He lamented the myriad challenges that his students faced, and he described many of them as “geniuses.” “Talent is everywhere in this state and opportunity is not, and that has to change,” he said. Baltimore attorney James L. Shea highlighted his experience as chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and his advocacy for more transportation investments, saying he accomplished this “all while building a business and creating jobs.” Former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah highlighted her status as an immigrant, as a graduate of Maryland public schools, and as a woman with a rare opportunity to defeat Hogan. Several of her sentences began with the line, “I’m the only candidate who…” For people who have been following the Democratic gubernatorial primary for a while, many of the candidates’ lines sounded familiar. For voters just tuning in, they may have served as sufficient introduction. Yet there were instances when it seemed like some of the candidates were picking up a conversation in mid-thought. If you had been following the thread for a while, it may have made sense. If you hadn’t, maybe not. There are serious candidates here, with a variety of interesting life experiences and thoughtful ideas about improving the state. But with little money – only a few of the contenders are currently airing TV ads – there are few ways for them to get their message out. It is easy to imagine Hogan and his campaign team watching Wednesday’s forum with glee. Predictably, the campaign pushed back on everything that was said. “These candidates are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And the fact is they are consistently wrong about the governor’s strong record of accomplishments for Maryland,” said Scott Sloofman, a campaign spokesman. If there’s any consolation for Democrats, it’s this: Eventually, they’ll have a nominee, who will be able to go toe-to-toe with Hogan in TV forums. And Hogan, four years ago, wasn’t the world’s greatest TV debater, either. [email protected]

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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