With exactly three weeks to go until Maryland’s June 26 primary election, each of seven Democratic candidates for governor tried to emerge from the pack Tuesday at yet another forum, in the hope of somehow resonating with voters and being distinguished from the others.
In a primary race that should be showing signs of tightening, however, achieving that breakout moment still seemed elusive during the third televised forum so far.
Complicating the dynamics was the release earlier in the day of an independent poll that showed Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. to be in very good shape with Maryland voters in matchups against any of the seven Democrats — five months out from the general election.
There did appear for the first time to be noticeable friction among some of the Democratic candidates during the forum, which still seemed more like a polite exchange of ideas than a debate. Throughout it all, Hogan and President Trump, if not physically present, certainly were in the room in spirit – and much mentioned.
Many of the questions focused on issues that have been gone over in one way or another in earlier forums, televised and not: Education funding, the opioid epidemic, violent crime in the City of Baltimore, and even the May 21 death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy S. Caprio and the four city teenagers charged with her murder.
At least twice during the forum, other candidates referred kindly to Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., of Montgomery County, a four-term legislator and budget expert, for his leadership in the General Assembly, after he detailed his experience in response to a question about how he would differentiate himself from the other six.
“I’ve got the most extensive record of accomplishment at the state level,” Madaleno said. “For the last 16 years, I’ve … worked to move issues forward for the state of Maryland – whether it’s the Dream Act, marriage equality, restoring voting rights for felons, public safety, public transportation.
“If you want someone who is going to be able to follow through on their promises as your governor, I’m the person who’s been doing that at the state level,” he said. “On issue after issue, I’ve been told an issue would be impossible; I made it inevitable.”
Both Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a former member of the House of Delegates, and Valerie L. Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council and school board member, mentioned Madaleno’s work in Annapolis before beginning their replies.
James L. Shea, retired managing partner of Venable LLP, the state’s largest law firm, and former chairman of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, took a couple of shots at Hogan – as well as two of his competitors for the Democratic nomination.
In response to a question, Shea listed his skills and qualifications as businessman and administrator before turning to the political.
“I can beat Larry Hogan,” he concluded. “I’ll match my business record against his any day.”
He later used a question about education as a way to have at both Hogan and Baker in a sort of backhanded way.
The candidates were asked about slipping public school rankings cited in a report by the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, the panel studying the state’s education policy and funding formulas. The panel, known simply as the “Kirwan Commission,” is named for its chairman, William E. “Brit” Kirwan, former chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
“Thanks to the Kirwan Commission, education is an issue on which Larry Hogan is vulnerable,” Shea said.
Then he added: “I worry if our nominee is Prince George’s Executive Baker, Larry Hogan, with all his wiles and all his money, will be able to exploit the problems that his school system has had in Prince George’s County – whether it’s the hand-picked, failed superintendent or inflated graduation rates.”
That crack hit Baker where Hogan had already pounded him earlier this year.
Baker responded in turn.
“First of all, I want to alleviate Mr. Shea’s fear,” he said. “When I am the nominee, I can’t wait for the governor to come in and start talking about Prince George’s County schools.”
Baker went on to explain what he has done to improve county schools, but avoided the specifics of the schools’ outgoing chief executive officer, Dr. Kevin M. Maxwell, who is stepping down after the school year ends following a series of scandals, including the inflated graduation rates.
Later, Shea took aim at Benjamin T. Jealous, former president of the NAACP.
“My running mate, [Baltimore City Councilman] Brandon Scott, and I disclosed our tax returns,” Shea said. “Other than Rich Madaleno, nobody else on this dais has done that, including several – Ben Jealous among them – who promised to do so.”
Jealous did not respond to the income tax remark when his turn to speak came around.
Afterwards, Shea was unapologetic.
“I think it’s time for this election to take shape,” Shea said in an interview. “We all have an obligation … to make things real to the voter. I think they’re paying attention now.
“I think the time is now to start to air what’s going to happen — and it will happen,” he said. “It’s not as if Larry Hogan’s going to give any of us a pass.”
He did say that his remarks about Baker and Jealous were not influenced by the poll released Tuesday morning.
That poll, a survey of likely Democratic primary voters by The Washington Post and University of Maryland, shows Jealous overtaking Baker by 5 points, 21 percent to 16 percent. Baker, who has the backing of much of the party establishment, had to date been leading among Democratic primary candidates.
The difference, however, was within the margin of error and not considered statistically significant.
Shea was not alone in letting loose with a few zingers.
Out of nowhere, in response to a question about solving the problems of Baltimore City, Ervin took a swing at two long-time elected officials from the Prince George’s County area, both Democrats who have nothing to do directly with the gubernatorial race – Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the 5th District congressman who is minority whip in the House of Representatives.
“We have one of the most powerful congressional delegations in Washington, D.C., and Mike Miller is the longest serving Senate president in history, and Steny Hoyer has served the state for many, many years. These powerful people have set in their jobs while Baltimore has become a more and more dangerous city to live in,” Ervin said.
Without any further explanation, Ervin then began talking about the “root cause” of the city’s problems and the need to provide jobs, education and offer hope in the neighborhoods.
In her closing remarks, Ervin did make a point of mentioning that she had only become a candidate for governor after the sudden death May 10 of former Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz. She had been Kamenetz’s running mate for lieutenant governor and decided after his death to step up and run for governor, as is allowed by state law, picking Marisol A. Johnson as her running mate.
That change was too late in the election process for the state to reprint the primary ballot, meaning that voters wanting to cast a vote for the Ervin-Johnson team will have to vote for Kamenetz-Ervin, she pointed out.
Alec J. Ross, a former Baltimore teacher, technology policy expert and adviser to Hillary Clinton, attempted to set himself apart from the crowd as a sort of un-Democrat, slapping at his stage-mates as he did.
“I’ll tell you, if egos could fly, it’d be an airport out there,” Ross said. “Everybody up there has something impressive on their resume, but, you know, I feel sorry for those of you who are watching who just hear the word ‘I’ or ‘I’m the only’ or ‘I’m the only one, me, me, me.’
“You know, I gotta tell ya, this is why people don’t like politics. It’s the vanity of career politicians,” he said. “Rather than just be a Democrat who sort of follows the party line … I’m going to try and do things a little bit differently, get to the core of the problems, dig a little deeper.”
Krishanti O’Mara Vignarajah, a lawyer from Montgomery County who is pushing a “cradle to career” policy as part of her education plan, took a less confrontational approach, though still painting herself as an outsider.
“I’ve been called Donald Trump’s worst nightmare: I’m a mom, I’m an immigrant, and I worked at the White House as Michelle Obama’s policy director,” Vignarajah said, echoing a line she has used before.
“We tried politics as usual; it hasn’t worked. We tried the old boys club; it hasn’t worked, she said. “We need new leadership. We need one of us fighting for all of us.
“Some say no man can beat Larry Hogan. Well, I’m no man,” Vignarajah said.
The forum, a 75-minute affair, was cosponsored by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore, and the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy. It was streamed on The Sun’s website and broadcast at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the television station.