The frontrunners in the Democratic gubernatorial primary found themselves under attack Thursday from rivals in the last televised debate before the June 26 primary. The encounter, the liveliest of the months-long campaign, came on the first day of early voting, providing candidates who have lagged in the polls one final high-profile opportunity to generate some momentum.
Attorney James L. Shea dove right in, using his opening statement to target by name the two men who polls suggest have the best shot at securing the nomination, declaring that either would be vulnerable to campaign season attack from the Republican incumbent.
“If Rushern Baker is our nominee, [Gov. Lawrence J.] Hogan Jr. will exploit the problems of the Prince George’s County Schools system, including that Baker’s own hand-picked choice [for CEO] was forced to resign, and that graduation rates were inflated,” Shea said. “I had none of those problems while I was head of the University [of Maryland] System.”
“If Ben Jealous is our nominee, Larry Hogan will portray him as a tax-and-spend Democrat. You can’t do that to me; I’ll match my business record with Larry Hogan’s anytime.”
During the taping of a televised forum that will air Sunday, attorney James L. Shea (right) criticizes Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (left) and former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (second from right) as state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. looks on. Photo by Bruce DePuyt
Baker let the comment pass, but Jealous did not, saying, “I agree with Jim Shea that if Baker goes up against Hogan, he’s just going to lose.”
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. noted that polls have consistently shown that many Democrats have been slow to pick a candidate.
“They’re undecided because they don’t like the choice of the party bosses,” he said, an apparent slap at Baker. “They’re undecided because they don’t like the choice of the outside groups that are pouring money in,” a dig at Jealous, for whom four independent expenditure groups, representing labor, teachers, environmentalists and nurses, are now active.
Voters “want someone who they know is a strong Marylander… who has stood up to the party bosses over and over to get things done,” Madaleno said, adding, “Do I have outside special interests… pouring money into my campaign? No. Mr. Jealous has 80 percent of his funds coming from people outside the state of Maryland.”
Tech entrepreneur Alec J. Ross also went after the frontrunners, though not by name. “Undecided voters are dominating this race and I think they want a new face with new ideas,” he said. “I’m not from the political merry-go-round that comes out of Annapolis, that comes from the old Maryland permanent political establishment.”
Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama, said that “new face” should be a woman’s: “The truth is, people in this state are sick of the fact that, out of 14 federal and statewide offices, we don’t have a single woman. … They want not just a woman at the table, but at the head of it.” Vignarajah noted in an interview that record numbers of female candidates around the country are running, and winning, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and the election of President Trump.
The format for the debate, which was taped at the NBC4 studios in Northwest Washington, D.C., made it difficult for candidates to respond to one another directly, but in interviews afterward, both Baker and Jealous defended themselves from the salvos leveled by their rivals.
“I would love to have the conversation with Gov. Hogan about his education record and the things that I’ve done over the last eight years in Prince George’s County,” Baker said. “We actually increased the number of [students in] all-day pre-K. We reduced the truancy rate. Dropout rates in the county have gone down. We increased the number of our kids who are going on to four-year institutions with scholarships.”
“There are people fishing for something,” said Baker, who just picked up the endorsement of former gubernatorial candidate Valerie L. Ervin. “They know that the tide is turning, that we’re picking up momentum. … We knew that there would be grenades thrown at us.”
Baker accused his rivals of making policy proposals without describing how they would pay for them. “How do you provide universal health care in Maryland without bankrupting the budget? How do you provide free college? How do you provide all-day pre-K?”
Jealous spokesman Kevin Harris fired back against Baker’s contention that the former NAACP president’s proposal for a single-payer health care system would drain the state budget. “What Rushern Baker doesn’t understand is that the current system is already bankrupting the state and families,” Harris said. “Either you have the courage to fix it or you don’t, and what Rushern Baker is clearly saying is that he doesn’t. Our plan makes clear how Ben would solve this problem. Baker apparently has no plan.” Harris also rebutted Madaleno’s charge that Jealous has received more money from donors in California than Maryland. “We have the lowest average donation and more Maryland donors than any other campaign,” he said. “Baker received 40 percent of his contributions from corporations while Madaleno only decided to take public financing when his campaign began floundering.”
The debate featured a wide range of issues, including transportation, marijuana, the incentive package Maryland has offered Amazon, gambling on professional sports, the environment, and gang activity.
While the candidates heaped scorn on Hogan, all — when asked — could name something positive he had done in office.
When asked if they had ever tried marijuana, only two — Ross and Jealous — answered in the affirmative. “With Dave Chappell,” Jealous added, to laughter from the small studio audience.
Moderator Tom Sherwood, a longtime NBC4 reporter, asked the candidates if they would ask any of their rivals to join their cabinet if they become governor. Only two took the bait, with Shea and Jealous saying they would select Madaleno, a former House Appropriations staffer who now serves as vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, to serve as budget secretary. Madaleno said of his opponents, “everyone up here is amazing” and would be a better chief executive than the incumbent.
Sherwood also asked candidates to disclose whether they had ever made any payments for sexual misconduct. All said they had not done so. They also declared they had filed Maryland tax returns for five consecutive years. Madaleno pressed for a follow-up, suggesting that candidates commit to posting their tax returns online, but Sherwood shut him down, one of several times the two seemed to spar.
The main portion of the debate, which ran an hour, will air on NBC 4 on Sunday at 11:30 am. An additional 30 minutes of questions and answers will be posted on the station’s website, NBCWashington.com.