In a startling development, the Hogan and Jealous campaigns announced late Thursday that there will only be one debate in this year’s gubernatorial election, a late September encounter on Maryland Public Television that will air in both the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore markets.
The decision to have just one debate follows weeks of behind-the-scenes skirmishing between the two campaigns, and it was immediately denounced by observers, who said the public is being short-changed.
“Only one debate in Md. gubernatorial race… is a disservice to [the] public,” Washington Post senior regional correspondent Robert McCartney posted on Twitter.
Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer called it “a loss for the voters” and “a missed opportunity to demonstrate the importance of spirited, civil and thoughtful debate.”
Maryland Public Television news anchor Jeff Salkin will moderate the single gubernatorial debate.
“An ugly decision that should embarrass both campaigns,” tweeted former NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood, an analyst on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.” “The losers are Maryland voters.”
There is some indication that a sticking point between the two campaigns may have been the fact that one of the debates would have been co-sponsored by WJLA-TV, which is owned by the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The Hogan campaign announced in July that it had accepted two debate invitations — the first one, Sept. 17 on MPT, and a second, Sept. 24, on WJLA (ABC-7) in Washington, D.C., which was to have been co-sponsored by The Washington Post.
The Jealous campaign objected, saying publicly that it wanted five debates, including one on NBC4 and Telemundo that would reach a Spanish-speaking audience; one on WYPR, the NPR affiliate in Baltimore; and an additional face-to-face on Real News Network, a relatively new left-leaning news organization based in Baltimore that broadcasts online.
The impasse lasted for weeks, until the joint announcement from the two camps Thursday evening saying there will only be one debate. It will be taped at 11 a.m. on Sept. 24 at MPT’s studios in Owings Mills but it will not air until 7 p.m. It will be shown on public television, WBAL-TV and WJLA-TV.
“We wanted more. This is what they would agree to,” said Jealous spokesman Steven M. Hershkowitz. “We thought he would be willing to have the same number that he called for four years ago.
“They clearly are trying to limit debate on the issues.”
Not so, countered Jim Barnett, Hogan’s campaign manager: “The governor very publicly accepted two debate invitations. If the Jealous campaign wanted more than one debate, they could have taken yes for an answer. But they self-evidently did not want more than one debate.”
“Instead… they offered up the idea of just one debate and there was never any request for more than one debate. We accepted their offer.”
The Jealous campaign said it agreed to do only one debate grudgingly, after coming to the conclusion that no amount of negotiation would get Hogan to debate in October.
The Hogan campaign on Thursday released a recent email exchange between Barnett and Jealous campaign manager Travis Tazelaar regarding debates.
If Tazelaar took the Jealous campaign’s public push for more debates (and October dates) into his private discussions with Barnett, there’s no evidence of that in the emails released by the Hogan, and the governor’s camp is emphatic that it never came up.
But Jealous’ senior adviser Kevin Harris maintains the Hogan campaign was aware of the Democrat’s desire for more debates. “However, it became clear after several weeks of no progress we ran a real risk of voters not having any opportunities to hear from the candidates,” he said.
In 2014, when he was still the underdog, Hogan called for five debates. His Democratic opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, wanted two. They compromised on three debates. All occurred in mid-October.
“Each side gave a little bit,” said a person involved in the 2014 negotiations. “We ended up with one debate in D.C., one in Baltimore and one on public television.”
“One debate is not a compromise,” said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth. “One debate is really disrespecting the geographic and political diversity of Maryland.
“I think the optimal number would be three, the number of debates the candidates for governor agreed to four years ago.”
In July of 2014, the Hogan campaign put out a news release accusing Brown of “ducking” debates. The statement trumpeted that Hogan “received and accepted” eight debate invitations, including from NewsChannel 8/WTOP/POLITICO, the Maryland Municipal League, WBFF-TV, the Maryland Association of Counties, WJZ-TV/Baltimore Sun, WBAL-TV/WBOC/WHAG/MPT, WMDT-TV, and the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.
The Barnett-Tazelaar emails show a uniformly polite, friendly exchange between two professionals.
In one email, dated Aug. 16, Barnett writes: “Good to hear from you. I’m happy to grab a coffee or beer as I’d enjoy getting the chance to meet you and commiserate, but as far as debates go, we’ve accepted all the invitations that we are prepared to accept.”
Tazelaar replies: “I understand. Let me know if you have time to grab a beer this week. Can meet you somewhere convenient for you.”
Another exchange contains a nugget that may offer partial insight into why negotiations weren’t more fruitful.
“I can work with MPT to negotiate that date,” said Tazelaar on Aug. 31. “We’re good with the Post, but not WJLA.”
WJLA is owned by Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, a station group that has drawn the ire of liberals for its perceived rightward-lean, a charge station owners and executives vehemently deny.
Boris Ephsteyn, a former Trump White House aide, is the chain’s chief political analyst. His interviews are exclusively with Republican lawmakers and Trump cabinet officials, and his Twitter feed is a catalogue of pro-Trump talking points.
The Jealous campaign would not comment about what Tazelaar meant with his comment about WJLA.
“Candidates are looking for every opportunity for an incremental advantage,” said Farnsworth, the UMW scholar and author. “And if they feel like a given reporter is a little more hostile or a little less hostile, that goes into the calculation of which debates to agree to participate in and which ones to pass on.”
Greg H.N. Massoni, a former top aide to ex-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) who is Sinclair’s executive producer of town halls and was involved in the debate negotiations, did not respond to messages left on his cell phone.
Earlier this summer, Jealous declined an opportunity to appear on the same stage as Hogan at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City. They would not have been on the stage together, but would have appeared back-to-back, answering the exact same questions.
As for the more-debates-versus-fewer-debates skirmish, Farnsworth said it often comes down to election dynamics.
“Incumbents tend to want fewer debates, challengers more. You saw that with Gov. Hogan, as a challenger.”
Editor’s note: Bruce DePuyt worked for WJLA/NewsChannel 8 from 1993 until 2017. He produced and moderated the debate between Brown and Hogan in October 2014.