Analysis: Some Takeaways From the First Democratic Gubernatorial Forum

A scene from Tuesday night's gubernatorial forum on tenants' issues. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

If a gubernatorial candidate forum — the first of the 2022 election cycle — takes place and very few people watch it, did it actually happen?

We’re here to report that a Democratic candidate forum did indeed take place on Tuesday night, with a limited invitation-only audience in downtown Silver Spring, and livestreamed on the YouTube channel of Montgomery County Community Media. It’s worth checking out, for those of you — most of you — who missed it.

As you may have read in Maryland Matters Wednesday morning, six of the nine Democratic candidates for governor met to discuss tenants’ rights, rent relief and affordable housing issues for 2 1/2 hours. It was a substantive and important topic and many of the candidates came armed with appropriately weighty answers.

How did they do? And what glimpses did Tuesday night’s forum give us into the state of the race?

Everyone acquitted themselves reasonably well. The older white guys — Comptroller Peter Franchot and former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — held serve. The social justice candidates of color — former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain, former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., former nonprofit CEO and author Wes Moore, and former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez — were quite effective and often inspiring. Perez and King were the standouts.

King is not yet considered one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, but that could change. He seems to impress everyone he meets, and on Tuesday night, he had the most cohesive message, the greatest grasp of detail, and the most progressive policy prescriptions, which he coupled with his own inspiring life story. For a room full of advocates for tenants and low-income Marylanders, it was a powerful message.

Perez’s performance was also revelatory, because while he is often an effective speaker, he at times has a tendency to lapse into Beltway-speak, and despite his long history as a progressive champion, he has, fairly or not, been hampered in his ability to speak out by the limitations of his party leadership post. So Tuesday’s forum must have been liberating, as he displayed fluency with the issues and also his history of effectively working to address them — whether on the Montgomery County Council, or serving as Labor secretary during the O’Malley administration, or in his two big jobs in the Obama administration, as head of the Civil Rights division in the Justice Department and as U.S. Labor secretary.

Moore continues to be a compelling speaker. He was a few ticks behind King and Perez on policy specifics, but he made up for that with rhetorical flourishes and a broad agenda of equity and inclusiveness, which is buttressed by his up-from-the-bootstraps life story. He also finished strong, something audience members will no doubt take away with them.

Franchot started strong, with his warning that the state was sitting on $750 million in federal aid that hasn’t been spent yet. He exhorted state officials, and by extension, the crowd itself, to make sure the money gets into the hands of Maryland’s neediest as quickly as possible. It’s a theme he returned to throughout the evening, but he didn’t expand upon that agenda much at all, and in the end began repeating broad campaign themes like his vow to run a responsive state government that is attuned to Marylanders’ day-to-day needs.

Gansler also displayed fluency with housing issues, and explained how he addressed them during his time as attorney general and Montgomery County state’s attorney. He seemed measured and sympathetic for most of the evening, without making promises he can’t possibly keep.

But Gansler also made a couple of unmistakable gaffes. At one point, he labeled himself the only true environmentalist in the race and suggested that his opponents’ commitment to the environment goes no further than their household recycling. Responding to a question that all the candidates received about their experiences as renters, Gansler recalled that as a college student he was once almost thrown out of his apartment for too much partying — an uncomfortable reminder of the damaging incident that came to light in the 2014 campaign when photos emerged of Gansler at a beach rager where his son was a DJ.

Jain, a 32 year-old former Obama administration official, also did well, and it’s evident that his youth and enthusiasm, and some of the detailed progressive policy proposals on his campaign website, could be appealing to a certain swath of young voters. But even if he scores a “10” at every campaign event, it’s hard to see how he breaks through in this field. There were more than a few members in the audience Tuesday night wondering what legislative district in Montgomery County he lives in, and whether he wouldn’t be better than many of the county’s incumbent state senators.

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was supposed to participate in the forum, but he was understandably absent following the death of his wife, Christa Beverly, over the weekend. He has as much nitty-gritty governing experience as any of the other candidates.

Inexplicably, the organizers of the forum neglected to invite the other two Democratic candidates, tech entrepreneur Michael Rosenbaum and former Clinton administration official Jon Baron. Both released statements about their commitment to tenants’ rights and affordable housing after the event ended.

One campaign forum — the first, no doubt, of many — is hardly determinative. But it said something about the race so far. It will be instructive to see how the candidates hone their messages and tactics and build from here.

[email protected]

Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran 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 was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.