Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot has declined an opportunity to debate his main rivals in the Democratic gubernatorial primary later this week — a decision that was immediately condemned by opposition campaigns.
Franchot, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former non-profit CEO Wes Moore have all been invited to appear on the WYPR Radio program Midday on Friday. The trio have been the top-polling candidates for some time, consistently attracting more support than the six others seeking the nomination.
Moore and Perez have accepted the invitation from program host Tom Hall to participate in what he has billed as a freewheeling discussion.
But the Franchot camp told Maryland Matters on Wednesday that he will not take part. The campaign said it objected to Hall’s decision to exclude lower-polling candidates.
“We believe public forums should be open to all candidates in the Democratic primary,” the campaign said in a statement. “Every candidate has worked tirelessly over the last year and deserves a fair shot to speak with voters. This is especially true for taxpayer supported outlets like WYPR, whose reputation as an open and impartial resource to the listeners is so essential.”
For much of the campaign, Franchot has avoided unscripted environments, preferring instead to give speeches or conduct one-on-one interviews.
Hall confirmed that he plans to proceed with Moore and Perez. “My hope is to give voters another chance to hear what the candidates have to say, prior to voting,” he said. “It certainly would have been better if we had had all three candidates who are literally statistically tied.”
Perez and Moore slammed Franchot’s refusal to appear alongside them.
“It’s troubling that Peter Franchot continues to find excuse after excuse to avoid this conversation. That’s not what leaders do,” Perez said in a statement. “I strongly encourage Comptroller Franchot to do the right thing and join this important conversation.”
“Peter Franchot was going to find any excuse he could to hide from Maryland voters,” said Moore campaign spokesman Brian Jones. “…(His) stagnant campaign has finally realized what the vast majority of Democratic voters have known all year – his record is indefensible.”
The WYPR forum took on added significance on Tuesday when the Baltimore Banner released a new poll. The survey reinforced the existing perception that — with former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III out of the race — the Democratic primary is essentially a three-man contest.
Franchot was the choice of 16% of voters polled, while Moore and Perez both earned 14% support. The gap between the three is well within the poll’s 4.9% margin of error, making the race a statistical dead heat.
The survey of 403 likely Democratic voters was conducted by Goucher College for the Banner and WYPR. It was in the field between June 15 and June 19. Just over one-third of voters (35%) remained undecided.
Franchot was not alone in criticizing the station for limiting this week’s forum to the perceived frontrunners. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King accused WYPR of making “an unacceptable, biased, and shortsighted decision” not to extend an invitation to him.
“It should not be the role of publicly funded media to pick and choose candidates to present to voters based on unknown and arbitrary reasons — yet that is exactly what WYPR was attempting to do with this selective invitation,” King said in a statement.
Broadcasters routinely limit participation in debates to the top tier candidates, particularly as campaigns draw closer to Election Day. Typically, they use public polling to winnow the field.
King attracted 4% support in the Goucher Poll, and former Attorney General Doug Gansler drew support from 5% of those asked.
The Friday episode of Midday is moving forward after a plan to have the three leading candidates on the air earlier this week fell through.
Midday airs at noon on WYPR (88.1 FM) in Baltimore, WYPF (88.1 FM) in Frederick, and WYPO (106.9 FM) in Ocean City.
Early voting begins on July 7. Mail-in ballots have already gone out.
Moore draws support from Baker backers
Moore was in Prince George’s County on Wednesday, accepting endorsements from nearly every member of the county council. Lawmakers praised Moore for laying out a vision that will benefit lower- and middle-income residents.
“He’s the only one that’s going to be able to talk about those issues that affect everyday Marylanders, Prince George’s County residents who have been left behind,” said Council member Rodney Streeter (D). “The least, the lost and the left out.”
Attending the rally were Councilmembers Streeter, Mel Franklin, Dannielle Glaros, Sydney Harrison, Calvin Hawkins, Johnathan Medlock, Deni Taveras, Todd Turner and Council hopeful Eve Shuman (all D). Most endorsed Baker prior to his decision to withdraw from the contest.
In accepting the endorsements, Moore pledged that local leaders would have an ally in the State House if he is elected. “In order for me to do my job, it means that I will move in partnership and unity with each and every one of you,” he said. “We know that — in order for us to move forward — it does not mean having [a governor] who will wave their fingers at local elected officials and say ‘do better.’”
Moore pledged to expand pre-kindergarten for lower-income families, “prioritize” mass transit and make Maryland a “state of innovation.”
Baker’s endorsement on hold
When he suspended his gubernatorial campaign on June 10, Baker pledged to endorse one of his former rivals.
“We’ll sit back and analyze what makes sense,” he told Maryland Matters at the time. “But I can’t see a scenario where I don’t [endorse]. People want to know what you think.”
Baker’s plans have been upended by his decision to participate in Maryland’s public financing campaign.
Because he accepted approximately $800,000 from the state, the former Prince George’s county executive runs the risk of having to reimburse taxpayers if he were to formally end his campaign and endorse a rival.
Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the state Board of Elections, said the conundrum Baker faces “was not anticipated” when the legislature created the public financing program.
“I believe that this would be something that the next General Assembly will definitely address, to come up with a carefully crafted response to allow for participation — but not gamesmanship — in the program,” DeMarinis said in an interview.
Baker said he would still like to endorse, but he’s waiting on a clarification from the elections board as to whether he can do so without having to formally withdraw from the contest.
“We’re hoping for something in writing this week that says ‘here’s what you’re allowed to do under the law,’” he said.
The delay has frustrated the campaigns hoping to land his endorsement. “They’ve all called. They’re like, ‘You’re stringing us along,’” Baker said. “And I’m like ‘No, I’m not.’”