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Md. Democrats jab, offer broad visions in lone governor’s race debate

6/6/2022 | Erin Cox

The Washington Post

Eight candidates, all men, discussed crime, education and a gas tax holiday as perceived front-runners went on the attack

In the lone televised debate of Maryland’s highly competitive Democratic primary, eight men running to be the state’s next governor jockeyed to be the party’s standard-bearer on Monday, pointing to crime, education and the economy as the chief voter concerns.

But the one-hour debate, which aired at 7 p.m. Monday, also featured nuanced distinctions on how far the successor to term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan (R) should go to address income inequality, child care and the yawning academic, financial and mental health gaps wrought by the pandemic.

The Maryland Public Television-WBAL debate also featured the most pointed jabs yet among the perceived front-runners in the wide-open July 19 contest, with sparring over big policy issues and the candidates’ personal records.

Former U.S. Labor secretary Tom Perez accused Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot — who has high name recognition from decades in public office — of flip-flopping on whether to support a sweeping $4 billion education program the next governor will implement.

“My friend here, Franchot, says he now supports it,” Perez said. “That’s not what he said during the deliberations, and that’s not what his actions show.”

The program is a marquee Democratic accomplishment that will funnel cash into poor schools, teacher pay, tutors, prekindergarten and scores of other programs. Most candidates have campaigned on implementing it — and several have called for it to go even further to address losses from the pandemic.

Franchot, who calls himself “a fiscal moderate,” deflected the accusation in the debate and said in an interview afterward that he has long been skeptical the state can afford it. But, he added, as governor he would be obligated to fund it. “We’re going to take a look at it,” he said.

Author and former nonprofit executive Wes Moore directly questioned Franchot’s integrity, accusing the four-term comptroller of accepting donations from 12 people with contracts before the Board of Public Works, on which Franchot sits.

“When we’re talking about integrity, pay-for-play is not part of an integrity pledge,” Moore said.

Franchot shrugged off the charge. I have the integrity of my long service in politics that’s been totally vetted, and I come back to the fact that the voters have this trust and confidence in me,” he said.

The field boasts impressive political and public service résumés, qualifications candidates say are critical to taking back the governor’s mansion from Republican control. Despite Democrats’ 2-to-1 registration advantage in Maryland, the party has lost three of the past five governor’s races and is eager to elevate a candidate capable of winning in November.

Franchot, who has spent 20 years as a state delegate and the past 15 years as the state’s chief tax collector, has sided with Hogan on some issues that rankled the Democratic Party’s leadership, but Franchot has pitched himself as an independent politician.

Moore is a first-time candidate who collected many high-profile party endorsements and demonstrated fundraising prowess, raising the most money in the field as of January, the most recent data available.

Perez, who is also a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, has consolidated support from labor groups.

Both Moore and Perez pressed each other on their pasts.

Moore raised the Congressional Black Caucus’s 2018 no-confidence vote about Perez to suggest he would not do enough for Black voters. (Perez replied that he has and he would.)

Perez charged that while he was negotiating settlements during the mortgage crisis, Moore was making money working at Citibank. (Moore noted he was not working in mortgages.)

John B. King Jr., former education secretary under President Barack Obama, questioned whether Moore was involved with a company that condoned predatory lending; Moore dismissed that claim.

But amid the sniping, the candidates also laid out broad visions for the state.

Ashwani Jain noted he was eschewing corporate donations and paid campaign staffers, and pitched a long list of policy ideas, including replacing police officers in schools with public health professionals and eliminating the state income tax for lower-income residents.

Doug Gansler, a former attorney general, said that “this election is about crime and criminal justice,” and pitched himself as a law enforcement candidate capable of tackling rising violence. He suggested universal prekindergarten and child care, but did not offer specifics.

Franchot suggested forgiving student loans of people who live in the state for five years and creating more community health centers statewide. He called violence around the state a threat to economic vitality. “If we don’t have any public safety or a concept of public safety, we can’t have a thriving economy,” he said.

King, who emphasized his role in education, said the state’s sweeping education plan “should be the floor, not the ceiling,” and was the only candidate who did not endorse a holiday from the state’s gas tax, saying the state should invest in reducing dependence on oil: “We need to act like climate change is the existential threat that it is,” he said.

Former Prince George’s county executive Rushern Baker touted his record leading that county and his ability to pull the levers of government. He noted crime reductions and economic development in the county, and said he was using public financing for his campaign because “I don’t want corporations or special interests to think they can control what we’re trying to do.”

Jon Baron, a former nonprofit executive and federal official, touted his data-driven approach to the state’s problems, including “focused deterrents” that offer job pathways and counseling to violent offenders — and stricter penalties if they break the law again. He also pitched high-quality tutoring for every struggling first- and second-grader in the state, which he said data shows is effective.

Moore noted that career politicians have had decades to address the state’s issues and failed. He promised to address child care, crime, mental health and education with an eye to equity and to “tackle these problems with a sense of urgency that no one else will.”

He said that with rising costs and crime, people are not “feeling safe, both in our communities and in our own skin.”

Perez touted his varied career path as a civil rights prosecutor, state and local official, political organizer and former labor secretary, encouraging voters “to do your homework” on which candidates have proven records in public service.

“If you want to figure out what someone has done in the future, look at what they have done in the past,” he said.

Jerome Segal, one of the two Democratic candidates not included in the debate because they did not meet Maryland Public Television’s eligibility criteria, said Monday he was considering legal action over being excluded, but he did not specify which laws he believed were broken. The station later invited him to a separate interview to be aired later, to which he agreed. Perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe also was not invited.