Democrats vying to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan in November gathered in Baltimore on Monday looking to make their case and differentiate themselves from a large field or introduce themselves to voters for the first time.
Eight of the nine Democratic primary candidates — Rushern L Baker III, Valerie Ervin, Ben Jealous, James H. Jones II, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Alec Ross, Jim Shea and Krishanti Vignarajah — took part in an hour-long debate that featured few fireworks in a race that has been described at times as sleepy.
“It just shows with this amount of candidates on stage it becomes really difficult, I think, for voters at home to really fully differentiate between the candidates,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College, who watched the debate from outside the room where it was taped. “It’s a limited format but that’s the trade-off between equality and inclusion and these kind of long-form answers. …There are some points of differentiation but I’m not sure if there’s any huge, really big surprises.”
The debate at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which was taped in the morning and aired Monday night on television and radio, is the first of four broadcast debates involving all of the candidates in advance of the June 26 primary.
A recent Goucher Poll, taken before the sudden death of Kevin Kamenetz, showed Baker leading slightly the Democratic field slightly in head-to-heads against Hogan followed by Jealous, Kamenetz and Madaleno.
In that same poll, Hogan’s job approval remained close to 70 percent and he bested all Democratic challengers on one-on-one contests.
The Maryland Republican Party promoted a video in advance of the debate mocking the challengers on low attendance at events, lack of name recognition and questions about residency issues. The video, titled “Uninspired,” strikes a similar tone to Hogan’s “Most incompetent man in Maryland” videos in 2014 that targeted then-lieutenant governor Anthony Brown, his Democratic opponent.
For the most part, there was little separation between the candidates, who all said they were running against both the incumbent Hogan as well as Republican President Donald Trump.
“I’m running for governor because we have to beat Larry Hogan,” said Shea, the former chair of Venable LLP and Democratic party activist and donor. “Maryland’s future depends on it.”
“They say no man can beat Larry Hogan,” said Vignarajah, the former Michelle Obama aide who until last week was the only woman atop a Democratic ticket. “Well, I am no man.”
She also highlighted her personal story as a child of immigrants saying she was “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.”
In another moment of differentiation, several of the candidates said they objected to descriptions of Democrats as candidates likely to raise taxes.
Jealous said he plans to “tax the one percent one percent more” to pay for some of the programs he favors such as universal healthcare and pre-K.
Ross, the technology policy expert and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University and former Hillary Clinton aide, said he favored increasing revenues through taxing and regulating recreational marijuana in the state.
Shea criticized Hogan for not following through on his promises to implement broad-based tax reductions but struck a similar tone as Hogan, saying he would not lower taxes until the state fully invests in education and infrastructure.
“I will not raise taxes but I will not promise that I will lower taxes,” said Shea.
And while there were no fireworks, some may have been nervous.
Ervin, who announced her intention to take Kamenetz’s position at the top of the ticket last week, mispronounced the name of her running mate Marisol Johnson twice in her opening statement.
Ervin used the Monday debate to introduce herself to voters but also to appeal to supporters of Kamenetz. She frequently cited Kamenetz’s record on issues from education to his record of not increasing taxes in Baltimore County.
“In a lot of ways she is in this race because she was chosen to be Kevin Kamenetz’s running mate,” said Kromer. “I think that she does need to make the case to Kamenetz’s voter base…that he picked her for a reason and that she agrees with that vision.”
Ralph Jaffe, a perennial candidate, did not appear because of a religious obligation, said a spokesman for Maryland Public Television. Instead, Jaffe will participate via a segment taped last week and added in before the show runs Monday night on Maryland Public Television as well as other television and radio stations.
In the nearly five-minute video, released to reporters, Jaffe answers four questions — some similar to those asked to the other eight candidates. In his answers, the educator focuses on what he calls his movement to eliminate corruption and career politicians.
In what might have been the only attempt to challenge fellow Democratic candidates, Madaleno, a state senator from Montgomery County, used his opening speech to throw an electoral haymaker at Jealous’ and Vignarajah’s reported records as voters in Maryland, describing himself as “a life-long Maryland resident and a life-long Democratic voter in the state of Maryland.”
Questions about Vignarajah’s residency have dogged her since she announced her interest in running. A Washington Post report story this month raised new questions about her residency after the paper viewed her voter registration in Washington.
Seventh State, a Maryland politics blog, raised questions about Jealous’ registration and lack of participation in Democratic primaries. Jealous has said he could not vote because he registered as an independent while serving as the national president of the NAACP.
Neither Jealous nor Vignarajah responded directly to Madaleno’s comment.