OWINGS MILLS — Maryland’s two major candidates for governor squared off Monday in their only debate in a sometimes spicy back-and-forth in which they laid out two different visions of the state.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic nominee Ben Jealous shook hands in a brief meeting — their first — and then traded verbal jabs for an hour, going long on answers and speaking over each other. While neither landed a knockout blow, Jealous, after weeks of bad polling and campaign finance news, showed he was not counting himself out.
“I wouldn’t declare anybody a winner, but there was certainly no losers here,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College. “For people who tune in, I think they’re presented with people with two clear visions and I think what has to happen is the Jealous campaign now needs to capitalize on it.”
The Jealous campaign, moments after the debate, called the only debate of the general election “a clear turning point in the race.”
Jealous may need one after weeks of Republican campaign ads since June that have defined him as a socialist and his plans as budget-busters. Polling and campaign finance reports that have shown him lagging far behind Hogan.
“I think we saw a governor who was back on his heels, irritated at being challenged and really not able to defend his record of the last four years,” said Kathleen Matthews, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party. “I think we have a Democratic candidate with a vision for moving Maryland forward and we have a governor who has been comfortable with the kind of incremental governing that has reflected his first term.”
Kromer said the performance could breathe new life into the last six weeks of the campaign for Jealous and convince outside entities who could come in to help that the campaign isn’t over.
“It stops this idea of inevitability in its tracks,” said Kromer.
For his part, Hogan said he felt good about the debate and wasn’t back on his heels.
“I think it gave a pretty clear definition of what both of us are all about,” said Hogan. “It’s really a question of whether we want to keep moving forward or go in a completely different direction.”
Similarly, Jealous told reporters that the debate highlighted the differences between himself and his opponent.
“We came in with a simple question, on issues like transportation and education, if we have record funding, why don’t we have record results?” said Jealous. “The governor simply couldn’t answer the question. I think the people have got a clear picture. The governor has no plan to move forward, and I do.”
Following polite opening remarks, the candidates almost immediately began disagreeing starting with the first question, on the economy and jobs and stagnant wages.
“So first of all, wages across Maryland are up 9 percent, so you’re wrong on the facts,” Hogan said to the reporter who asked the question. “Wages have grown at every level.
Jealous, when it was his turn, responded that he believed the premise of the question was correct, saying that Maryland lagged behind other states, including neighboring Virginia.
“I don’t think so,” countered Hogan, who responded to Jealous numerous times throughout the debate, adding Jealous was making up the numbers.
The two also differed on public safety and staffing at state prisons.
Hogan acknowledged a staffing problem and but said that’s the result of federal investigations and indictments of officers. He said the state was working to implement a new hiring policy focused on weeding out bad job candidates.
Hogan called Jealous’ proposals to reduce prison populations dangerous.
“He wants to fire thousands of public safety officers and put thousands of dangerous criminals out on the streets,” said Hogan.
Jealous fired back, implying that Hogan’s rhetoric was a throwback to race-baiting political campaigns from three decades ago.
“I said I want to bring our incarceration rate in line with states like New Jersey, where violent crime is down rather than being up here,” said Jealous.
Hogan pushed back, saying Maryland has already moved to reduce the number of people incarcerated through reforms enacted two years ago to release nonviolent offenders and channel savings into job training, drug treatment and other anti-recidivism programs. Some Democrats, including state Sen. Robert Zirkin, have criticized Jealous’ proposals.
“Some of your proposals are reckless, but this one is dangerous,” said Hogan, adding that Jealous wanted to release rapists, murders and violent criminals.
“Governor, from Willie Horton to Donald Trump, your party plays by the same playbook,” said Jealous. “We see all the hateful ads that you been putting out for months. You’re trying to scare people because you don’t have a plan.”
Jealous invoked the name of Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner convicted of murder who failed to return from a weekend release. Horton was later captured and convicted of raping a woman and beating her fiance and shooting a Prince George’s County police officer. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 85 years.
Horton became a political bogeyman used by the campaign of Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988 against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee who was governor of Massachusetts at the time.
Kromer said the use of Horton by Jealous might play well with black voters.
“It could perhaps land among African-American voters in Maryland. Our poll suggests Hogan has made inroads into that community and the Jealous campaign does not want that to happen,” said Kromer. “The specter of Willie Horton is really a low moment in American political history where racism really permeated the campaign.”
Hogan gave as good as he got, including chiding Jealous for not being from Maryland at least three times.
“It is a fact that the first time you registered to vote was in 2012, and the first time you voted in a primary was for yourself,” said Hogan. “You just don’t know Maryland issues because you haven’t spent enough time here”
Jealous claims Maryland as his home. He was born in California. His parents, who married at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland, moved there in the early 1970s before Jealous was born. The Democrat said he came back to the state often while growing up because his family is in Baltimore.
“I won’t let anyone lie about where I’m from or who I am,” said Jealous.