Voters who may have been looking for policy differences among Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates didn’t get many of them during a forum in Silver Spring Monday night.
The two-hour forum, hosted by the Montgomery County political organization Progressive Neighbors, featured five of the seven announced candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination—tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah, state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Kensington), Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III and Baltimore attorney James Shea.
Two other Democrats in the race—former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz—did not attend. Jealous was teaching a public policy class at Princeton University, as he does on Mondays, according to his campaign. Kamenetz had a scheduling conflict, his campaign said.
Given that Progressive Neighbors works to promote progressive Democratic policies locally and in the state, many of the questions during the forum revolved around their support for policies such as raising the minimum wage, public campaign financing and public education funding.
Four candidates clearly supported raising the minimum wage. Madaleno noted that he was a lead sponsor of a Senate bill the past two years to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15. Baker detailed how Prince George’s County, in concert with Montgomery County, raised its minimum wage above the state level over the past three years. Ross and Shea both said raising the wage can help reduce inequality.
Vignarajah, however, said she would be “incredibly cautious” raising the minimum wage, so as not to put the state at risk of being less competitive compared to neighboring states who aren’t also raising their minimum wages.
All of the candidates supported public campaign financing for the state. Shea described “dialing for dollars,” or phone calls to ask for money, as disheartening. He said the process creates inequality between wealthy interests and policies pushed by activists who can’t afford to make large donations to political campaigns.
“If you had to raise money like my colleagues up here, you’d be for public financing,” Baker said.
Ross supported public financing and said the state also should ban campaign donations from regulated industries in the state. He described these donations as “remarkably transactional.”
Vignarajah, the only woman in the race, which she highlighted throughout the night, said one reason women often choose not to run for public office is because of the need to raise money.
One of the loudest applause lines for Vignarajah of the night came when candidates could ask questions of each other.
Vignarajah turned to Ross and asked him: “So Maryland has obviously 14 federal and statewide elected positions, eight congressmen, two senators, the governor and lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general. None of those positions are filled by women. Maryland also has never had a female governor. Do you think that this may be time?”
Ross responded by joking she should consider the races other than governor.
The question of whether Vignarajah was eligible to run for governor based on her past residency and voting did not come up during the forum.
Last week, she announced she would seek a court order to determine whether her votes cast in Washington, D.C., from 2010 to 2014 would make her ineligible to run for governor in Maryland. Candidates for governor must have been registered in the state for five years before the election under state law. Vignarajah, whose Maryland registration remained active while and after she cast votes in D.C., maintains she is eligible to run.
The candidates also agreed that work needs to be done to make college more affordable. Vignarajah called for free community college and Ross said the state should do more to promote vocational education.
Shea, a former chair of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, also said officials in higher education need to focus more on vocational education that can help train students for specific jobs in growing industries in the state.
“We need a first-rate vocational education system,” Shea said.
The candidates also were asked about their ability to beat Gov. Larry Hogan in a general election.
“Gov. Hogan has already lost re-election. He just doesn’t realize it,” Madaleno said before describing the Democrats’ nearly 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters in the state and adding that Democrats must do the hard work to get them to vote. He also took a jab at Rep. Anthony Brown, who was lieutenant governor when he lost to Hogan in the 2014 general election.
“Four years ago, we nominated an extraordinarily great person, who ran an amazingly bad campaign, and we cannot let that happen again,” Madaleno said. “And we will not let that happen again because we’re going to go out and campaign. Not from Baltimore to Bethesda, but from Ocean City all the way out to Oakland. … We’re not going to leave any community behind.”
Baker said he would highlight his experience as a former delegate and county leader to prove to voters he can pass legislation Democrats want.
“That’s what I bring to the people,” Baker said. “I can lead the state and get these things done.”
Shea said he would make the case that Hogan failed Maryland.
Ross, who has not held elected office, said he would be a new face with new ideas who offers “a really sharp contrast to Hogan.”
Ross also took a shot at Hogan’s recently announced $9 billion plan to add new toll lanes to Interstate 495, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. He described it as “an absolute fantasy” not rooted in reality. He said Hogan hasn’t explained how to add lanes to highways already hemmed in by residential and commercial developments in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“It was a total gambit by Hogan and he mostly pulled it off,” Ross said. “He has to be held accountable for the truth of it.”
The forum was one of the first local ones in what’s expected to be a busy campaign season for the Democratic candidates ahead of the June 26, 2018, primary.
The United for Maryland Political Action Committee is hosting another local forum from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Montgomery College’s Globe Hall at 20200 Observation Drive in Germantown.
None of the Democratic candidates took any significant shots at each other on Monday.
The most recent poll in the race, from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, found Baker with an early lead for the Democratic nomination with 28 percent. The poll showed 11 percent for Kamenetz, 10 percent for Jealous, and 3 percent for Madaleno. Ross, Vignarajah and Shea were polling at 1 percent or less.
About 46 percent of the 625 registered Maryland voters who were polled were undecided.