Maryland's Democratic candidates for governor spent much of their first primary debate on Monday focusing on the candidate who wasn't on stage with them, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Eight candidates appeared together for the first time at an event produced by Maryland Public Television in association with WBAL-TV. From the start, candidates took aim at the incumbent who is seeking to become the first Republican governor in 64 years to be re-elected in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.
"Too many Marylanders feel ignored, left out and forgotten by this governor," said Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, a two-term county executive in one of the state's largest jurisdictions, near the start of his opening statement to kick off the event.
The governor's would-be opponents pounced on his decision not to move forward with the Red Line light rail proposal in Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, as an indicator he wasn't leading the state in the right direction to stimulate the economy and reduce traffic congestion.
"While Marylanders have focused on Donald Trump, Larry Hogan has taken us in the wrong direction," said Jim Shea, a Baltimore attorney and former chairman of the state's largest lawfirm. "Our schools have slipped, we sit in the worst commuter traffic in the nation, and our economy lags behind our neighbors."
School infrastructure problems and crime in Baltimore also were highlighted.
"I think the people of Maryland are tired of Larry Hogan spending money the way he wants to spend it for his own agenda," said James Jones, who also is seeking the nomination. "People are tired of their children going to schools and not having heat and air conditioning. People are tired for the murders that occurring every day in our streets."
Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, underscored his experience as the head of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
"If you want to make Donald Trump's blood pressure go up, if you want to beat Hogan, send a civil rights leader to be your next governor," Jealous said.
The Maryland Republican Party, meanwhile, panned the event as "uninspired."
"These debates should come with a viewer warning message; 'Be advised prolonged exposure will result in extreme boredom and likely deep sleep,'" Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire said.
Scott Sloofman, Hogan's campaign spokesman, said Hogan has provided a record level of financial support for the city, including nearly $4 billion in local transportation projects.
"It's politically inconvenient for these candidates to admit, but Maryland is better off under Gov. Hogan's steady leadership, and they promise little more than a return to the failed policies of the past," Sloofman said.
The popular governor doesn't face primary opposition. The primary is June 26.
Valerie Ervin, whose campaign for governor is only days old after deciding last week to run in place of Kevin Kamenetz who died suddenly this month, says candidates are going to have to start talking about their differences.
"Some people are running for the first time," Ervin said. "They have no experience in government," Ervin, a two-term Montgomery County Councilmember, said in an interview.
State Sen. Richard Madaleno said his experience and record in state government separates him from the other candidates.
"I would say it's my unique proven record of results for the people of the state of Maryland from Ocean City to Oakland, Maryland, and my leadership on the issues that matter for the people of the state," Madaleno, of Montgomery County, said in his opening statement.
Alec Ross, a technology entrepreneur and author from Baltimore, said he was the standout candidate as an innovator who could bring fresh solutions to recurring problems the state faces.
"I think the biggest difference is you've got a merry-go-round of career politicians who are just going to do exactly what is Democratic Party doctrine, and then you've got me, who is going to focus on the root of the problem," Ross said after the debate.
Krish Vignarajah, a lawyer and former policy director for Michelle Obama, said she was the candidate who was both fiscally responsible and socially progressive.
"I think that there is an opportunity to highlight how we can fully fund our schools support businesses, but also protect our environment, address the opioid crisis - a couple of issues that we obviously didn't touch on during this debate, but fortunately there's are going to be a few more debates, so I suspect we will have an opportunity," she said after the event.
Candidate Ralph Jaffe did not attend, but recorded comments were to be included when the debate is broadcast Monday evening.
"I want to get money out of politics," he said. "And also I want to put a stop to these career politicians because all they care about is themselves."