Candidates struggle to separate at WMAR debate

BALTIMORE - The eight remaining candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination continued to struggle to separate themselves as they engaged in debate at WMAR’s York Road studio, the fourth forum in the 2018 primary race, held Wednesday, June 6

While passion about issues abounded, so did general agreement and similarities among campaign platforms. Supporting Democratic pillars like education, the environment, immigrant rights, transportation access, and the economic opportunities of Maryland’s struggling families and small business, each candidate extolled their expertise and experience, but often found themselves building on the similar sentiments of candidates to either side of their podiums.

Education took the forefront of the day’s discussion, as school safety, education funding, and the Kirwan Commission’s findings and implementation are top priorities for the Democratic Party and many Maryland voters. WMAR anchor and debate panelist Kelly Swoope broached the topic early with a question about school safety, a concern for many with the frequency of school shootings in recent years.

“I think arming teachers is probably one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard,” said Alec Ross, who touted his and his wife’s experience working in Baltimore City Schools frequently when addressing issues related to education. He stressed the need for more social workers and mental health professionals working in districts, a point nearly all candidates agreed upon.

“We do not want to turn our schools into armed encampments,” said Valerie Ervin, who has since dropped out of the race after assuming the ticket of deceased Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. A general wariness about bringing more armed personnel into schools was expressed by many candidates, preferring the longer-view approach of addressing mental health and gun access.

“We have a federal government that apparently values guns more than children,” said Jim Shea, addressing the access to weapons that plays a part in so much of the state and nation’s violence, particularly in schools. 

State Senator Richard Madaleno said that Larry Hogan is viewed favorably by the NRA and will not fight for tougher gun laws, something he and his Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly have pushed forth, like bans on assault weapons and the new “red flag” law. Ross pushed for “smart gun” technology, citing how often guns used in school shootings are not owned by the shooter. Krishanti Vignarajah called for all guns in the state to be registered and insured like cars.

Jim Jones brought the question to it’s most literal and immediate interpretation in speaking of safety officers within schools, making access to buildings and classrooms more difficult. “This has nothing to do with counselors, not right now,” Jones said. “Not when we are talking about safety and protecting our students.” 

What became a frequent theme when addressing education was funding, or the lack thereof. The Daily Record’s Bryan Sears asked how candidates would work to implement the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, a group tasked with assessing the state’s education system and spending in each district, then making policy suggestions on how to increase opportunity and equity. 

Madaleno spoke of his experience in the legislature, actually serving on the Kirwan Commission and understanding how it will be phased in and paid for over time. He said the state currently enjoyed a budget surplus, “so there is money available,” as well as proposed additional education review from the potential sale and taxation of commercial cannabis, something Ross also agrees with. Gambling revenue was also seen as a revenue source, with Madaleno calling for his potential future challenger, Governor Larry Hogan, to call a special session of the Assembly to put a sport’s book gambling initiative on the upcoming November ballot. 

Ervin, along with Jones and Ralph Jaffe, were circumspect of expanding gambling, despite potential revenue generation. 

“I think all gambling is wrong. I think it’s immoral and reprehensible, especially if it impacts families. Gambling is an addiction that is worse than heroin,” Ervin said. She cited state funding numbers, saying the state pays nearly $16,000 per student for education, yet gets drastically different results across jurisdictions. “Something is wrong when you spend that kind of money on your students and they’re still not succeeding.” 

“Money is not the answer,” Jaffe said, frequently speaking of his “tutor-mentor program,” as the best way to lift students and schools. “Good teachers are the answer.” 

Former NAACP President Ben Jealous spoke of being endorsed by the state’s 74,000-member teachers’ union as evidence he will be the best champion for the state’s schools and their students.

Moving funds away from prisons and more heavy-handed criminal justice towards education was spoken of by Vignarajah and Ross and shared by several candidates. If voters want to spend less on police, prisons, economic assistance, and other socially corrective programs, they need to pick candidates that will invest in education now, as successful students go on to be successful adults. 

“You pay now or you pay later,” Ross said. “If we invest early and take a long-term view, we’ll invest less on those other problems.”

Nearly all candidates felt tough choices need to be made on budgetary decisions, with Rushern Baker touting his administrative experience as Montgomery County Executive. As the state’s top executive, “budget is your priority,” Baker said. 

Budgeting to fix school systems was at the heart of a later question by Swoope, asking how candidates would address Baltimore’s aging school infrastructure, particularly the problem of students freezing in cold winter classrooms or sweating in schools that lack air conditioning. 

“We need to be a partner with the city to fix its infrastructure,” Madaleno said, referencing how Montgomery County banded together and worked with the state to raise the level of all schools. He spoke of the work he and his colleagues did in the Assembly to fund the building of 26 new schools and provide free meals to students. 

Shea proposed building an investment fund that schools could use to finance repair projects and pay back those expenses over time. 

“This is a perfect example of how Larry Hogan’s administration has failed,” Shea said, suggesting the city and state should have worked together to solve these problems. “A governor who leads would coordinate that and come to Baltimore’s rescue, not place blame.”

The adversarial relationship between Baltimore and the state at large, personified as Hogan versus Baltimore City, was a frequent gripe of the Democratic field. 

“Why does Baltimore continually receive second-citizenship status,” Ervin said. “Where is the leadership that represents the state of Maryland and in particular the city?”

Several candidates spoke of Hogan’s acumen as a politician but lacking as a political leader. 

“He’s a great politician, but he’s a sorry governor,” Baker said, talking of families who can’t find work, children stuck in crowded classrooms, commuters lingering in growing traffic, and environmentalists worried about protecting the state. “That’s how we defeat him, talk about his record.”

Ervin cautioned of the potential hard right turn Hogan could make as a second-term governor no longer worried about reelection in a heavily Democratic state, referencing the second term of Hogan’s close political friend, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“There’s only one way to defeat Larry Hogan. We need to turn out voters,” Jealous said, citing he and his running mate Susie Turnbull’s experience cultivating voters in previous elections, particularly drawing high numbers that helped elect President Barrack Obama. 

Madaleno agreed with the sentiment but referenced a Washington Post poll he said stated he was the best candidate to take down the incumbent governor. With Democrats enjoying a 2-1 edge among registered voters in the state, part of Hogan’s 2014 win relied on a low turnout among the state’s Democratic base. 

A strong record of supporting Democratic principles “will get Democrats out to vote,” Madaleno said, “and that is what I have been doing as a legislator, and that’s what I will do as governor.”

Where Hogan has long been criticized by many city advocates is his abandoning of the east-west transit rail infrastructure project the Red Line. During his administration, much of the state’s transit funding has gone to road projects in the county and the lowering of road tolls. The candidates spoke of how many Maryland residents complain of sitting in constantly growing traffic congestion or trudge through circuitous and unreliable public transit systems. 

“Many of you watching this debate deal with soul-crushing commutes,” Ross said. He proposed continuing to expand MARC train services in terms of hours and the system’s westerly coverage.

Shea spoke of studies that see widened roads having minimal effect on congestion, as soon the extra lanes are just filled with extra drivers. “It’s not good policy,” he said.

Nearly the entire Democratic field called on the state working with local jurisdictions to better transit options and expand access, with Jealous calling for a “21st Century plan,” that would reinstate of the Red Line, improve and expand the Metro subway system and MARC trains connecting Washington, D.C., and restore the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

Another system rife with problems is the Baltimore Police Department, as panelist Sean Yoes of The Afro called the department “arguably the most corrupt in the United States.” The department is a state agency, so its proposed return to city control was debated. 

Hammering his theme of rampant corruption among all politicians, Jaffe was unsurprised the BPD would struggle with corruption in its own ranks, calling for former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton be pursued as the next commissioner for Baltimore. 

Baker, Shea, Ross, and Vignarajah all said the city should take control of the department, with Ross and Vignarajah calling for expanded efforts to recruit locally so the officers reflect the demography of the city they patrol, and so they would have deeper ties to those communities. 

Ervin was harsher in her condemnation of the department, convinced the corruption was so deep and far-reaching the problem couldn’t be fixed and a restart was needed. 

“We should scrub the whole police department and have police officers rehired based on certain criteria,” she said. 

The theme of judicial overreach came up in the discussion of undocumented workers too, as Yoes asked how the state should treat its immigrant population, particularly those who may not have legal status. 

As to be expected in a field of Democrats, welcoming all Maryland residents was paramount, though the topic brought forth candidates’ most vitriolic words as they spoke of President Donald Trump and his administration’s treatment of immigrants.

“Donald Trump is a vulgar, demented, pig demon,” Ross said of the hatred the president directors towards the undocumented.

“Our president is not just unpresidential, he is un-American,” Vignarajah said, supposing that her family’s acceptance into the United States as refugees fleeing a civil war decades ago would likely result in them being turned away by the current administration. 

Madaleno and Shea spoke of standing up for immigrants and making sure everyone in the community felt welcome and safe. 

Both Jealous and Ervin highlighted getting arrested in Washington, D.C. while supporting DACA protections for immigrants, and Ervin spoke of continuing the legacy of Kamenetz, who would made Baltimore County a “sanctuary county,” where local law enforcement would not pursue the federal priorities of assessing residents’ immigration status. Baker implemented similar legislation in Montgomery County, but took his rebuke of the current administration further, saying “this president has got to go.”

Though the economics of immigration were not debated, Sears asked about another business concern for the state, referencing difficulties faced by small businesses in Maryland.

Baker spoke of the initiatives underway in Prince George’s County, where an economic development incentive fund invests in small and medium-sized businesses. 

“If we invest in those business,” he said, “they will grow and hire more Marylanders.”

Ross was among the candidates who cited holes in the state economy, saying there are 20,000 tech jobs that go unfilled as the state lacks qualified workers for such roles. He proposed a $1 billion innovation fund to make industries and workers more prepared for the jobs of the future. 

Jealous said getting Maryland to 100% renewable energy was his “moon shot,” and the subsequent growth of green economy jobs would be a boon for state workers, a called shared by Vignarajah and Ross. Both she and Ross also called for the state to simplify its regulatory code so it is easier for small businesses to navigate. Ross cited the Byzantine and potentially corrupt craft brewing industry as a quintessential example of a growing group of entrepreneurs who face an undue burden in the state and frequently see more favorable treatment in neighboring states.

“If Democrats want to be the party of the working class,” Vignarajah said, “we’ve got to be the party of small businesses.”

The role of the party as an arbiter of fairness came up as Sears broached the subject of redistricting, a process that will follow the 2020 census and thus become a prerogative of the next gubernatorial administration. 

“We’ve had too much partisan redistricting and both parties are guilty of it,” Jealous said, a sentiment shared by his colleagues but approached with different degrees of caution. 

A bipartisan commission to evaluate and redraw state lines was promoted by Madaleno, Vignarajah, and Ross, though Madaleno hedged, “we need to partner that with campaign finance reform,” saying that even if fairer districts are created, if wealthy candidates can spend their way to office, it won’t change much. 

Baker is in favor of redistricting, but warned “you don’t unilaterally disarm,” referring to the need for fellow states, particularly those with heavily Republican gerrymandering, to redraw fairer lines simultaneously so that neither party gains an advantage. 

Since Hogan, a Republican governor, will play a hand in redrawing new district lines, Shea shared a simple solution that could assuage Democrat’s fears about the process.

“We need to make sure Larry Hogan isn’t there,” he said. 

Click the picture below to see images of from behind the scenes at WMAR’s Democratic Primary Gubernatorial Debate:

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