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Several of the Democrats running for governor used the first televised debate of the campaign to introduce new attacks on various rivals, clashing over support for Maryland’s ambitious new education funding plan and personal ethics.
The attacks created several tense moments during the hour-long Maryland Public Television debate. While mild by the standards of Capitol Hill or cable news, the accusations marked the most pointed exchanges of the months-long campaign. The barbs flew as voters prepare to receive mail-in ballots ahead of the July 19 primary, with early voting set to begin on July 7.
Author and former non-profit CEO Wes Moore launched a broadside against Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), accusing the state’s chief tax collector of “pay-for-play” — of using his post to leverage donations. Moments later, Moore’s campaign emailed reporters a list of instances in which companies that received contracts from the Board of Public Works, on which Franchot serves, donated to his campaign shortly before or after key votes.
“The people who will get Peter Franchot’s support often-times are those who pay for it,” Moore charged. “Twelve times that has happened, that he has offered a contract to someone who has donated to his campaign. So when we’re talking about integrity, pay-for-play is not part of that integrity pledge.”
The documents distributed by the Moore camp catalogued more than $60,000 in donations from companies that received more than $2 billion in state contracts.
Maryland’s comptroller serves alongside the state’s governor and treasurer on the contract-approving board. Contracts originate with state agencies, universities, hospitals and other institutions and Moore made no claim that Franchot was steering state business to cronies.
Given the chance to respond, Franchot ignored Moore’s attack. Instead, he cast himself as a fiscal moderate who is socially compassionate. “But I say to people, I’m not a robot,” he said, a bit incongruously. “I’m not going to do exactly what the powerful people in Annapolis want me to do.”
Pressed by reporters after the debate, Franchot said he was “proud” of the contributions his campaign has received.
Moore also found himself on the receiving end of an attack when former U.S. Labor Secretary and DNC chair Tom Perez suggested that Moore’s work as an investment banker undercut his claim of being an ethical “public servant.”
“From 2007 to 2012, I was fighting predatory lenders,” Perez said. “During that same time, Wes was working at Citibank. Citibank was one of many banks that were very bad actors in the foreclosure crisis. I took on big banks and I personally don’t know how working at Citibank is public service.”
Moore responded by complaining that “zero” Wall Street executives went to prison for their role in the collapse of the economy. “That’s not getting stuff done,” Moore chided. Perez noted that he worked in the civil rights division, not the fraud unit.
Moore also accusing Perez of actively seeking support from Black voters despite being the subject of a no-confidence vote by the Congressional Black Caucus. “So the truth is, Tom, when you talk about what it means to hold people accountable and what it means to fight for the little guy, the little guy is the one whose actually been oppressed by you,” Moore said.
Perez countered, saying that one of his “strongest supporters” is “my good friend Keith Ellison,” a former Congressional Black Caucus member. “When I got to be DNC chair, we didn’t have the White House. We didn’t have the Senate and we didn’t have the House,” Perez offered. “Now we have the White House, the Senate and the House.”
Former U.S. Education Secretary John King accused Moore of serving on the board of a “predatory for-profit college that was taking advantage of students.”
Moore said as a board member at American Public Education, which included American Military University, he was not aware of an investigation by the state of Massachusetts for predatory lending practices. The investigation started in 2017 and he left the board at the end of that year.
“The reason and the focus that I had there was in ensuring that our veterans would get access to education,” Moore said.
The school subsequently reached a settlement to pay a $270,000 fine to the state in August 2018.
King said the system he helped the Obama administration set up to cancel debt for students who attended colleges with predatory lending practices, is once again operating under the Biden administration.
Franchot was accused of rewriting history with regard to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a landmark education funding initiative approved by the General Assembly in 2021. During legislative debates, Franchot spoke against the proposal, particularly its multi-billion-dollar price tag, which flowed from recommendations put forward by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, chaired by former University System of Maryland chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan.
“I support the Kirwan plan. I’m going to implement it,” he said, making no mention of his prior opposition to it. “We’re going to do things like putting the money into where the kids and the teachers can actually benefit from it.” He told reporters after the debate that his early comments reflected concerns about the Blueprint’s cost, concerns he still has.
Perez chided Franchot for his apparent reversal. “Budgets are moral documents,” he said. “They reflect the views of an individual and the values of a community.”
The candidates make their case to voters
With the primary now just seven weeks away and polls showing that large numbers of likely voters in both parties remain undecided, the candidates also used the debate to appeal directly to the electorate.
While they have debated numerous times across Maryland, the MPT forum provided an unusual opportunity for voters to see the candidates without leaving home.
Former prosecutor and state Attorney General Doug Gansler sought to distinguish himself as “the only pro-business, pro-law enforcement candidate” in the field.
“This election is about crime and criminal justice,” he said. He claimed to be the only candidate with relevant experience, and he reiterated his pledge to hire 1,000 new police officers and to restore security personnel to every Maryland school.
Perez stressed his experience in local government, as state labor secretary and in the Obama cabinet, and he touted his endorsement from the Washington Post.
Franchot said he would have “zero tolerance for repeat violent offenders” and would work to keep them “off the streets.” He called for a reinstitution of “community policing.” He also pledged to open community health clinics within a short walk or drive for every Marylander.
Moore, a best-selling author whose father died when he was young, played up his military experience, his private sector work and his efforts to fight poverty through a national non-profit.
King, who focused on progressive policy positions throughout the debate, said he would be the “education governor” for the state of Maryland and had a proven track record of expanding educational opportunities.
He was responding to a question about how to address learning loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic as the broadcast abruptly ended, having run out of time. On air, King said he would mobilize a statewide tutoring corps to help kids catch up. After the cameras stopped rolling, he also said he would dramatically expand access to mental health counseling for young people. That, King said, would require a greater infusion of state funding, which he would achieve through corporate tax reform
“We need a governor who’s willing to invest more resources in our highest need schools,” King said. “…The other candidates have been afraid to talk about revenue … I think we can get there through asking large corporations and multi-millionaires to pay their fair share.”
Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said his administration would be marked by a commitment to “talking truth to power.” He lamented more than 2,000 “mostly young Black men in Baltimore City” have been “slaughtered” over the last eight years. “Let’s be honest. Nobody says anything. Nobody gives a damn because they’re Black.” He played up his experience in Prince George’s where crime fell during his tenure.
Entrepreneur Jon Baron said Maryland must re-evaluate the practice of funding programs without regard for whether they work. He said the state must be more systematic about putting tax dollars into programs that have been proven to get results.
Former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain took aim at “extreme sentences” for children and the use of for-profit prisons. He advocated for improved rehabilitation services, free public transit and enhanced workforce development.
In the crowded Democratic field, perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe and former college lecturer and founder of the Bread and Roses socialist party Jerome Segal, were excluded from the stage.
Segal said in a press release the exclusion was because he failed to meet a 3% polling threshold, which he protested.
According to a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll — the first independent survey of the campaign season — released Sunday, Jain garnered support from 2% of those polled and Baron, Jaffe and Segal attracted support from 1%.
Segal announced his intention to bring legal action against Maryland Public Television, starting with an injunction against any further exclusions of his campaign, and likely contesting the renewal of their broadcast license.
The debate was moderated by Maryland Public Television anchor Jeff Salkin. Three journalists asked questions to the candidates, WBAL-TV news anchor Deborah Weiner, AFRO-American Newspapers news editor Alexis Taylor, and radio host Clarence Mitchell IV.
The debate will air today from 7 to 8 p.m. on MPT-HD, WBAL-TV, and WBAL-AM. It will also be available to watch at mpt.org/livestream and the MPT YouTube channel.
Danielle E. Gaines and Nene Narh-Mensah contributed to this report.