Maryland’s leading Democratic Senate candidates met in a public forum for the first time Sunday afternoon, broadly agreeing on a range of topics, including immigration policy, LGBTQ+ rights, education spending and economic priorities.
But the 90-minute discussion generated some surprising heat, as Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks took issue with U.S. Rep. David Trone’s frequent and not-so-subtle digs at “career politicians” and also pointed out that Trone, a wealthy businessman, has made campaign contributions to “dangerous Republicans” in the past.
A visibly irritated Alsobrooks said at one point that it was “so intellectually dishonest for a three-term member of Congress seeking political advancement” to criticize fellow politicians.
“Being in public service has been the greatest honor of my life,” she said.
After some sniping, the third candidate on the stage, businessman Juan Dominguez, who was situated between Trone and Alsobrooks, joked, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to move my seat because the debate is getting real.”
Sponsored by the Latino Democrats of Prince George’s County, the forum drew about 300 people to the auditorium at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, despite the rain and fog and the presence of a Washington Commanders football game just five miles away. Elizabeth Seton is a Catholic school in a part of Prince George’s where the Latino population has grown dramatically in recent years.
The candidates in the May 14 Democratic primary are vying to replace U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), who is retiring in 2024 after three terms in the Senate and an extraordinary 58-year political career. Democrats are heavily favored to hold the seat in November 2024.
In some ways, it was a hometown crowd for Alsobrooks, who had dozens of supporters in attendance, including several who waved signs outside the school before the forum began. But Alsobrooks has had an uneasy relationship with some Latino leaders in Prince George’s County, who have complained about the lack of Latinos in key positions in county government and have accused her administration of ignoring their communities, and some of those tensions were plainly apparent at the forum.
When the event ended, Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), the senior Latino elected official in state government who was sitting in the second row, asserted that she would not endorse Alsobrooks in the 2024 Senate primary and said it was “too late” for the executive to be seeking Latino support now that she’s running statewide.
“It was very clear today what she has not done for the community in her first four years in office,” Peña-Melnyk said in an interview.
Alsobrooks sought to tout her record on issues of concern to Latino voters, citing cash cards that the county government handed out to residents during the pandemic, expanded health care services for Latino residents, along with affordable housing and business development initiatives targeted to heavily Latino neighborhoods. She frequently sought to make a connection with the audience by discussing her working class upbringing and the fact that she’s a single mother of a teenaged daughter and is also scrambling to care for her aging parents.
“The issues at your kitchen table are also at mine,” Alsobrooks said.
Alsobrooks has vacuumed up endorsements from political leaders across the state, starting with Gov. Wes Moore (D) — who benefited greatly from a strategically timed endorsement from Alsobrooks in his own campaign last year. U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who will serve alongside the winner of next year’s Senate race, has also endorsed her — and her list of additional endorsements from current and former elected officials is about a mile long.
Alsobrooks has also made the case for her candidacy by noting that Maryland’s 10-member congressional delegation is all male and that the state has never elected a senator of color.
“We have too few in the United States Senate that live like you and look like you and think like all of you,” she said.
Trone, who has powered his campaign with millions of dollars from his own pocket, has sought to spotlight his progressive bonafides throughout the campaign, flooding the airwaves and Democrats’ mailboxes with ads about his support for civil liberties and his commitment to hiring ex-offenders and extending benefits to same-sex partners at his multibillion-dollar national liquor business, Total Wine and More. Trone’s discussions of criminal justice reform have come with jabs at Alsobrooks, who was Prince George’s County’s top prosecutor for eight years before becoming county executive in 2018.
Trone’s progressive agenda is also designed to blunt criticism that he gave donations totaling six figures to several state-level Republican politicians before he was elected to Congress, primarily in states where Total Wine and More is in business.
Trone on Sunday frequently described “career politicians” as short-sighted and incapable of proposing innovative solutions to the nation’s problems.
“There’s no question that career politicians don’t have the life experience that we need to come up with new ideas,” he said, comparing veteran politicians to “an iceberg” that can’t be turned around easily.
During a discussion on abortion rights, Trone directly challenged Alsobrooks: “I’d love to hear what County Executive Alsobrooks has done on abortion proactively in Prince George’s County.” The format of the forum, however, did not provide her with an opportunity to directly respond.
The event was a coming-out party of sorts for Dominguez, a former business executive from Anne Arundel County who once held local office in New Jersey and has struggled to gain traction in the Democratic primary. Dominguez fought furiously with leaders of the Prince George’s Latino Democratic club to be included in the forum, after they sought to exclude him, due to his lack of fundraising, from an earlier event that had to be rescheduled. Dominguez, the son of Cuban émigrés, argued that the only Latino in the race needed to be included in the proceedings.
Displaying no evident nervousness at sharing a stage with more seasoned political leaders, Dominguez used Sunday’s forum to amplify a populist economic message, which included health care for all, a “Robin Hood tax” on the wealthy, and elimination of student debt. He said he supported the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate and also would support granting President Biden two extra appointments to the Supreme Court — and was as quick on his feet and as fluent on the issues as his opponents.
Dominguez has had a long corporate career, serving most recently as a vice president at Breezeline, a national cable TV and telecommunications company. He is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, serving in the Gulf War, and was an elected member of the borough council in Bogota, N.J., in the 1990s.
Dominguez used a few Spanish phrases during Sunday’s forum, and clearly sought a connection with the Latinos in the audience. But he was also quick to acknowledge the potential pioneering candidacy of one of his opponents.
“After I’m elected Maryland’s first Latino senator I will work to ensure that Angela is the next woman elected to the Senate,” he said.
Under questioning from reporters William J. Ford of Maryland Matters and Patricia Villone of CTV News, the three candidates generally agreed on a range of issues, including immigration reform; granting voting rights to undocumented immigrants and 16-year-olds; using the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform plan as a national model; securing abortion rights; passing national legislation to eliminate political gerrymandering; boosting federal funding for the Washington, D.C., Metro system; and mixing tough criminal sentences with attacking economic injustice and other root causes of crime.
Other Democrats seeking the Senate nomination were not invited. They are: businessman Marcellus Crews, freelance writer Brian Frydenborg, retired college lecturer Jerome Segal, a frequent candidate for office, IT professional Steve Seuferer, and A.J. Wildman, a frequent candidate.
Victor Ramirez, a former state senator from Prince George’s and president of the Latino Democratic club, called the event a success and said he hopes “it’s the beginning of a dialogue between the community and the candidates.” But he wasn’t sure if the club is going to endorse a candidate in the Senate primary.
“I think it’s healthy,” he said. “I think it makes the candidates think about issues they’ve never thought about before.”
Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation was a contributor to Maryland Matters in 2017 and 2018.