Six candidates for governor of Maryland took part in a forum in Montgomery County Monday morning, the first time both Democrat and Republican hopefuls faced each other. The forum showcased the issues expected to dominate the campaign next year.
The winner of the Democratic primary will become the heavy favorite to be Maryland's next governor, and the two frontrunners for the party's nomination clashed over what has been grabbing headlines not just in Maryland, but across the country: implementing the federal Affordable Care Act.
Brown and Gansler tee off on one another
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was put in charge of rolling out the state's health insurance exchange website, which has been plagued with technical problems and sign-ups far below expectations. Brown said he takes responsibility for the problems, but adds there is far more to the law than the exchange.
"Today in Maryland, you can't be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions," Brown said. "And you can't be excluded from your plan because of your claims experience. The Affordable Care Act is more than a website, and that website is important. But let's not lose sight of the benefits."
Saying he's not the status quo candidate, Attorney General Doug Gansler continued attacks on Brown's leadership role.
"We spent $107 million on getting the website up. And, look, maybe it wasn't fair to put people in charge who have never really run anything," Gansler said. "But now the governor is taking it over. And now we will get it completed."
The other big back-and-forth occurred over schools — not their funding, but their rankings. Maryland public schools are routinely ranked at the top or near the top nationally in education magazine rankings, predominately because of the well-regarded schools in Montgomery County where today's forum took place.
Gansler said recent revelations about inflated reading test scores leave those top rankings a little hollow.
"Well, we have some great schools," Gansler said. "And, people will stand up in front of you and say 'We have the number one schools in the country.' Well we now know that was a little cooked."
Brown fired back during his closing statement.
"We've got the best school system in the country," Brown said. "Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. And Montgomery County is second to none. Not every school is a blue ribbon school though. We've got work to do."
Candidates across the spectrum
Brown and Gansler lead the way in fundraising, but they made up only a third of the candidates on the stage.
Montgomery County delegate Heather Mizeur, the other Democrat in the field, called herself "the adult" in the race. She said she'll tackle issues others will never discuss, touting a plan to legalize marijuana to pay for pre-kindergarten programs.
"It's important for us to have a real dialogue about important issues," Mizeur said. "And I hear the gasps in the room: 'Oh my God she's talking about legalizing marijuana.' We need candidates running for governor that are willing to have bold conversations with people again."
Three Republican candidates also participated, appearing in a county where there are no elected GOP officeholders at any level. But thanks to its size, Montgomery County does have the third-highest number of registered Republicans in the state. And all three party candidates focused on something former Republican governor Bob Ehrlich always pointed to: that Montgomery County does not get back in state funding anywhere near the amount its residents pay in state taxes.
"Montgomery County sends more money to Baltimore than any other jurisdiction in this state," said Anne Arundel County delegate Ron George. "You need to keep that money home. So part of my plan is to build a tax base in Baltimore. Bring jobs back — manufacturing, entry level, mid-level jobs."
Business executive Charles Lollar noted that Montgomery County leaders are seeking additional state money in the upcoming General Assembly session for school construction, which he supports.
"You have absolutely the right to demand more of your money back from Annapolis to help build schools when you consider that 17 percent of your tax dollar is all the gets back here to your county," Lollar said.
Harford County executive David Craig picked up on school construction as well, saying it can help Montgomery County attract new businesses.
"People make decisions on where they're going to move based on the school system," Craig said. "We've done that in Harford County since I've been the county executive. We've built seven brand new schools for the first time in 30 years."
Republican Larry Hogan was invited to the forum but did not attend. The former Ehrlich cabinet secretary will not formally kick-off his campaign until next month.