Maryland’s leading Democratic candidates for governor traded blows Monday in the first major televised debate as voting is set to begin and a large swath of the electorate remains undecided.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, former nonprofit leader Wes Moore and former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez took aim at each others’ integrity, public service and private work experience on the heels of a new poll from Baltimore Sun Media and the University of Baltimore that found them to be top contenders for the July 19 primary.
“People who will give Peter Franchot support are oftentimes those who pay for it,” Moore said in one of the debate’s sharpest attacks.
Moore claimed the comptroller’s campaign had engaged in trading campaign contributions for taxpayer-paid contracts through his role on the Board of Public Works.
“When we’re talking about integrity, pay-for-play is not part of that integrity,” said Moore, who is running in second place in his first quest for elected office.
Moore’s campaign later released a list of 12 state contract winners that had contributed to Franchot’s campaign.
Franchot, a former state delegate finishing his fourth term as comptroller, said his integrity had been vetted by voters throughout his long career in elected office.
“I come back to the fact that the voters have this trust and confidence in me,” Franchot said.
Speaking with reporters after the debate, the comptroller said he was “proud” of his campaign’s fundraising and had “no regrets” about his disclosure of donations from groups that had received contracts.
The debate, hosted by Maryland Public Television and WBAL, featured eight of the 10 candidates who will appear on statewide Democratic primary ballots.
The prime-time faceoff came just after the Sun/UB poll — the first independent survey of its kind in the race — found Franchot in the lead with 20%, followed by Moore at 15%, Perez at 12% and former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker at 7%. Nearly a third of likely Democratic voters remain undecided, according to the poll.
Early voting begins July 7 and mail-in ballots are set to start going out this week. But in dozens of forums and events, the candidates have largely been unable to separate themselves from the pack.
On Monday, they broadly agreed on the issues facing the state while differing slightly on solutions and, at times, offering strong criticisms of each other.
Perez, firing at Franchot, said the comptroller has walked back his former opposition to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation that was passed in 2021.
“Budgets are moral documents,” Perez said. “When someone tells you they support something, you should ask them, ‘Where is it in your budget?’”
It didn’t take long for Perez and Moore to face off against each other, as Moore disputed Perez’s self-given title as a “GSD” or “Get Stuff Done” Democrat. Perez served as the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice from 2009-13.
Moore mentioned that no Wall Street bankers went to prison while Perez held that position at the tail end of the Great Recession.
“As he went against the big banks, you know how many Wall Street executives actually went to jail or were prosecuted under his watch? The answer is zero,” Moore said of Perez. “That’s not GSD. That’s not getting stuff done.”
Perez responded by saying he handled civil rights cases not the criminal prosecutions of bankers. He said he agreed that “there should have been more criminal prosecution” stemming from the housing crash.
Perez also fired back at Moore, noting he worked at Citibank around the same time period.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Perez did not answer a question about whether he was alleging Moore was involved in wrongdoing at Citibank, but said if someone working there didn’t know about the problems the bank was facing, they were either not paying attention or that it raised questions of “basic competence.”
Moore, a veteran, said that he was a junior associate at Citibank when he returned from deployment in Afghanistan. He said that he worked on “technology deals” for the bank.
“It was a place that I was at for a few years and then decided to leave,” he said after the debate.
Moore’s LinkedIn profile states that he was an “investment banking professional” from 2007 to 2012.
In another line of attack, Moore brought up Perez’s tenure as the first Latino chair of the Democratic National Committee, when he received a no-confidence vote from the Congressional Black Caucus. A November 2018 Politico story reported that the vote was the result of a disagreement over the national party’s superdelegate policy.
Perez said that when he became the party’s national chair in 2017, both chambers of Congress and the White House were under Republican control. When he left in January 2021, all had turned Democrat blue.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King also engaged with Moore, saying he “was on the board of a predatory for-profit college that was taking advantage of students.”
During the debate, King’s campaign circulated an email to the press regarding Moore’s involvement with the online for-profit college, American Military University.
According to a 2018 news release from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, the parent company for American Military University entered into a $270,000 settlement with the state for engaging in predatory enrollment tactics, among other violations.
“I worked to crack down on predatory for-profit colleges that were taking advantage of students and then to cancel the debt of those students,” King said. “If we’re serious about public education then we have to live those values.”
Moore said after Monday’s debate that he sat on the board for American Public Education Inc. — the college’s parent company. He called American Military University an educational platform used to support veterans who “needed a nontraditional platform in order to get their education.” He said he was not aware of any predatory practices while he was a board member.
On specific questions about how they’d select judges during a time of rising violent crime, whether they’d work to reduce gas taxes and what mistakes they’ve made in their past, the candidates showed some differences or did not directly answer the questions.
Maryland Policy & Politics
With Maryland’s gas tax scheduled to automatically increase by about 7 cents on July 1 — due to a law tying it to inflation — most said they’d support a special legislative session to initiate a gas-tax holiday like the one that lasted for 30 days earlier this spring.
King, however, called it a “gimmick” to expand the tax break, saying the state needs to focus instead on investing in public transportation, electric vehicles and other methods to fight climate change.
Asked how they would select judges and help Baltimore City as it sees high levels of gun violence, the candidates talked largely about community policing, partnerships between the state and local law enforcement, and dealing with root causes like poverty and mental health.
Baker, who has called for a state of emergency in response to gun violence, said more state police in the city would free up resources for local officers to spend time in the neighborhoods. King, meanwhile, said “more police is not the solution” and that the state should focus on other criminal justice and economic efforts.
Former Attorney General Doug Gansler, who has said that his background makes him the strongest candidate on fighting crime, said judges should recognize that women have the right to their own reproductive health choices and that climate change “is a real threat.”
The other candidates participating Monday included former Obama White House official Ashwani Jain and former nonprofit organization leader Jon Baron. One candidate who wasn’t invited, academic and Bread and Roses Party founder Jerome Segal, said in a statement he was upset he wasn’t permitted to attend and threatened legal action against the television stations.
Candidates needed to meet Maryland Public Television’s criteria as “an active and significant candidacy” to qualify for the debate, said Tom Williams, the public broadcaster’s managing director. Segal did not meet the criteria but has agreed to be interviewed on another public affairs program soon, Williams said.