TAKOMA PARK — Six of the eight Democrats hoping to replace incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made their case to voters Sunday evening at Piney Branch Elementary School, during a candidate forum hosted by Progressive Neighbors.
The candidates in attendance – former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, State Senator Rich Madaleno, attorney Jim Shea and former Obama administration officials Alec Ross and Krishanti Vignarajah – took questions from a moderator, Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart, as well as County residents, with subjects ranging from immigration, racial equity, housing and economic development to their ability to defeat incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe did not attend.
While there was little disagreement on policy matters among the candidates, there was an overarching theme for the event, which Madaleno summed up during his opening statement when he declared: “We are trying to bring back smart Democratic governance to the state of Maryland.”
The collegial tone of the evening was on full display when candidates took on the question of their ability to defeat Hogan. Instead of using the opportunity to take swipes at each other, the candidates instead criticized the incumbent Governor and his policies.
“We have a governor that doesn’t do anything, he has no goals, no principles, no policy objectives,” Kamenetz said. “His only goal he has as governor is to be re-elected.”
“We need a governor who will do two things … lead and manage the state’s wealth and bring folks together,” Jealous said.
Each of the candidates also took the opportunity to highlight what their running mates each brought to the tickets.
Jealous touted the get-out-the-vote chops of his running mate, Susan Turnbull, boasting of how she “turned out over 100,000 more likely voters than showed up in 2014” during her service as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Ross pointed not only to the entrepreneurial experience of his running mate, Silver Spring brewery owner Julie Verratti, but also to her “significant executive branch experience” gained during her time working on women’s entrepreneurship programs at the Small Business Administration, which followed a stint in the Presidential Fellows program under former President Barack Obama (D).
Shea, 65, explained that he and his running mate – 33-year-old Baltimore City Councilmember Brandon Scott – “are prepared and will bridge the gap among all facets of the Democratic Party … we will move forward with inclusive economic growth.”
On the issue of affordable housing, Madeleno and Kamenetz touted their records as elected officials and stressed the need for the state to shoulder a heavier load when it comes to making sufficient housing available.
Madaleno explained that the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 – which passed Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump in December – would force Maryland to strengthen state-level public housing programs.
“We need to invest in affordable housing through incentives to actually get it build and protect the affordable housing we already have,” he said. “It means passing rules that make it harder for landlords to discriminate individuals … it means being a partner with local governments in having the funds.”
Kamenetz agreed and pointed to his record in Baltimore County, where he made extensive use of federal housing laws to expand affordable housing for the elderly population
“We do need an aggressive affordable housing fund,” he said. “We are trying to produce 3,000 affordable housing units countywide.”
Ross added the current Democratic leadership in the state failed to make progress on the issue.
“We’ve had control and a lot of power in Annapolis … we’ve been asleep on affordable housing for a long time include when we’ve held the governorship and state senate and legislature,” he said. “We don’t need fake liberals nibbling at the edges of this … we need a bold progressive commitment to getting back to affordable housing as a key priority,”
The candidates also voiced significant disagreement with Hogan’s efforts to lure Amazon’s future headquarters to the county with massive tax incentives.
“Don’t tell me you can give a corporation $5 billion when we can’t afford heaters for our public schools,” Vignarajah said. “We have all of the pieces where we could see a renaissance of Maryland but we have to build a resilient diversified economy today.”
Shea criticized Hogan’s approach saying that financial incentives are rarely given scrutiny and “never get a cost-benefit analysis.” “It’s not an economic development plan to run around giving away financial incentives,” he added.
Ross, who referred to his entrepreneurial and nonprofit background, explained that current state policies make it difficult for young entrepreneurs to open startups, cooperatives and microenterprises adding that governments are ready to do “quadruple backflips for the Amazons and Fortune 500s.”
Jealous criticized the current approach that involved Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. saying there should instead be a regional approach with “one proposal.”
Kamenetz also chimed in, noting “Gov. Hogan’s form of economic development to write blank checks to big corporations is just a failure,” and explained how he created a “job connector” program to fund community college and trade school training programs based on the demand of the largest employers in Baltimore County.
The final topic on the agenda – immigration – was also a subject of agreement among the candidates, all of whom agreed the future governor of Maryland should stand up for immigrant rights, while pledging to actively oppose President Trump’s attempts to deport otherwise law-abiding people who happen to be in the U.S. illegally by ordering state law enforcement agencies to avoid cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Vignarajah, who came to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in the 1980s, explained that the matter of how immigrants are treated is a personal issue for her as she pointed out that Maryland has a large and fast-growing foreign-born population.
“The xenophobia that Trump is promoting is not going to die down, it’s going to ramp up,” she added.
“Larry Hogan’s silence is enabling,” said Shea, who expressed support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created under President Barack Obama (D) to protect persons brought to the United States illegally as minors, known as “Dreamers.” If elected, he also pledged to support federal legislation to give permanent legal status to DACA recipients. “There’s DACA legislation pending in Congress today and our governor should be advocating for that,” he said.
Ross declared that under his administration, he would instruct Maryland State Police officers to intervene if an immigrant’s rights are violated. “I welcome the confrontation between [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and state troopers if that’s what it brings.”
Madaleno added he would “stop ICE from nationalizing our police force.”
Before the start of the forum, demonstrators stood outside demanding the candidates support renewable energy.
“Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing our state and the next governor is going to have to do a lot to address this issue,” said Thomas Meyer an organizer with Food and Water Action. “We want to make sure the candidates … know that this is an important issue and that 100 percent clean energy is the best solution we need for Maryland.”
“As part of the Takoma Park Mobilization Environment and Climate Committee, we’re very interested in how the candidates will address climate change issues and the climate emergency that we have from the Maryland perspective,” said Laurie McGilvray, 61, a Takoma Park resident.
“I thought all the candidates were very strong in stating their goals given that they had very little time for each question,” said Merrill Leffler, 77, a local poet and Takoma Park resident. “They were addressing issues that so concern us in Takoma Park, in Maryland and the country.”
“We have some very strong candidates ready for the nomination,” he added.