Ehrlich and Townsend exchange jabs

Gubernatorial candidates debate campaign themes, attack records, promises

September 27, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In a 90-minute face-off marked by verbal cuts and sarcasm, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sharply attacked each other's records and political promises last night as they debated for the first time in Maryland's gubernatorial campaign.

Neither candidate broke new ground in the ragged debate, repeating themes they've emphasized through the campaign.

Townsend argued that Ehrlich's congressional record shows he has turned his back on schoolchildren, minorities and the poor. Ehrlich said Townsend lacks the experience to lead the state and almost four decades of Democratic rule has led to arrogance and budget shortfalls.

Before a racially diverse audience of more than 2,000 at Morgan State University, much of the debate - sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - focused on issues relevant to minorities and Baltimore, including affirmative action, public schools, Maryland's historically black universities and programs for the poor.

"He opposes affirmative action based on race," Townsend said. "Slavery was based on race. Lynching was based on race. Discrimination was based on race. Jim Crow was based on race. Affirmative action should be based on race."

Ehrlich repeatedly spoke of how proud he was to run with his African-American running mate, Michael S. Steele, and questioned Townsend's assertions that his voting record showed he was insensitive to the interests of minorities.

"Ma'am, when did I vote against affirmative action? What vote?" Ehrlich asked Townsend. "What I said is [I support] affirmative action based on lack of wealth. Based on economic deprivation."

Ehrlich also pledged that his campaign is going "places Republican candidates have never gone before, and we're not afraid to do it."

Townsend shot back, to cheers from the crowd, "This is not Star Trek. African-Americans are not aliens."

The beginning of last night's debate was marred by jeering of Ehrlich during his opening remarks, booing that became so disruptive that NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume took the podium from Townsend to admonish the crowd.

"We have to be dignified in our approach, no matter where we stand on these issues," said Mfume, who used to serve in Congress with Ehrlich. "On behalf of all the citizens of this great state, allow us to have a debate where all the issues can be heard."

Throughout the debate, Ehrlich and Townsend stood on opposite ends of the stage of Morgan's Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, separated by a panel of five journalists and the debate moderator.

The panelists were Tom Stuckey of the Associated Press, Wiley A. Hall III of The Baltimore Afro-American, Anthony W. McCarthy of The Baltimore Times, C. Fraser Smith of The Sun and free-lance journalist Lillie S. Hamer.

Political observers said the candidates showed voters clear distinctions.

"I think it was a good debate and I think it was good they rolled up the sleeves," said Ken Broda-Bahm, a professor of communications at Towson University. "They rolled them up farther than I thought they would."

From her opening statement, Townsend launched into the attacks on Ehrlich's congressional record that have become a hallmark of her campaign appearances - that he voted to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and supported cuts in federal health care aid.

"The congressman voted for a cut in Medicaid," the lieutenant governor said. "If that's his idea of helping Medicaid, I wish he'd go to a different state. That's not our idea of helping Medicaid."

Townsend emphasized that she has put out a 32-page blueprint of what she would do, as well as a plan released yesterday morning for dealing with Maryland's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

"My budget plan would pass the legislature. Your budget plan doesn't even pass the laugh test," Townsend said.

But Ehrlich argued that Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening should be held accountable for the state's fiscal woes and spoke of the need to "change a political culture in this state" that is "expensive and negligent and corrupt and sloppy."

"Families have to pay their bills. The state has to pay its bills," he said. "The tab came due and it has your name on it."

Responding to Townsend's attacks on his congressional record, Ehrlich said votes are being taken out of context and repeatedly reminded her that she has never been elected to office on her own.

Ehrlich has been elected to the General Assembly twice and has won four elections to Congress. Townsend lost a campaign for Congress in 1986 and was twice elected as the running mate to Glendening.

"Lieutenant governor, with all due respect, you've never been elected to anything at any time on your own," the Baltimore County congressman said.

"You've never had to vote on war or abortion or tort reform or the budget or anything."

Townsend responded that governors and lieutenant governors don't take votes. "As governor, you put together budgets, you set priorities," she said.

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