THE CANDIDATES — The four candidates for Maryland attorney general staked out positions on their main issues in a debate last night in Baltimore, offering a crowd of mostly lawyers and law students a smattering of their ideas for serving as the state's chief lawyer.
The candidates - three Democrats seeking their party's nomination in the Sept. 12 primary and the lone Republican in the race - agreed on many ideas, but sharply diverged when asked what to do about the controversial issue of importation of prescription drugs from Canada.
That issue has come up in Montgomery County, which - at the behest of first-term Councilman Thomas E. Perez, a Democrat running for attorney general - sought to obtain less-costly prescription drugs from out of the country. The Food and Drug Administration turned down the local government's request for an exemption from a federal ban on so-called "reimportation." The county has filed a court challenge.
"The job of the attorney general is to enforce the law," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat. However, he said, an attorney general could advocate for a different position.
Scott L. Rolle, the Frederick County state's attorney and presumptive Republican nominee, agreed with him: "You cannot break the law to do that," he said.
"I disagree," said Perez in front of about 200 people attending the candidates forum, which was held at the University of Baltimore and sponsored by a section of the Maryland State Bar Association.
Perez said the law is unclear and blamed that on the Bush administration. He pointed to several municipalities that have begun reimporting prescription drugs, noting that the federal authorities have yet to try to force any jurisdiction to stop the reimportation.
"Well, they huff and they puff but they never blow the house down," he said of the federal government. "Sometimes, you have to push the envelope to do the right thing."
Stuart O. Simms, a former Baltimore state's attorney who is the third Democrat on the ballot, said he believes the issue needs more study.
"You have to give this issue stronger scrutiny," said Simms, who was the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Douglas M. Duncan until the Montgomery County executive quit the race. Simms said he agreed with Perez that the legality should be examined but also said he would decide after talking to experts.
The debate was the second four-way forum among the candidates in the statewide race. It is the first wide-open contest for the job in two decades. Five-term incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. is retiring, and each candidate said he is looking to carry on Curran's tradition in matters that include strong consumer protection and health-care advocacy.