Gubernatorial foes continue the debate debate

October 12, 2006|By John Fritze and Chris Guy | John Fritze and Chris Guy,Sun Reporters

Maryland's candidates for governor openly blamed one another yesterday for failing to agree to a series of debates while, at the same time, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley remained in opposite corners of the state as two opportunities to discuss issues came and went.

Ehrlich, a Republican, passed on a forum organized by the Maryland Mental Health Coalition in Baltimore County yesterday and sent his running mate, Kristen Cox, instead. O'Malley, the Democrat, said a previously scheduled event in Washington kept him from attending a forum broadcast by an Eastern Shore television station.

It was the latest display of impasse between the two campaigns over negotiating the terms of a live, televised debate. Each candidate criticized the other for failing to compromise while arguing that his own scheduling conflicts precluded him from attending forums that have been proposed by independent organizations.

"The debate about the debates is exhausting," said Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "If Martin O'Malley is as eager to debate as he's been saying very publicly [he is] these past few weeks, then he would make himself available."

The two campaigns have agreed to tape a debate Saturday that will air at 7 p.m. Monday on WJZ-TV in Baltimore. Many details of the event - including the format - are being negotiated between the campaigns and WJZ officials. It will also be broadcast Monday on Maryland Public Television, which has statewide reach.

But despite assertions by both campaigns that more debates would benefit voters, it appeared increasingly unlikely yesterday that another face-off would be scheduled before the Nov. 7 general election.

"This really shouldn't be that hard. Two candidates, two podiums, two-minute answers, 1 1/2 -minute rebuttals," O'Malley said after speaking at the mental health forum. "We can only control what our campaign does. I cannot control what he does or chooses not to do."

Ehrlich campaign officials said the governor could not attend yesterday's mental health forum because he had a previously scheduled "private" event. DeLeaver would not offer details about the event, including whether it was tied to the campaign or the governor's office. Further, Ehrlich has said he will not debate after mid-October because, aides say, he will be busy taking his message directly to voters.

O'Malley's campaign said the mayor could not attend yesterday's debate on WMDT-TV in Salisbury because he had a previously scheduled fundraiser in Washington with a mayoral candidate in that city, Adrian M. Fenty, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. Instead, Ehrlich took part in a half-hour, live question-and-answer session. O'Malley will tape a similar interview to air on the station Wednesday.

Ehrlich drove to Salisbury from Annapolis specifically for the appearance last night. As he walked into the station, he told reporters that O'Malley "should be here."

Dawn Mitchell, WMDT's news director, said her station had been negotiating for weeks with both candidates for a live debate - set to air between the station's 6 p.m. local news program and ABC Nightly News.

When O'Malley declined to appear, Mitchell decided to go ahead with a 30-minute question-and-answer session with Ehrlich and Kenny Beck, the station's anchorman, she said. Mitchell said the O'Malley campaign never committed to debate yesterday.

"We thought that if O'Malley could not be here, we'd go with Plan B," Mitchell said. "We wanted a debate, but that wasn't going to happen."

Ehrlich used the solo television opportunity to reiterate his support for slot-machine gambling to pay for education and defended the higher electricity and tuition rates that took effect during his tenure. Ehrlich also said the administration has been engaged for months in a discussion on how to preserve a portion of land slated for development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. A $1 billion golf and housing development is planned for Cambridge.

"We've been in intensive negotiations for months," Ehrlich said.

Dispute over scheduling debates is nothing new in Maryland politics. Despite calls for repeated debates in 2002, Ehrlich and his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, faced each other once in a televised debate. In 1998, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey met once, and in 1994 they met twice.

O'Malley and Ehrlich have met twice before in the past several weeks, once on Sept. 5 at a forum on disabilities in Baltimore and again Sept. 14 at a Timonium event hosted by the Maryland chapter of AARP. Neither forum was televised.

At the mental health forum yesterday, O'Malley and Cox spoke separately for more than 40 minutes each and covered a broad range of mental health issues, from improving care for veterans to reducing the number of mental health patients who visit emergency rooms.

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