The Democrats running for governor traded barbs Monday night over Maryland's economy, marijuana laws, and the troubled rollout of its health insurance website in their final televised debate before a primary in which pundits suggest many voters are still undecided.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler repeatedly clashed, accusing the other of deceiving the voters. Even Del. Heather R. Mizeur, who stood above the fray in the previous three-way debate, was drawn into the contentious exchanges.
Gansler painted a bleak picture of what Maryland would be like if Brown were elected. In his scenario, the special interests Gansler said his opponent is beholden to would see that a young Baltimore child "will never have the opportunity to go to a good school in a safe neighborhood."
The attorney general's portrayal of the plight of a child he called "Jazz" came at the end of fast-paced, often contentious debate broadcast live on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV. It was a confrontation in which charge and countercharge came in bursts — and both the Gansler and Brown camps accused the other side of lying even before the debate had ended.
The three candidates are competing in the June 24 Democratic primary.
The night brought the most detailed accounting Brown has given of his role in the oversight of the Maryland's failed health insurance website. Responding to a question from moderator Jeff Salkin, Brown said that while he chaired the commission that oversaw the broad policies behind the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, he was not a member of the board that set up the website. Thus, he said, he didn't learn of its problems until after it failed Oct. 1.
Brown said that in retrospect, he'd say, "'Appoint me as a member of the health benefits exchange, maybe even the chairman of the exchange,' but that's not the role that I served." But he insisted the exchange was more than its website and that through various "work-arounds," Maryland exceeded by 80,000 people its signup goal of 260,000.
In a rare break with Gov. Martin O'Malley, Brown also said he would not have approved legislation the governor recently signed relieving many wealthy Marylanders of the burden of the estate tax — a measure Mizeur had criticized O'Malley for allowing to become law.
Gansler repeatedly linked the lieutenant governor with "special interests" and lobbyists, but Mizeur insisted she was the one with the strongest reform credentials in the race. She argued that her campaign is the one that is truly committed to changing the culture of Annapolis, pointing to her decision to accept public financing.
"We're not taking corporate cash. We're not soliciting lobbyists or taking money from state contractors," she said. "Our campaign is financed by the voters."
The debate was marked by strong disagreements over the state of Maryland's economy, with Brown describing it as one of the strongest in the nation and Gansler insisting the state was falling behind neighboring states.
Marylanders "don't care if you're Republican or Democrat. They care about the tax burden," Gansler said.
Brown accused Gansler of favoring big corporations in his tax cut proposals.
"What I am not likely to do is give a corporate give-away to Maryland's wealthiest businesses," Brown said.
Gansler has repeatedly complained that Brown has misled voters about Gansler's proposal to cut the state's corporate income tax, which Brown has characterized as a $1.6 billion "giveaway."
"The lieutenant governor has a very uncomfortable relationship with the truth. The fact is the $1.6 billion figure was made up out of whole cloth," Gansler said.
The disagreement stems largely from Gansler's companion proposal to close a corporate loophole, creating offsetting savings. Brown calculates Gansler's tax-cut proposal on its own.
The two also wrangled over Maryland's economic performance compared with Virginia, with Gansler saying the state has been falling behind its neighbor. Brown said the opposite is true.
"Some people say Virginia's cleaning our clock," Brown said. "The last 12 months, Maryland created 25,000 jobs, Virginia lost 5,000 jobs."
In the debate, Mizeur laid claim to the mantle of the environmental candidate, expressing wholehearted opposition to the natural gas extraction method known as fracking and to a natural gas export terminal at Cove Point in Southern Maryland.
"I will put the oil and gas companies on notice that we are unequivocal champions for the environment and a cleaner bay," she said.
Unlike in the previous three-way debate, Mizeur was not treated with kid gloves. Gansler at one point described her as a lobbyist and sarcastically characterized her marijuana legalization plan as allowing children to buy bags of pot at a 7-Eleven store. Mizeur refused to take the bait in either case.