Democratic challenger Ben Jealous shakes hands with incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan at the lone 2018 Maryland gubernatorial debate on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Owings Mills, Maryland. Photo by Larry Canner/Maryland Public Television.

By Brooks DuBose
Capital News Service

OWINGS MILLS, Maryland — Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and his Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous, on Monday painted starkly different portraits of both each other and the direction they would take the state in the lone debate of the 2018 Maryland governor’s race.

The two traded verbal blows, getting testy with each other within minutes and at times talking over each other when arguing over the health of the Maryland economy, education funding and prison reform, among other subjects, in the hour-long debate.

Despite the tension, there was no clear winner, according to Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science at Goucher College. She said it was important for the Jealous campaign, which is losing by double digits, a recent poll showed, to have a strong performance.

“I think they certainly did,” Kromer said, “but just like polls, this is a snapshot in time and it’s all about the spin after it.”

A Goucher poll last week showed Hogan with a 22 percentage point advantage over Jealous with less than two months until election day Nov. 6.

John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, viewed the debate as a draw.

“In a draw, Jealous doesn’t win,” Dedie told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “When you’re the incumbent, you’re on defense. Did (Hogan) play defense well? Yes, he did.”

While Jealous performed well, he missed an opportunity to speak to undecided voters about progressive policies he has campaigned on, like legalizing marijuana, Dedie said.

“It seemed like Jealous was talking to the 32 percent of people supporting him and not enough to the 18 percent of the people he needs to win,” he said.

As Kromer suggested, the spin began immediately after the candidates left the stage.

The Maryland Democratic party chair, Kathleen Matthews, described the popular Republican incumbent as “back on his heels” and “irritated with being challenged” while lauding Jealous, 45, as an energetic candidate with “a bold vision.”

Hogan, 62, dismissed the notion that he was on his heels and said his first and only showdown with Jealous clearly defined their contrasting approaches to improving the state.

“It’s a question about whether we want to keep moving forward or go in a completely different direction,” Hogan said. “I think most people feel that we are heading in the right direction. Mr. Jealous seems to disagree, but I don’t know how many people agree with that.”

Hogan characterized Jealous as an outsider from California not well-versed in the state’s policies, and said his plans on education and health—including a 29 percent increase in teacher salaries, expanding universal pre-K and establishing Medicare for all—were unrealistic.

“It’s just like you’re living in a dream world,” said Hogan, who also pointed out that teacher pay is set locally.

Jealous bristled at being called an outsider, explaining that his white father and black mother had to leave the state before he was born.

“I didn’t stay here because my parents’ marriage was illegal in 1966,” Jealous said. “I came back here every summer because this is home.”

And Jealous criticized the governor for failing to articulate a plan to improve Maryland’s economy and school system.

“I think the people got a clear picture that the governor has no plan to move us forward, (and) that I do,” Jealous said.

Hogan leaned on his fiscal record, calling Maryland’s economic turnaround “one of the best in the country” in the decade following the last recession.

“Taking credit years after the recession is like taking credit for the sun rising,” Jealous said.

Hogan noted the record funding he has allotted for education spending and took credit for an expected $4 billion earmarked for education from casino revenue, should voters approve a referendum in November.

“Why big funding but no big results?” Jealous asked, noting that Maryland schools have dropped in standardized test scores under Hogan. The governor blamed the previous, Democratic administration for not accurately measuring test scores.

“We didn’t bring the schools down from No. 1 to No. 6,” said Hogan. “They never were No. 1, we were just the first ones to be honest about it.”

When asked how he would address prison guard shortages in the state’s correctional system, Jealous said he would reduce the prison population by a third.

Maryland’s prison population has already been reduced by nearly 10 percent, Hogan said, and called Jealous’s proposal a “downright dangerous” plan that would “fire thousands of correctional officers and put thousands of dangerous criminals out on the streets.”

Jealous bristled at this characterization, arguing that his plan will be done safely.

“From Willie Horton to Donald Trump, your party plays by the same playbook. You lie and you scare people,” Jealous said, invoking a convicted felon who was the subject of presidential political ads from 1988 used to stoke fears of violent crime.

“I don’t have anything to do with Willie Horton,” Hogan said.

Asked afterward whether another debate could be scheduled before Election Day, Hogan said, “There’s not any chance of that happening.”