Two of more than a half-dozen Democrats competing to run against popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November clashed Tuesday over who is best equipped to improve Maryland's education system, a challenge all candidates participating in a debate agreed was a top priority.
Jim Shea targeted Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, saying Baker could be a liability as the party's nominee against Hogan, because of recent problems with education in the county.
Shea said if Baker were the Democratic nominee, "I worry that ... Larry Hogan, with all his wiles and all his money, will be able to exploit the problems that his school system has had in Prince George's County, whether it's a hand-picked, failed superintendent or inflated graduation rates."
He was referring to Kevin Maxwell, the former CEO of Maryland's second-largest school district in Prince George's, who stepped down last month in the aftermath of a series of scandals that left critics questioning his judgment and leadership.
A smiling Baker calmly responded that he had helped reduce dropout and truancy rates as county executive, helping to improve a "school system that was stuck at the bottom."
"When I'm the nominee, I can't wait for the governor to come in and start talking about Prince George's county schools," Baker said.
Baker and other candidates participating in the debate sponsored by The Baltimore Sun and WJZ-TV at the University of Baltimore often focused their attacks not at each, but the governor.
"I didn't take the school system, like the governor did, that was No. 1 in the nation and take it to No. 11 in the nation," Baker said.
State Sen. Richard Madaleno, who has served as vice chairman of the Senate budget committee, said after the debate that from the beginning of his campaign, "I've been leading the charge to fight against the Hogan agenda and stopping it from going on, which is why I think he's a popular governor — because he hasn't been able to do the things that he wanted to do, and he's had to move forward with many of the things we've put in place."
The Maryland General Assembly is controlled by Democrats, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the state.
Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president, took the opportunity to highlight his endorsement from the state's largest teachers union during an interview after the debate.
"Fixing education in Maryland is a big job, and I've got a track record of getting big things done in our state," he said. "That's why I've been endorsed by the Maryland State Education Association."
Krish Vignarajah, a former adviser to former first lady Michelle Obama, said she believes education will be the defining issue in the race.
"Governor Hogan's Achilles heel is education," she said.
Scott Sloofman, a spokesman for Hogan's campaign, rebutted the governor's would-be opponents on his education record, citing Hogan's record funding for K-12 education and efforts to increase accountability in education.
"These candidates are free to believe whatever they want, but Governor Hogan's record is incredibly clear," Sloofman said.
Alec Ross, one of the Democratic primary candidates and a former public school teacher in Baltimore, said education should be the defining issue in a campaign against Hogan.
"My view is the candidate who can really run credibly and strong on public education is going to be in a strong position against Larry Hogan," Ross said.
Valerie Ervin, who repeatedly emphasized during the debate that she is running for governor in place of Kevin Kamenetz after his sudden death last month, said she thought Shea's criticism stemmed from his sagging poll numbers.
"I think this is what happens at the end when peoples' numbers are actually not moving," Ervin said in an interview after the debate.
The candidates also participated Tuesday in an earlier radio debate hosted by The Larry Young Morning Show on WOLB-AM. During that event, they demonstrated once again that they share a lot of similar positions.
They all agreed they would support more gun control to stop violence and legalizing marijuana, and voiced strong support for the state's historically black colleges. And they all said they would not support more mandatory-minimum prison sentences.
Maryland's primary is June 26.