BALTIMORE — The Maryland gubernatorial race shifted into another gear Saturday during a candidates’ debate at New Waverly United Methodist Church, where several Democratic hopefuls candidates engaged in a lively discussion.
The event, organized by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an advocacy group based in the city, lasted more than 2½ hours as candidates addressed a myriad of topics ahead of the June 26 primary, including criminal justice, race, housing and education.
Each candidate also received a direct question with chances for an opponent’s rebuttal.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III received the first one about support from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who some state and local lawmakers and progressive groups believe regulates votes and institutes racist policies in Annapolis.
Baker said Miller didn’t support his first two bids for county executive, but did endorse him the third time.
“It’s not about president of the Senate or speaker of the House — it’s about the governor,” Baker said. “You have to convince people and actually know how to pass bills to get things done. If you don’t know how to do that, I don’t care what you say, it won’t happen.”
Valerie Ervin, the former running mate of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz who took up his gubernatorial bid after his sudden death last month, said Baker didn’t answer the question of Miller and a few other White men’s control of the General Assembly.
“Until we break that apart, we’re going to continue to see the same thing over and over and over again,” Ervin said.
When tech entrepreneur Alec Ross was asked how much money he invested in Black and brown communities, he replied that he’s “not rich” and doesn’t make many monetary investments, but he and his wife support organizations that improve Baltimore City, where he lives.
However, he pointed out that several fellow candidates made six-figure investments into their own campaigns, including Baltimore attorney Jim Shea, state Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. of Montgomery County and Krish Vignarajah, onetime policy director for former first lady Michelle Obama.
“We are by no stretch of any imagination rich,” Vignarajah shot back, defending her work in public service and her husband, who runs the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.
When Vignarajah mentioned that a Silicon Valley executive wrote Ross a $6,000 check for his campaign, Ross immediately responded that two others did the same thing for Vignarajah.
“You’re saying something that’s not true,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ervin blasted former NAACP President Ben Jealous’ push to allow Walmart, known as an anti-union company, to become part of an effort to boost employment for returning citizens.
Jealous said he helped met with Walmart and union officials to allow returning citizens to gain employment within the company.
“We cannot organize people who cannot get jobs,” Jealous said, adding he lost support from Walmart for several years because he supported the “Employee Free Choice Act” that allowed employees to form unions.
Madaleno and other two candidates, James Hugh Jones II, a chaplain for the Baltimore City Police Department, and Ralph Jaffe of Baltimore County, didn’t attend.
At least 100 people braved the warm temperatures inside the sanctuary at New Waverly, located in the northeast section of the city.
“It absolutely has been a spirited debate — that’s why some of us in here are sweating,” Vignarajah said in closing remarks. “The diversity of this room is the diversity of our party.”
Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said the organization will not endorse any candidates.
“Forums are really an opportunity for candidates to get more voters, but you can always dig deeper,” he said. “I feel like it went great, especially for them to stick it out this long and come here to Baltimore.”