WASHINGTON – Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Rob Johnson sees little need for a debate in the party’s upcoming Senate primary.
“Sen. (Paul) Sarbanes is our candidate,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason to give exposure to anyone else as he’s our man.”
That may be why Sarbanes, a Baltimore Democrat, has yet to meet challengers George English and Sidney Altman face to face on the campaign trail in a debate or forum.
The eight Republicans who are running for Senate, by contrast, have already debated three times and plan to do so once more before the March 7 primary. They met Jan. 20 in Baltimore, Feb. 3 in College Park and Feb. 17 in Salisbury and are scheduled to debate again Tuesday.
Altman, a retired Gaithersburg teacher, said the party’s support of Sarbanes is not surprising.
“They always go down to the line to support Sarbanes,” he said. “But I anticipated that when I decided to run.”
English said he was not surprised by the party’s position, either, but he finds it exasperating.
“Technically, the party should be neutral,” said English, who called himself the victim of “subtle sabotage” by the party. “I certainly haven’t received any support.”
But Carol Arscott of Gonzalez/Arscott Research, an independent polling firm, said it is common for a party to endorse a candidate before a primary, especially with an incumbent like Sarbanes who is in no immediate danger.
“The first obligation of a party is to get someone elected,” Arscott said. “They don’t want to encourage others to run against incumbents.”
While no formal debates have taken place, the Democrats were invited to four candidate forums: Jan. 18 at Largo High School, Jan. 27 at the Rockville Jewish Community Center, Feb. 7 for the Carroll County Democratic Club and Feb. 9 for the Columbia Democratic Club.
English, a retired Montgomery County economist, was the only Democratic candidate to attend all four events. He said he was disappointed there was not a better turnout.
“The incumbent doesn’t seem to be interested in participating one-on-one,” he said. “Either he doesn’t have the time or he figures ‘I’m secure, so why bother?'”
Altman attended the first two forums. He said he would welcome the opportunity to debate Sarbanes in person.
“It would be helpful to have him come to something,” Altman said. “I’d like to see him defend his votes on not lowering defense spending.”
A Sarbanes spokesman said the senator’s schedule kept him from attending any of the forums in person, but a representative from his office attended the Rockville and Columbia forums.
“He’s a senator first and a campaigner second,” said Jesse Jacobs, the spokesman. “He’s out there doing what the people of Maryland elected him to do.”
Trina Bellak, a political adviser to Seniors Organized for Change who planned the Rockville event, said she was pleased with the turnout by the candidates.
“The fact that someone from every campaign came was amazing,” she said. “We understood Sarbanes wasn’t a possibility because Congress had just reconvened.”