ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Martin O’Malley and Republican opponent Robert Ehrlich Jr. faced off Monday in the first televised gubernatorial debate of the election season, spending most of the time touting their records on the economy and education.
“We’re doing better than most states, but we have a lot of important and urgent work to do,” the governor said in his opening statement.
Ehrlich, trailing in recent polls, attempted to rebut the message of an improving economy that O’Malley’s campaign has painted.
“O’Malley says there’s progress in the state. I have a far different point of view,” Ehrlich said.
He specifically emphasized what he called a “broken” regulatory system faced by small businesses that he said has led to one of the most hostile atmospheres for small businesses in the country.
It’s an argument that Frostburg State University political science professor Tim Magrath said Ehrlich was bound to make, because he wants to portray himself as the candidate who is better for business. “I think it’s irrelevant who he was running against,” he said.
“O’Malley could see this argument coming for the last four years,” Magrath said.
Both candidates tried to take credit for Maryland’s gains in the Base Realignment and Closure process, a military restructuring expected to create jobs in the state.
But Magrath said this is something neither candidate can really take credit for, because neither were responsible for decisions regarding the restructuring process.
“Like any good politician, you’ll take credit for that if you can,” he said.
The candidates also spent considerable debate time comparing education policies. Ehrlich emphasized his plans to prevent furloughs for state employees, including teachers.
O’Malley highlighted that Maryland is one of only 10 states to win a grant from the Race to the Top fund. He also pointed to the doubling of charter schools and the shrinking achievement gap on his watch.
O’Malley criticized Ehrlich’s recently announced plans to not fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index, meant to support areas with high education costs.
But Ehrlich argued the fund was not a priority for O’Malley, either, because he supported it with disappearing stimulus dollars — “temporary spending,” as he called it.
If the cut in funding is made, it will most likely affect urban areas like Prince George’s and Montgomery counties the most. It was a risky decision to make, because “Montgomery County is a key to the election,” Magrath said.
“(He’s saying) Montgomery County, you’ve got enough money. Politically, that’s a tough thing to say,” Magrath said.
The candidates also touched on gun rights, immigration policies and negative campaigning.
O’Malley’s campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese believes the debate yielded a clear choice, and that the governor remained focused on the issues. In contrast, he said Ehrlich “failed to present anything substantial about his platform.”
The O’Malley campaign released an announcement declaring O’Malley the winner soon after the debate was over.
The Ehrlich campaign later released an announcement declaring the same of the GOP candidate. “Bob Ehrlich was the only candidate that pledged to make job creation for families his top priority … And Bob Ehrlich was the only candidate to pledge not to raise your taxes if elected,” read the release from Ehrlich’s campaign.
The debate was sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and WJZ-TV Channel 13, which planned to air the debate at 7 p.m. Monday.
It will also be streamed on WJZ.com (http://wjz.com/local/omalley.ehrlich.debate.2.1956759.html).