- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

BALTIMORE | The candidates in the Maryland governor’s race confronted each other Monday over taxes, public education and who would do a better job bringing jobs to the state, in the lively first debate of the race.

“Job creation is the No. 1 issue in this campaign,” said Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who argued Maryland has a “hostile” business environment because of the policies of Democratic opponent Gov. Martin O’Malley. “You have to have a healthy private sector.”

Mr. O’Malley, who defeated Mr. Ehrlich to win the job four years ago, countered that Maryland has done better than most states in holding onto and attracting new jobs in the current downturn. He also said he made “no apologies for standing up to environmental polluters,” in response to charges his administration is hostile to business development.

With polls showing the incumbent leading in a tight race, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley addressed six questions in the one-hour debate, taped at WJZ-TV, a CBS affiliate in Baltimore. The debate was aired Monday evening across the state.

Mr. Ehrlich in 2002 became the state’s first Republican governor in roughly three decades, but he lost his re-election bid four years later to Mr. O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore.

Mr. Ehrlich appeared relaxed and affable throughout the debate, joking with the moderator, referring to Mr. O’Malley as “Gov” several times and acknowledging that he and Mr. O’Malley have indeed been “mixing it up” over the past several months. Neither man appeared to commit a significant gaffe or misstatement during the debate.

Mr. Ehrlich repeated his campaign attack Monday that Mr. O’Malley was responsible in 2007 for the largest tax increase in state history, while Mr. O’Malley argued that Mr. Ehrlich as governor instead increased fees and tolls and vowed not to increase property taxes “like you did.”

Mr. O’Malley maintained a cool demeanor, save for late in the debate, when the candidates blamed each other for a huge state backlog of DNA samples waiting to be processed for law enforcement efforts.

“Come on, Bob,” Mr. O’Malley said.

Perhaps the most heated exchanges came over public education, particularly a 2006 incident in which the state attempted to take control of 11 failing Baltimore schools when Mr. Ehrlich was governor and Mr. O’Malley was mayor.

Mr. O’Malley touted the state’s progress in public education during his term, arguing that Maryland boasts one of the best school systems in the country.

But Mr. Ehrlich criticized Mr. O’Malley for not doing more in 2006, saying the Democrat was more interested in protecting powerful interests within the education establishment than he was in helping students.

“That was the most disgraceful episode, though I’m not blaming it all on you,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “You were protecting a monopoly instead of the kids. Those kids were denied their constitutional rights.”

Mr. O’Malley accused Mr. Ehrlich of relentlessly focusing on the negative when discussing schools.

“I’m tired of people putting down the achievements of poor children and children of color,” O’Malley said. “You always talk, Bob, in very coded language about the kids who aren’t succeeding.”

Mr. Ehrlich faces the tougher electoral road, considering Maryland has about twice as many registered Democratic as Republican voters. To win, he will have to appeal to independents and tap into pockets of Republican voters in Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

Mr. O’Malley has focused recently on getting a strong voter turnout in heavily Democratic Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, which helped him to victory in 2006. President Obama joined him last week at a rally in Prince George’s.

The candidates also are scheduled to do two radio debates and a televised debate ahead of the Nov. 2 vote.

• Joseph Weber can be reached at jweber@washingtontimes.com.old.

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