Wes Moore and Dan Cox squared off at their first, and likely only, gubernatorial debate on Wednesday, each attacking the other as extremist members of their respective parties with radical views on nationally prominent political issues, from abortion to policing to election integrity.

The two candidates are vying to follow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is limited to two terms.

Moore, a Democrat, veteran, entrepreneur and businessman who has not held public office, was randomly chosen to deliver the first opening statement, which discussed his vision for the office and did not offer any barbs aimed toward Cox. The Republican devoted a portion of his opener on his record in Annapolis before hurling a string of attacks that sparked an unrelenting back-and-forth through the closing arguments, saying his opponent has sought to defund the police and centralized education.

Framing Moore as a radical leftist was Cox’s debate strategy throughline. He repeatedly invoked Moore’s comments in a Salon article from summer 2020, in which the Democrat did not pledge to defund the police but ruminated on reallocating police funding.

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Gubernatorial candidates Wes Moore and Dan Cox debated at Maryland Public Television. (Kaitlin Newman for the Baltimore Banner)

Cox pledged to bolster police funding if he is elected, calling it the “stark difference” between him and Moore.

“When you look at the reason he won’t debate, it’s because he’s a phony. There are so many things that are completely false [in his autobiography,]” Cox said.

Moore countered that while Cox touts backing the blue, “the blue doesn’t back you.” The Maryland police union endorsed the Democrat for governor.

Moore repeatedly highlighted an even more notable snub: Hogan, who attributed his reelection to a “purple surfboard” of support in a deep-blue state, has declined to endorse Cox.

He stopped shy of attacking Hogan himself. Asked by panelist Jeff Salkin of Maryland Public Television to give the governor a final grade as he prepares to leave office, Moore quipped, “He’s not done yet.”

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Cox, meanwhile, gave the governor an A, noting that while they differed in opinions on pandemic responses — Cox has slammed forced statewide business and school closures and even tried to impeach Hogan for his COVID policies — he “kept our communities protected,” Cox said.

Cox won the Republican nomination by defeating Hogan’s hand-picked successor, former commerce and labor secretary Kelly Schulz, in July’s primary.

Fiercest jabs thrown over national issues

The panelists asked about many state issues, from the upcoming recreational marijuana legalization referendum vote to the steps candidates would take to support historically Black colleges and universities.

When it comes to Maryland’s four HBCUs, which last year were awarded a $577 million settlement from the state after a group of alumni sued over unequal funding practices, Moore said that grounds of the agreement must be honored. Cox noted that he voted in favor of the settlement in Annapolis.

Alexis Taylor of The AFRO noted that while Black Marylanders bear the brunt of marijuana-related criminal charges, most state cannabis business owners do not identify as people of color. “Now that the tide is changing, and we think it’s fair to include Black entrepreneurs that are qualified in this business that made $600 million last year in this state alone,” she said, asking what the candidates would do to increase their participation.

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Moore did not provide a specific plan, but called legalization an opportunity to help address the racial wealth gap and the consequences of criminalization.

“We have to focus on things like automatic records for those who have cannabis convictions. We have to focus on things like being able to deal with the pardoning of people who have criminal records for something that is now a burgeoning industry in the state of Maryland,” he said.

Cox said he also supports clearing small possession charges and giving people a path to reestablish themselves. He did not address the racial disparities portion of the question, saying “Everyone should be treated equally.” He noted that veterans with PTSD have appreciated the effects of marijuana and that he would support some regulatory limits should the drug be legalized recreationally, including frequent testing. Cox didn’t specify what sort of testing he meant, or how it would work.

Gubernatorial candidates Wes Moore and Dan Cox debated at Maryland Public Television. (Kaitlin Newman for the Baltimore Banner)

Asked whether reparations could help decrease the the racial wealth gap of Black Marylanders, especially amid inflation, Cox scoffed, saying “The only reparations we need to talk about are returning money to people whose businesses are shut down.”

Moore said the racial wealth gap’s impact is felt internationally and that it can be addressed through high wages, including “getting to a $15 minimum wage and pegging it to inflation” and addressing barriers toward building wealth, such as unfair real estate appraisals in historically Black neighborhoods. Maryland’s current minimum wage is $12.50 an hour for employers with at least 15 workers and is scheduled to rise gradually to $15 an hour by July 1, 2025.

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The candidates lobbed their fiercest strikes over national issues.

Access to abortion enshrined in Maryland law but is not protected by federal law. When asked by Pamela Wood of The Baltimore Banner their positions on federal legislation guaranteeing abortion rights, Moore placed special emphasis on the difference between him and Cox.

“He’s very clear on the fact that he would criminalize abortion even in the case of incest and rape,” he said, after stating his own belief that abortion is health care that should be protected by federal law.

Cox, a Catholic, tried and failed as a state lawmaker to strip Medicaid funding for abortions. He also sponsored an unsuccessful law that aimed to allow only certain doctors to prescribe abortion medications. “I had exceptions in the law. I believe that is a legal process that should be followed,” he said, decrying Moore’s characterization of him as someone willing to jail a woman over aborting a pregnancy that was the result of rape or incest.

Cox replied that he will “defend unborn life” and that Moore willfully misinterprets the Constitution to protect abortions up to the third trimester.

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Moore pledges to accept election results, Cox demurs

Cox has falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump and co-hosted buses to his “Stop The Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, which devolved into an insurrection currently being investigated by Congress. The attorney recently lost a legal battle attempting to prevent the counting of mail-in ballots that arrive at elections warehouses before Election Day.

Asked by Wood whether he would accept the results of November’s election, Cox hedged, saying that constitutional procedures must be followed. He refused to specify after prodding, likening answering the question to saying “before a surgery takes place to decide whether or not that surgery went well.”

Moore was less coy, saying that he will honor the results of the election. “I hope my opponent will do the same,” he said, calling the decision to spread disinformation about election results “irresponsible and potentially dangerous.”

Mail-in ballots began arriving in Maryland mailboxes this week. Election Day is Nov. 8.

The debate is likely the only time voters will see the candidates face off before ballots are counted. Though Cox said after the event concluded that he felt it was meaningful and that a second debate would be helpful to Marylanders, Moore felt differently.

“There’s no reason for us to do this again,” he said.

Moore holds a significant lead over Cox, according to two public polls released in recent weeks.

The debate, a joint production between Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV, kicked off at 2 p.m. and concluded an hour later. The Banner will stream the debate at 7 p.m. this evening as it broadcasts exclusively on MPT, WBAL-TV and WBAL radio. The debate was moderated by WBAL’s Jason Newton; panelists included Wood, Tracee Wilkins of WRC-TV, Taylor of The AFRO and MPT’s Salkin.

Election Day is Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 27. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 18.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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