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Moore vs. Cox: Maryland governor candidates on economy, education, transportation

Republican candidate Dan Cox and Democratic candidate Wes Moore. (Maryland Public Television/Michael Ciesielski via AP, Pool)

With the closely watched campaign to become Maryland’s next governor nearing its end, WTOP sat down with the Republican and Democratic candidates to discuss their plans for boosting the economy, transportation and other issues in the state.

The race has pitted Democrat Wes Moore, a combat veteran, author and former CEO of an anti-poverty nonprofit, against Republican Del. Dan Cox, a first-term state lawmaker who represents the Frederick County area in the General Assembly.

Moore, who has never held elected office, would be the state’s first Black governor — and the third Black person elected governor in the country.

Cox has staked out far-right positions that have won him the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and earned him condemnation from his own party’s popular sitting governor Larry Hogan.

Polls are showing Moore with a commanding lead in a state where Democrats already outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.

Republican candidate Dan Cox and Democratic candidate Wes Moore. (Maryland Public Television/Michael Ciesielski via AP, Pool)

Economy is issue No. 1

With inflation hitting a 40-year high this year and economic uncertainty roiling the markets, recent polls have shown the economy and inflation as the top issues cited by likely voters.

Moore, who spent four years leading the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation, says getting more people into the workforce and boosting economic growth in the state will help deal with rising costs.

“It’s been a core part of why I decided to get in this race for governor — because this is about economics,” Moore told WTOP. “We’ve got to create pathways for work and wages and wealth for all Maryland families.”

As governor, Moore said, he wants to fix the state’s “broken” child care system — which saw hundreds of centers close during the COVID-19 pandemic — to enable more people to get back into the workforce and to provide job re-skilling and retraining.

“Right now in the state of Maryland, we have two available jobs for every single person filing for unemployment,” Moore said. “And when people say, ‘Well, how does that make sense?’ It makes sense because we actually have a dynamic economy in the state of Maryland — we’re just not preparing workers to participate in that economy.”

On tax increases

Cox has insisted Moore’s plans will require big spending increases — and eventual tax hikes. Cox has pledged to cut taxes for all Marylanders as governor.

Though he’s trailing in the polls, Cox said he believes his approach will resonate with voters.

“When people learn about our economic plan and … see the significant difference between myself and my far-left opponent who really wants to raise taxes through an aggressive spending model that will crush the state, and has no plan to reduce taxes like I do, we’re gonna see a massive shift … as people begin to wake up and realize that they don’t want to vote against their own wallets right now,” Cox told WTOP.

Moore said he has no plans to raise taxes on Maryland families.

“There is not a single word in my plan that calls for the raising of taxes,” he said, explaining that his plans can be achieved through the billions of dollars in federal spending — through the Inflation Reduction Act — already slated for Maryland’s coffers.

“What my opponent is talking about, frankly, it’s not just that it’s dishonest; It’s just a collection of conspiracy theories that he wants to continue to bring into this conversation,” Moore said.

Education flashpoints

Reading and math scores in Maryland schools have been declining since 2013, and took a significant dive during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Assessment of Educational Partners, often referred to as the “nation’s report card.”

“Today, we have the worst education numbers and the test scores for children, fourth and eighth grade, being released in the nation — we’re at the bottom,” Cox said. “And yet, we’re spending at the top — the highest amount of spending not only in the nation, but in the world.”

Cox said school “lockdowns” during the pandemic — when school systems pivoted to virtual learning — are to blame for the severe slide in student performance.

“I will never lock down our schools,” Cox said. “Our children have been disregarded and oppressed the last two years.”

Moore said he believes students perform better when they can learn in a classroom and his priority, if elected, would be to keep schools open safely amid the continued swings of the virus.

“But the reason that we’re watching our scores lag is not exclusively, as my opponent will say, simply because … of school closings. There are other challenges that we have got to address.”

He pointed to lead in pipes, lack of heat and air conditioning, and a lack of mental health resources that keep students out of the classroom.

“So the issue is not just about whether or not schools were closed during the middle of a global pandemic,” Moore said.

Test scores aren’t the only educational topic that have drawn attention in the race.

Cox has made opposing so-called “critical race theory” in schools a centerpiece of his campaign, saying it’s divisive and “pits one child against another.” He also rails against what he calls “gender identity indoctrination.”

On his website, Moore pledges to ensure that Maryland schools adopt “LGBTQ-affirming policies.”

“While these are local issues, and local jurisdictions are the ones who have the final say [in] what happens in their local jurisdictions, it is important that — as governor — that the local jurisdictions will understand that I want all of our children seen and heard,” Moore said.

2020 election

Cox, who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, and once called Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor,” is part of a growing trend of Republican office-seekers who have expressed doubt about the legitimacy of the results of the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post analysis.

More recently, a video on Cox’s website was scrubbed showing a purported member of the Proud Boys presenting Cox with a comb at his July victory party after clinching the Republican nomination. Dozens of members of the far-right extremist group have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot.

Cox has called the incident “a stupid distraction,” saying the person who gave him the gift was not invited to his victory party and was the result of “somebody sneaking into my event” Cox said.

“Any relation to any kind of group as that is something that I don’t condone at all — never have,” Cox said.

During their sole debate on Oct. 12, Moore called his opponent “an extremist election-denier whose rhetoric and policies are not only dangerous and divisive, but will take our state backwards.”

For his part, Cox has called Moore a “phony” over questions raised about overstating his childhood connections to Baltimore in his best-selling memoir and said the front-runner has been ducking debates.

Hitting the brakes on toll lanes

For all the bitter rhetoric and sharply divergent positions, there’s at least one area where the two candidates have wound up on the same side: They both oppose a key component of Maryland Gov. Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes on Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway.

Hogan proposed adding toll lanes as part of a signature traffic-relief plan for I-270 and the Beltway, long known for “soul crushing” traffic congestion in the Maryland suburbs. However, the plan to widen the highway and add toll lanes through the use of a public-private partnership has drawn opposition from environmental groups and local lawmakers as it has inched forward over the years.

The plan is still awaiting a final vote by Maryland’s Board of Public Works, and if it remains unfinished after Hogan’s tenure, both Moore and Cox have signaled they might roll back the toll plan.

“I think that the tolls and the way this current plan is constructed — it does not work,” Moore said. “I think that there are significant flaws.”

Moore said he believes the state needs to tackle traffic congestion along I-270 and the Beltway, but under his watch, the state would re-examine the project, prioritizing local buy-in, the environment and “equity.”

For his part, Cox said he supports widening the highways but that the additional lanes should not be tolled.

“The United States Constitution and the federal dollars that come into our transportation trust fund are funding free roads, not toll roads. So we need to be very cautious with adding heavy tolls.”

He suggested an additional reversible lane going down the middle of I-270 that could be tolled, as long as the newly built lanes remain free.

“We’re smart enough to fix this and continue the construction and make sure that our PPP projects continue forward without heavy tolls,” Cox said.

Other candidates in the race

In addition to Moore and Cox, three other candidates are running:

  • David Lashar and running mate Christiana Logansmith are on the Libertarian ticket;
  • Nancy Wallace and Patrick Elder are on the Green Party ticket;
  • David Harding and Cathy White are on the Working Class Party ticket.