With less than two weeks to go before the Baltimore mayoral primary, things are starting to get ugly.
A debate last night sponsored by the League of Women Voters, WYPR and The Baltimore Sun — the last one Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has agreed to participate in — included a fair amount of sniping among the candidates, but most indicative of the negative tone of the contest was the boorish behavior of the audience, which the campaigns had packed with their supporters.
Despite repeated requests from representatives of the league and the moderator, Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, backers of the candidates repeatedly interrupted the forum with excessively fervent applause, jeers, shouts and raucous challenges to what others said on stage.
This juvenile behavior was mostly orchestrated by the campaigns of the top three candidates in The Sun's recent poll (Ms. Rawlings-Blake, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and Otis Rolley). All three had large numbers of supporters wearing their campaign shirts and stickers larded throughout the audience at the Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown. Their efforts were clearly not a spontaneous reaction to what was going on; at a particular low point, a trio of men in "Otis for Mayor" T-shirts gave Mr. Rolley a standing ovation for giving precisely the same answer about the Maryland Dream Act (he supports it) as all the other candidates. Circuit Clerk Frank Conaway may have said the most true thing all night when, after answering a question about property taxes, he complained, "I didn't get any applause because I didn't pay anybody to come."
Indeed, any notion that many of those in the audience were really there to hear what the candidates had to say was belied by the fact that the audience started emptying out well before the debate was over, as the plants in the crowd left to orchestrate a display of cheering and sign waving as the few civilians in attendance left the library. (If you consider the ability to coordinate such an effort to be a key qualification for the mayor, you should know that Ms. Pugh produced by far the loudest and biggest post-debate cheering section.)
That the Pugh and Rolley campaigns would boo the mayor on stage isn't altogether surprising. They are seeking to convince voters that she is sending the city down the wrong path and doesn't have what it takes to revive Baltimore; acting like bleacher bums isn't much of a stretch. But it was surprising that the Rawlings-Blake campaign, which has sought so far to convey an image of seriousness and serenity, was just as bad. A man who identified himself as a Rawlings-Blake campaign staffer spent the debate alternating between playing with his smart phone and shouting challenges to the other candidates. (Oddly, he focused much of his effort on Mr. Conaway in the early going, though he later started repeatedly shouting at Mr. Rolley to talk about his idea for a bullet tax.)
The whole scene seemed to knock the mayor off her talking points, at least to some extent. She began the forum by reading her opening statement from index cards but later, during an answer about the Baltimore Grand Prix, launched into an un-mayoral rant against her challengers: "I'm sitting here with people who are desperate, who are out of ideas," she said. "I'm sitting next to people willing to mislead you." In her closing remarks, she sniped, "There's a difference between criticism and leadership."
The evening was in no way a reflection of our highest aspirations for our representative democracy, but it may be what this race needed. It is a contest among several well-qualified candidates with contrasting visions for how to lead the city. Amid the disruptions, the candidates outlined their plans for cutting the property tax, reducing crime, improving the schools and creating jobs. As much as Ms. Rawlings-Blake has sought to portray herself as apart from her challengers, this election is not a coronation. Distasteful though it was, last night's display was evidence that Ms. Rawlings-Blake has joined the fray.