Mayor's race: Many candidates, few ideas

In the mayor's race, we have lots of candidates but few specifics for how to build a better Baltimore.

By two easily quantifiable measures, we have more serious candidates for mayor than Baltimore has seen in decades. The latest poll in the race, by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, shows six candidates with at least 5 percent support in the polls. That didn't happen in 2011, when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was elected, nor in 2007 when Sheila Dixon was, nor in 1999 when voters picked Martin O'Malley. Those results echo a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll from November, suggesting staying power for all six major contenders: Ms. Dixon, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby, attorney Elizabeth Embry and businessman David Warnock.

Campaign finance reports released last week paint a similar picture. All six have substantial campaign war chests, ranging from Mr. Stokes' $155,000 to Mr. Warnock's $927,000. Two candidates, Mr. Warnock and Ms. Pugh (second in the money race with $664,000), have already started running television ads. Meanwhile, an outside group called Clean Slate Baltimore, has produced two anti-Dixon ads focused on her theft of gift cards meant for the needy at Christmas — one funny, the other devastatingly blunt.

But there is one arena where we have yet to see much competition so far, and that is in the contest of ideas for how to build a better Baltimore in the wake of last April's riots. Voters will go to the polls for the all-important Democratic primary in just over three months, but few of the candidates have produced anything approaching a platform for leading the city.

Mr. Mosby is a notable exception, having released a 15-point plan for "connecting the dots" in Baltimore. Though many of the details remain to be fleshed out, it is commendable for its sweep, covering education, job creation, crime, transportation, government accountability and more. It also gives some hints as to the kinds of choices Mr. Mosby would make. For example, he endorses the idea of covering the cost of trash collection with a separate fee as a means to reduce property taxes (something Ms. Rawlings-Blake proposed, so far to no avail) and of beefing up citizen oversight of the police department in ways the incumbent has not.

Ms. Dixon this month produced a four-point plan to reduce crime, demonstrating both her strengths and some possible weaknesses as a candidate. Her plan shows a depth of knowledge that only a former mayor could have, but it also represents a call to return to the policies and practices of her previous administration. In some respects, that makes sense — certain effective crime control strategies the city used during her time as mayor have been allowed to wither. But in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, the circumstances and community priorities have shifted, and Ms. Dixon's crime plan doesn't fully reflect that. For example, it makes only a brief reference to body cameras and doesn't address the city's practice of insisting on non-disclosure agreements for those who settle police brutality lawsuits.

Mr. Stokes has long been an outspoken critic of tax breaks he says favor wealthy developers at the expense of neighborhoods, and he made a point by launching his campaign at the site of the Harbor Point development. In his announcement speech, he also discussed his long-time advocacy for audits of city agencies and promised to "change the priorities and bring accountability." But he hasn't fully explained how his plans for spurring investment in the city's less glitzy neighborhoods would differ from those that have exhibited limited effectiveness for years.

Ms. Pugh's campaign ad mentions her five-point plan for "moving Baltimore forward": public safety, community, accountability, new jobs and education. She does suggest some concrete ideas, like restoring city control of the board of education and improving street lighting to fight crime, but she has yet to flesh out all the details. Mr. Warnock's platform similarly touches on some specifics, like increasing the number of schools that serve as hubs for the community, but without explaining how his goals would be achieved. Ms. Embry says she will "roll out an ambitious agenda of initiatives that focus on deploying the city's resources in a smart, targeted manner," but she has not yet done so.

This is not only the most competitive mayoral election we have seen in generations, it is also the most pivotal. We need more than a gaggle of candidates each proclaiming themselves to be the best leader. We need the opportunity as voters to consider what might be the best ideas for reducing crime, increasing the availability of jobs and creating a more just and equitable future. They need to be spelled out in detail. There is no time to waste.

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