Baltimore mayoral candidates clash on police, inequality issues at OSI forum

Racial and economic inequality were front and center at Wednesday's mayoral forum at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore – as candidates clashed over everything from mayoral control of the city's schools to whether the police lied about a gang threat, sparking April's riot.

Before 17 candidates including 12 Democrats launched into action, Pastor Heber Brown III set the tone for the night, citing the church's location as a dividing line between Baltimore's rich and poor.

 "On the west side of York Road, the average income is $75,000," Brown said. "That drops nearly $40,000 if you just cross the street.”

Brown noted that the unemployment rate on the west side of York Road, where mainly white people live, is 3 percent. The unemployment rate on the right side of the road, where mainly black people live, is 15 percent, he said.

"I'm listening for something more than promises," Brown said. "I'm listening for more than catchy slogans. I'm listening for those with concrete plans, those who have track records."

Throughout the night the candidates attempted to sell themselves as the person best positioned to close that gap.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has led early polls, said she would put more money into education and less into policing. She noted property tax revenues are rising in Baltimore.

"Why hasn’t that money been used for the reduction of property tax and education?" she asked.

At the same time, Dixon said that crime has grown out of control, citing last year’s record murder rate and a recent burglary at her house. She said she is the only candidate in the race who has a proven record of driving down crime as mayor. Violent crime decreased under her tenure her office.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who has been polling in second place, stressed her plan to take back control of the school system and her legislation in Annapolis targeting lead poisoning, which still plagues Baltimore’s children years after it should have been eradicated.

"This is a serious problem that has devastated our communities and our children," she said of lead poisoning. But Pugh generally focused on a positive future with her comments.

"I love this city," she said. "I'm excited about where we can go."

Her upbeat style clashed with City Councilman Carl Stokes, who has been polling third.

Stokes sounded an urgent alarm about the state of Baltimore. He said he tried to push education as a platform during his first mayoral run in 1999, when he lost to former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who ran on a platform of "zero tolerance" policing.

O'Malley's approach, Stokes said, was to "lock those n------ up." During O'Malley's tenure as mayor, more than 100,000 Baltimoreans were arrested some years.

"It had to happen," Stokes said of the April's rioting. "People were saying, 'Listen to us!' God bless the people who rose up."

He chided Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for not firing enough "bad" police officers.

"We know we have a core of police who ought to be in jail," Stokes said. "Kevin is doing a really good job except he's not taking off the street that core of really bad cops."

City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, too, pledged to get tough on police misconduct, saying he would end confidentiality clauses in settlements over alleged brutality.

"Day one, we’re going to do away with gag orders," Mosby said.  "In the first 100 days, we will have body cameras on all of our police officers."

Lawyer Elizabeth Embry said she disagreed with Pugh's plan to take back legal control of the city's schools. She said she believed a mayor simply needs to assert herself. 

Embry pledged to "take an ownership role in the city’s schools."

"Since the late 90s every mayor and governor has said, 'Thank goodness I don’t have to be involved,'" she said.

Embry said the city's systems, including how bail is determined, are "deeply unfair, especially to the poor."

She pledged to end misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession.

"We don’t need to arrest people," she said. "That’s a real way to save money."

One of the more memorable exchanges came between prominent activist DeRay Mckesson, who has been highly critical of Baltimore police, and Sgt. Gersham Cupid, a sworn officer running for mayor.

Mckesson said he believed Police Commissioner Kevin Davis "has not made the public commitment" to reform the department to "preserve the lives of the citizens of Baltimore."

He added that the police told a "lie" about a gang threat prior to April's riot, and escalated tensions at Mondawmin Mall, where the rock-throwing began.

He noted that the state cancelled school bus service at the behest of the city police.

"I saw kids who want to go home," Mckesson said. "Instead, we were all pepper balled. They should have been able to go home."

But Cupid said the gang threat on police was real.

"I was personally threatened by gang members," he said. "Gang members told me they were coming together to take out police. They were killing people -- 344 people killed proves that."  

Engineer Calvin Young III took issue with candidates, like Mckesson, who entered the race late.

"I didn’t jump into this race because it became popular and cool," he said. "I didn’t jump into this race because Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided not to run."

The Harvard graduate stressed his emphasis on small business growth and math education. 

Former bank operations manager Patrick Gutierrez warned voters not to elect any incumbent.

"The politicians who are running for mayor have a combined 50 years of experience and they have not done anything," he said.

"We do not have a resource problem in this city," he said. "We have a resource management problem."

Gutierrez said that if he were mayor during the riot, he would have grabbed a bullhorn and said, "Please go home" to the crowd.

Green Party candidate Joshua Harris said he was concerned with schools that don't have heat and a lack of investment in poor communities.

"If I were in Baltimore, it wouldn't be 40 years since West Baltimore had seen any investment," he said. "The single greatest issue is the distribution of capital or the lack thereof."

The forum was hosted by the Open Society Institute – Baltimore, Associated Black Charities, and City Paper.

The forum was streamed over the Internet by CityExplainer.com

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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