"My name is Assata and I made a budget for the city," said a nine-year-old student who recently ran for mayor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church's Orita's Cross Freedom School.
A school designed to raise the next generation of Fannie Lou Hamer's, Freedom School meets on holidays and vacation days when the public schools are not in session and Assata Makonnen kicked off the Baltimore Mayoral Forum for the 200 voters gathered in the church last night by outlining her platform. She gave a little bit of money to the police department ($5,450) and lots more to education ($78,000). She managed to bring the city's annual budget in at $235,450. This is good, she explained, because then there was a lot of money left over for jobs or "we could use it on homeless people and hospitals—hospitals for adults, children, babies, and animals."
It was a fitting opener to this mayoral forum in a race that has drawn a massive field of candidates with wide-ranging platforms. The forum, sponsored by Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Associated Black Charities, and City Paper, drew 15 candidates expounding on wildly divergent visions for the city which ranged from Republican candidate Armand Girard's bumbling delivery and insistence that residents need a Giuliani-esque law-and-order leader like himself to Green candidate Joshua Harris whose eloquent speeches about "economic injustice" declared Baltimore's "single greatest issue is distribution of capital or the lack thereof."
Led through a series of probing questions by moderators Marc Steiner (host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on WEAA) and E.R. Shipp (journalist and Morgan State University professor), the candidates occasionally echoed the insider/outsider theme that has dominated the presidential race.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon referenced her track record, ignored a smattering of boos, and urged voters to allow her to continue the good work she began when she led the city, promising some concrete changes such as raising the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour and opening up the city contract bidding process to send more work to women- and minority-owned businesses.
Patrick Gutierrez, a former Bank of America executive who has never held elected office, hails from southern California and moved to Baltimore in 1999, seemed to argue that his outside status gave him a clearer vision for Baltimore. "We do not have a resource problem in this city," he said. "We have a resource management problem in this city."
Others, like Elizabeth Embry, straddled the insider/outsider divide. She is not a politician, a fact she states and re-states on her website, but she emphasized her insider knowledge of the city's broken systems thanks to her years of work as "a public servant." Embry, who worked in the State's Attorney's Office and currently heads up the Criminal Division for the Attorney General, argued this gave her special insight. "I have spent my life motivated by the fact that the city is deeply unfair, especially for the poor," she said. She had specific plans for change, like ending the cash bail system completely and revamping the city's "Dickensian rent court," as well as more generalized assessments, such as nodding to the failed war on drugs and insisting money from prosecuting lesser drug crimes would be better spent on expanding the public health system's addiction treatment options.
Overall, the promising range of candidates made for a lively discussion for the large crowd that turned out despite a raging rainstorm. Open Society Institute-Baltimore's director Diana Morris noted that about 24 percent of registered voters participated in the last primary election and reminded attendees to carry their enthusiasm to the polls, "I hope you'll vote on April 26."
A mayoral candidates debate, sponsored by City Paper, WEAA, The Afro, Morgan State University and the student newspaper The MSU Spokesman, will be held on March 10 at 7 p.m. at Morgan State's Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive.