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.