The top Democratic candidates running for mayor of Baltimore sparred Tuesday over whether past leadership has failed the city, putting the front-runners — former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh — on the defensive.
Lawyer Elizabeth Embry and City Councilman Nick J. Mosby came out swinging during the 90-minute debate, which put a spotlight on the candidates' plans to decrease crime, strengthen struggling schools, spur job growth and improve the management of city government.
While many of the attacks were aimed at Dixon and Pugh — who led the field in polling conducted this month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore — no candidate emerged unscathed.
Embry questioned Dixon's integrity and blasted Pugh's fundraising tactics. She suggested that Mosby would face a conflict of interest as mayor because his wife, Marilyn J. Mosby, is the city's top prosecutor. And she said David L. Warnock's business dealings would have to be scrutinized because he is senior partner at Camden Partners, one of Baltimore's largest private equity firms.
"This city that we love cannot afford a leader who operates under a cloud of suspicion," Embry said before an audience of about 180 at the forum, sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, University of Baltimore, WJZ and the Baltimore City League of Women Voters.
Mosby fired back at Embry, noting that half of the nearly $400,000 she reported raising in a January campaign finance filing came from 35 donors, including developers tied to her politically connected family.
In the recent poll, 5 percent of likely Democratic voters supported Embry and 6 percent favored Mosby. Ten percent supported Warnock, and City Councilman Carl Stokes garnered 3 percent. Pugh and Dixon were well in front, with 26 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Still, many see the race as wide open. A quarter of the Democrats polled said they were undecided, and nearly half who backed a candidate said they could change their minds.
Dixon, 62, dismissed the attacks Tuesday, characterizing some as "blatant lies." She became mayor in 2007 and resigned from office in January 2010 after being found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor.
"There are lessons that are learned, and I learned those lessons. It doesn't define who I am," Dixon said. "It's going to take experience and leadership to take this city forward. It's about removing politics from city government."
She used most of her time on stage to point to successful programs created under her administration, including one dedicated to ensuring that babies are born healthy and another that helps local minority businesses compete for government contracts.
Dixon said there would be no learning curve if she were elected, and that she would begin improving the city by increasing police foot patrols, using land banks to provide affordable housing and instilling a stronger sense of public service in the city workforce.
The former mayor stayed mostly above the fray, but took a veiled swing at Mosby, questioning what he has done during his nearly five years as a councilman.
Pugh, 66, defended her campaign fundraising record. She said she has always maintained transparency and has not broken any laws. Her tone remained positive throughout the debate as she described her experience in the public and private sectors as a state senator, small-business owner and banker.
"Everything I have done since I have been in public office and throughout my life has been transparent, and I will continue to be transparent," Pugh said.
She explained her plans to make sure the city's auditing team is fully staffed and that all agencies are scrutinized. Pugh said she would tap relationships she has made during her time in office, such as those with the presidents of Baltimore-based hospitals and universities, to harness their power to help transform the city.
Warnock, 58, stuck close to his campaign message, continually returning to the idea that he is the right candidate to turn the city around through the creation of jobs. He hopes to offer free Wi-Fi to the public and wants police district offices to have playgrounds. He said he will pair more students with summer jobs and explore ways to use expungement laws to help former offenders find work.
"Look, if you're tired of the political back-and-forth, if you're tired of a city with 16,000 vacant properties and an unemployment rate that's simply unacceptable, I'm your guy," Warnock said.
Mosby, 37, framed himself as a new leader who would eliminate the gag order on police brutality settlements, establish a place for ex-offenders to receive services as they leave prison and draw on public-private partnerships with universities to fortify neighborhoods.
"Yes, we have ideas and plans on this stage, but the question to Baltimore is, 'Where have those ideas and plans been at for the past 30 years?'" Mosby said. "This election is so important. It's not about the failed polices of the past and the fake promises of tomorrow."
Embry, 39, chief of the criminal division in the Maryland attorney general's office, said she would not "be distracted by ethical violations ... and conflicts of interest" as mayor.
She pledged to "usher in a new era of accountability," saying she understands the widespread distrust of government and the criminal justice system because of her interaction with victims, witnesses and defendants as a prosecutor.
Stokes, 65, said the city's problems have festered because many in leadership have not shown a sense of urgency. He used as an example legislation he pushed to require routine audits of the city's largest agencies, which he said he had to introduce twice before it was adopted.
Stokes said he wants the city to act aggressively to remove problem officers from the police force, at least double the funding the city gives to the school system and leverage development plans to provide community amenities.
"We're here talking about long-term goals and long-term plans," he said. "I don't have a five-year plan. I have a next-day plan. ... I will make this city work tomorrow."
Afterward, Francine Brown, 62, a former medical technician from West Baltimore who was in the audience, said she is turned off by negative campaigning, but felt Mosby used criticism appropriately to draw distinctions between himself and other candidates.
"My main interest is education and the killings in Baltimore City that need to be addressed," Brown said. "I am leaning toward Nick Mosby. I like his ideas. I know he wants to do the right thing for Baltimore City."
Eric Johnson, 38, of Northwest Baltimore said as an unemployed man looking for work, he listened carefully to the candidates' plans for jobs and was most intrigued by Warnock.
"He was focused and on point," Johnson said. "The other candidates, I feel, strayed away from some of the answers."
John E. Kyle, 70, of Bolton Hill said he left the forum still undecided.
"I found it disappointing that some candidates felt a need to disparage other candidates. True or untrue wasn't the point. I wanted to hear more about what they wanted to do," said Kyle, a retired teacher and youth advocate.
Two more mayoral forums will be held Wednesday at the University of Baltimore. Democratic candidates who polled lower than the top six will debate at 11 a.m., and Republican candidates will debate at 1:30 p.m.