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Republican mayoral candidates debate in Baltimore, asking for a change

Baltimore City Republican candidates for mayor debate during a forum at the University of Baltimore.

The five Republicans running for mayor haven't reported raising a single dollar. Only one has a working website.

But they're hoping that voters in deep-blue Baltimore, which is reeling from record homicides and the first riots in half a century, are willing to give the GOP a chance anyway.

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"My party was not in office when we got 344 homicides last year," said Larry O. Wardlow Jr., who helps run a cab company. "My party was not in office when we had the ... uprising. My party was not in office when we had a homeless population bigger than any almost city in the country."

Wardlow and four other candidates — Armand F. Girard, a retired math teacher; Chancellor Torbit, the brother of a slain police officer; Brian Charles Vaeth, a former city firefighter; and Alan Walden, a former WBAL radio anchor — squared off Wednesday at a forum at the University of Baltimore co-sponsored by The Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore City League of Women Voters.

They face an uphill battle in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-to-1. The last Republican mayor served in the 1960s.

But they say they're undaunted.

Walden, who has been endorsed by the conservative group Red Maryland, said voters who have elected Democrats for decades are realizing that the city hasn't improved under their leadership.

"Is it reasonable to assume that the same people doing the same things in the same way will produce a different outcome?" he asked. "I don't think so."

Walden, 79, of Cross Keys, said he's lost faith in the leadership of city schools and wants to increase the number of vocational high schools in Baltimore, arguing that many city residents would benefit from learning a trade rather than attending college.

"We're teaching people the wrong things in the wrong way," he said.

Walden also urged residents to stop vilifying the police and embrace the "greatness and goodness that Baltimore should be."

Vaeth, 48, who listed his address as Penn North on campaign filings, dubbed himself the "anti-corruption candidate." He endorsed a massive public works project that would put people to work, and he said he would increase salaries for police to cut down on the high turnover rate in the department.

Vaeth said he wants to put more citizens on government boards and commissions to give them a greater voice and would work for property tax cuts.

"I'll keep pointing out the Democratic failures of the past 40, 50 years," he said. "The voters are looking for a change and they're looking to the Republicans for that. We'll give them less government and see how they like that. And we'll make the city great again."

Wardlow, 40, of East Baltimore, has endorsed turning empty schools into job training centers, finding suitable houses for the city's homeless and working with businesses to invest in communities by paying for recreation centers and other amenities.

He argued that he can bring black voters into the Republican Party, but not by promising property tax cuts.

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"I would love to sell Baltimore a dream that I will lower property taxes," Wardlow said. "We have too many other problems to fix."

He called the unrest that engulfed Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody a "tragic" situation for which he blamed Democratic leadership.

"It's 50 years of stale policies, 50 years of forgotten neighborhoods," he said. "People were yelling, but no one's listening."

Girard, 77, of North Baltimore, has endorsed a more aggressive approach to crime, such as calling in the National Guard. He said he wants to cut property taxes in half.

The former Army infantry officer, who retired after teaching at Polytechnic Institute and Boys' Latin School, faulted the school system for losing track of students — costing the agency millions in state aid — and said he believes he can appeal to both parties.

"Everybody has the same issues, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican," he said. "We want to make our city safe. That's the most important thing."

Torbit, 28, of Edmondson Village, bills himself on his website as a "leader, mentor and a community member who advocates" for fellow residents.

"I feel we're heading in the wrong direction," he said. "We have many liquor stores but we don't have … grocery stores that sell healthy food."

He said he supports an elected school board and wants to ensure that revenue from the state's lottery and the Baltimore Horseshoe Casino go to schools. But he said residents can't rely on government to fix their problems, such as crime.

"It starts with us as a community," he said.

Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin was the last Republican elected to city office in 1963. There are 288,000 registered Democrats in Baltimore, 46,000 unaffiliated voters, 30,000 Republicans, 1,200 Libertarians and 1,100 Greens.

The Democrats running to become Baltimore's mayor have raised more than $5.1 million. The five Republicans haven't reported raising any money. Two of the candidates filed affidavits saying they didn't plan to raise money. Three others have not filed campaign finance forms at all.

About 180 people packed in the same auditorium at the University of Baltimore for the Democratic debate Tuesday featuring State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, businessman David L. Warnock, City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, lawyer Elizabeth Embry and City Councilman Carl Stokes. Wednesday's Republican forum attracted fewer than 20 spectators.

Girard said he was just glad to be included in a prominent forum.

"Thank you for recognizing there's a Republican Party here in Baltimore," he said.

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