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Candidates for Baltimore mayor debate in first general election forum

Mayoral candidates Democrat Catherine E. Pugh, Republican Alan Walden and Green Party  Joshua Harris speak at a forum.
Mayoral candidates Democrat Catherine E. Pugh, Republican Alan Walden and Green Party  Joshua Harris speak at a forum. (Luke Broadwater)

The three candidates vying to become Baltimore's next mayor met Tuesday night in Canton for the first mayoral forum of the general election – debating police reform, improving transportation and how to best stimulate the economy.

In front of an audience of nearly 100, Democrat Catherine E. Pugh, the front-runner in deep blue Baltimore, emphasized her plans to assume mayoral control of the city's public schools, break up the city's housing operations into two agencies, and put civilians on trial boards that decide disciplinary actions for police accused of misconduct.

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Pugh, a state senator who said she's voting for Hillary Clinton for president, said city officials need to better market the positive things happening in Baltimore.

"The narrative about Baltimore needs to change," she told dozens gathered at United Evangelical Church in Canton. "It's how we go about rebranding Baltimore."

The forum was organized by the Canton Community Association. It was moderated by WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller.

Republican Alan Walden, who declined to say whom he was supporting for president, stressed his proposal to build a light rail line on North Avenue and expand rail lines elsewhere in Baltimore.

"Let's not overlook the possibility of a rail line circulating the beltway," said Walden, a former WBAL radio anchor.

He, like Pugh, also stressed the need for the mayor to be a cheerleader for the city nationally.

"There are things about Baltimore that need to be celebrated," he said. "The perception of Baltimore is inaccurate."

Green Party candidate Joshua Harris emphasized his plans to create a public bank in Baltimore, attract "clean energy" manufacturing jobs and refuse to grant corporate subsidies for businesses that don't benefit poor residents.

He said he wants to "transform a blue-collar town to a green-collar town."

Harris, who said he supports Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, nevertheless called himself a "fiscal Republican" who wants to see more "effective systems management" at City Hall. He also said he wanted to explore disbanding the city police department and replacing it with a "completely different agency."

Stein has come to Baltimore to campaign for Harris.

In Baltimore, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1 and Greens nearly 300 to 1.

Pugh, who spent $2.4 million winning a hotly contested Democratic mayoral primary, reported $280,000 on hand in campaign funds. Walden reported more than $6,000. Harris reported less than $1,000.

The three candidates also debated whether to sell the city-owned Baltimore Hilton Hotel, which has posted annual financial losses. Walden and Pugh argued the city should look into getting out of the hotel business, but Harris said the city should keep the hotel but run it more efficiently.

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They also sparred over a $660 million tax increment financing plan for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Port Covington development. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is expected to sign that deal Wednesday.

Pugh and Walden back the development saying it would create jobs and benefit the Cherry Hill neighborhood nearby, but Harris said he was opposed, citing a lack of assurances that the wealth gains at Port Covington wouldn't negatively impact state aid for the city's public schools.

Before the mayoral event, Democrat Zeke Cohen and Republican Matt McDaniel, both running for City Council's open seat in the 1st District, participated in their own forum.

The 1st District — which includes Canton, Brewers Hill, Butchers Hill, Fells Point, Greektown, Highlandtown, Little Italy, Patterson Park, and Upper Fells Point — voted for Republican Larry Hogan over Democrat Anthony G. Brown in the 2014 gubernatorial election. Even so, Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the district, and residents voted for Attorney General Brian Frosh and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats.

Cohen and McDaniel disagreed over whether the City Council should pass a $15 minimum wage for Baltimore (favored by Cohen; opposed by McDaniel); install surveillance cameras at the edge of the 1st District (favored by McDaniel; opposed by Cohen); continue to pursue the Red Line light rail proposal (favored by Cohen; opposed by McDaniel) and the current direction of the city (McDaniel is more negative, saying Baltimore's government represents "70 years of failure").

"For 73 years, you've had only one party in control of Baltimore City Council," said McDaniel, who declined to say whom he supports for president. "People deserve and now they have a choice in November."

Cohen, who said he is voting for Clinton, argued Baltimore is on the rise and a new crop of young Democrats expected to take office in December will bring about new energy to make the city better.

"We are not a failing city. We are seeing growth," Cohen said. "This room is packed with brilliant people. This is not a failing city. We are not on a downward trajectory."

Cohen, who won a high-dollar Democratic primary contest in which several candidates spent more than $100,000, currently has $77,000 in campaign cash. McDaniel, who has been endorsed by Hogan, has more than $12,000 on hand.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater 

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