Baltimore City

Rawlings-Blake joins challengers for first time

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake shared a stage with the other candidates for mayor for the first time Thursday night as she made her initial appearance at a campaign forum.

While the other candidates have discussed schools, crime and economic development at more than half a dozen forums this election season, Rawlings-Blake chose to make her debut at an event focused on issues concerning people with disabilities.

The other candidates — including Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., activist Vicki Ann Harding, former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former city planning director Otis Rolley — delivered their remarks extemporaneously, but Rawlings-Blake read her opening and closing statements.

She silently scanned printed pages, mouthing some words, as Rolley introduced himself to the audience of about 200 people, many of whom had disabilities.

"I am here because I love Baltimore. I love my hometown. I love the people who live here," Rawlings-Blake said in her opening remarks. "My administration cares deeply about the city's most vulnerable residents."

Rawlings-Blake brought along a coterie of campaign and City Hall employees. Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos said that she and four other City Hall employees were taking compensatory time to attend the political event.

The mayor's challengers, most notably Pugh, Landers and Rolley, shaped the debate into a referendum on government efficiency, saying that the frustrations that disabled people experience are indicative of broader shortcomings.

"The whole job of city government is public service," said Landers, the former head of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "But I would ask anyone to tell me when the last they received a city service … that there was a postcard, a follow-up phone call to say, 'How did we perform?'"

Rolley pointed out that he had unveiled a plan to rebuild city government months ago. He described the city's bureaucracy as deeply flawed and wasteful.

"You reform something that has some semblance of order. You rebuild things that need to be fixed from the ground up," he said.

Pugh said the city needed a leader with "vision." "This city [government] had not been redeveloped and refocused in over 50 years," she said.

The two-hour discussion was sponsored by the Maryland Disabilities Forum and held at the National Federation of the Blind's South Baltimore offices.

Rawlings-Blake promoted the Mayor's Disability Commission, which is charged with ensuring that the city complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rawlings-Blake, who was elevated to the mayor's office last year after the resignation of Sheila Dixon, returned to a campaign theme in her closing remarks, saying that she had closed two significant budget shortfalls without increasing property taxes.

"In leadership, as in life, you are often called to fix problems that are not of your own making," Rawlings-Blake read. She served 11 years on the City Council and four as council president before taking the city's highest office.

Rawlings-Blake leveled tough words at her challengers' plans, which she called "unrealistic." Rolley, Pugh and Landers have all said they would make significant cuts to the city's property tax rate — which is more than twice that of surrounding counties — while boosting funding for programs for young people.

"I would never surrender to unrealistic talk that would threaten our progress and force the city to cut core services," she said.

But Rawlings-Blake's challengers pounced on her comment, saying new thinking was needed in City Hall.

Pugh said the coming election came down to "whether you want the city to be maintained or you want to push the city forward."

Landers questioned why Rawlings-Blake hasn't made more sweeping changes. "When is the time to make change? We've been in a downward climb for 20 years."

Rolley said he wanted to "change the course of direction from where we're going right now, because it's not working.

"We have phenomenal neighborhoods and people. We have to step up with leadership," Rolley said.

Rawlings-Blake will next participate in a debate in two weeks. Her challengers are slated to appear at forums on Saturday and Tuesday.