Three of the leading candidates for Baltimore mayor clashed Tuesday in their first broadcast debate of the general election. But they did so without Democratic state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, the favorite in the race, who pulled out after initially confirming her attendance.
Pugh's absence frustrated her opponents and the host of the event, WYPR's Tom Hall, who told listeners the Pugh campaign had declined to provide an explanation.
"The senator has every right to change her mind," Hall told listeners. "I'm just sorry that I can't explain to you the reasons for that decision."
Republican mayoral candidate Alan Walden had a stronger reaction.
"I had smoke coming out of my ears when I heard from your producer that Catherine Pugh had decided not to appear on this program." Walden said. "The duck-and-cover period should end sometime soon.
"As far as I'm concerned, her unwillingness to appear on this program and her unwillingness to appear on other programs with other anchors on other stations smacks of the worst kind of political arrogance."
In deep-blue Baltimore, Democrats outnumber Republicans about 10-1. Walden accused Pugh of taking advantage of that.
"The arrogance is based on the premise, with some validity, that if you win the Democratic primary you have won the election in Baltimore," he said. "Fly under the radar, assume that you've won, and don't bother with anything else."
Pugh said after the debate that she had to go to West Virginia to visit a sister who is suffering complications from a medical procedure to treat cancer. She said she told the station she would be happy to appear "later this week or next week."
The debate was the second in the mayoral campaign for the Nov. 8 election. In April's Democratic primary, dozens of forums were held across the city.
In Pugh's absence, Walden faced off with Green Party candidate Joshua Harris and former Mayor Sheila Dixon, a Democrat who is running as a write-in candidate after finishing second to Pugh in the primary. Hall said he invited Dixon after Pugh pulled out of the debate.
Dixon, who received more than 46,000 votes during the primary, narrowly lost to Pugh. The former mayor has questioned the legitimacy of that result, citing hundreds of irregularities that were uncovered by a state review.
The Dixon campaign also has accused the Pugh campaign of paying poor people for votes by offering food and jobs.
"This is the first time in the history of the state of Maryland that an election was decertified," Dixon said. "There were questions in 71 precincts. There were provisional ballots that were thrown out. Judges allowed independent voters to vote during the primary."
Dixon told listeners she is "not a sore loser," but that state officials reviewing the city's election "literally threw up their hands because it was such a total mess."
She suggested that boxes full of votes for her and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders weren't counted.
"I got calls from people that there were boxes of ballots with Bernie Sanders' name on it, with my name on it, they were in a box and they asked, 'Are we going to count these?'" Dixon said.
Harris agreed that there were serious problems with the primary election.
"I've knocked on 8,000 doors personally since the primary," Harris said. "There have been so many people I've found who were discouraged because of what happened in the primary. ... I've even run into people who were paid to vote, who have told me personally they were given money."
Harris used the debate as an opportunity to stress his "progressive" policy plans for Baltimore. He has proposed creating a public bank that would hold all taxpayer money and collect interest for residents, attracting "clean energy" manufacturing jobs and refusing to grant corporate subsidies for businesses that don't benefit the poor.
"These are progressive policy solutions," Harris said. "Individuals from traditional parties, they get in office and they do the status quo."
Walden stressed ideas to build a light rail line on North Avenue, rehab houses and immediately cut taxes. "The property tax is too high," Walden said. "It has to be cut, not in 10 years. Now."
Dixon emphasized plans to create a "land bank" to streamline the revitalization of vacant properties, target gun offenders to reduce crime, and improve city services. She argued that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hasn't properly leveraged her high-ranking positions with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Democratic National Committee to better benefit Baltimore.
"The current mayor was the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors," Dixon said. "She saw the president all the time. You would think with that type of power you would have been lobbying for resources to come to the city. ... We've got to fix city government. Our agencies are in a disastrous state."
Walden and Harris found themselves clashing on a number of issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the Department of Justice investigation that detailed discriminatory policing in Baltimore.
Walden said he believed rhetoric that police officers target black residents is based on a "flawed narrative."
"The flawed narrative is the police are out to get black people, that there is a nationwide conspiracy of some kind," Walden said. But he added that police need to establish better relationships with poor communities. "There's no question that changes need to be made within the structure of the Police Department," he said.
Harris said it shouldn't surprise anyone that young black people are targeted by police.
"If you are young and black in Baltimore, you didn't need the Department of Justice report to come out to understand the realities that we exist in every day," Harris said. "If you are an elected official who was shocked by the Department of Justice report, you're part of the problem."
Harris, 30, also suggested that his opponents are too old for the job. Dixon is 62. Pugh is 66. Walden is 80.
"All of my opponents are above of the age of 60. In any other industry, they would be retired," Harris said. "We need new ideas and a new vision."
Walden took offense at those comments. "What bothers me most about what you just said is the ageism," Walden countered.
Each of the candidates attempted to cast themselves as an agent of change. Dixon, a Democrat, said she's always had an "independent" mind — and noted she initially declined to register with a political party when she first signed up to vote as a high schooler in Northwest Baltimore.
Harris said the two-party system has favored big business and only the Green Party represents true change. "The majority of the policies have been in favor of major corporations at the expense of our neighborhoods," he said.
And Walden argued that in heavily Democratic Baltimore, the GOP represents a true outsider party.
"The Democrats have had 100 percent of the members of the City Council since Adolph Hitler came to power," he said. "When you're in power that long, one party, no matter how good your intentions, you have a tendency to get lazy."