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Youth issues the focus of latest Baltimore mayoral candidate forum

One teen spoke about attending 17 schools due to an unstable family. Another discussed the isolation she felt being raised by an unemployed single father who devoted more attention to her younger half-siblings. A third dedicated her question for the politicians to a former classmate who, when he started middle school, began selling drugs to support his family.

After weeks of answering questions from religious leaders, labor organizers and talk show hosts, those vying to be Baltimore's next mayor fielded questions from an unexpected group Wednesday evening: high school students.

The students, members of Intersection, a program that teaches community organizing skills, drew about 150 spectators to a forum at East Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony Youth Center.

Candidates Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway, education activist Vicki Ann Harding, former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, State Sen. Catherine Pugh, former city planning director Otis Rolley and nurse Wilton Wilson addressed questions about youth jobs, crumbling city schools and urban pollution.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not attend the forum. She tweeted from a campaign account that she was speaking with voters in Oliver. Her campaign has said she will attend five forums; the other candidates have attended about 10 in the past two months.

The forum's youthful moderators told the audience about their backgrounds before asking the candidates questions. Some offered reflections on their summer volunteer project -- registering voters in public housing projects.

Breonna Rogers, 17, told about knocking on the door of a home with a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. in the window, and being surprised to learn the woman who lived there did not vote because she believed politicians consistently failed the city.

"In order to be empowered as a community, we have to maintain hope," Rogers said. "A lot of people have lost hope because of disappointment. It's important to stand a community to take back what it rightfully ours."

Naomi Cornish, 16, an 11th grader at Baltimore Freedom Academy challenged the candidates on how they would fund summer jobs for young people. Rawlings-Blake has pared back the number of young people hired by the city to around 5,000 over the past two years; the city hired 7,000 in 2009.

Cornish said she dedicated her question to a former classmate who had excelled in elementary school, but started selling drugs in middle school because his family needed the money.

Landers said it was a "woeful disappointment" that Rawlings-Blake had not more aggressively raised funds for youth summer jobs. He pointed out that she had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single night at a birthday fundraiser hosted by developer Pat Turner, whose Westport project has received one of the largest tax breaks in city history.

Landers said he would bring in donations from businesses and philanthropists, and also donate $12,000 of his own salary to the program.

In response to a question about school facilities -- a report from the American Civil Liberties Union last year indicated that city schools need $2.8 billion in repairs -- Pugh said she would tap businesses and philanthropists to help shoulder the cause.

"If we're going to be a better city, we begin by investing in the youth first," she said.

Taikira White, a sophomore at City College, began her remarks with a moving account of growing up in public housing.

"Homeboys I had since kindergarten turned into dope boys. I've watched uncles and cousins drop like flies," she said. "We deserve to be kids without being statistics."

She asked the candidates how they would deal with environmental pollution -- an issue she says she has heard a lot about while registering voters.

Rolley said he would lean on the Health Department and Environmental Control Board to more aggressively pursue businesses that pollute.

"I can stand up and value my citizens, all my citizens, and do what is right," he said.

After the forum, students said they were dejected that Rawlings-Blake had not made an appearance.

"I was completely disappointed," said Cornish. "I wanted to know her story. What does she think about us? What does she think about students?"

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