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Democratic 7th District congressional candidate Michael Higginbotham addresses a packed room Thursday night at a candidates' forum in Catonsville. The 7th District, which was represented by the late Elijah Cummings, includes the Cockeysville area and other parts of northern Baltimore County.
Democratic 7th District congressional candidate Michael Higginbotham addresses a packed room Thursday night at a candidates' forum in Catonsville. The 7th District, which was represented by the late Elijah Cummings, includes the Cockeysville area and other parts of northern Baltimore County. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Nearly half of the crowded field of candidates running for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ 7th District congressional seat made their cases on issues ranging from crime to health care to a crowded room of over 100 constituents during a candidates’ forum Thursday night in Catonsville.

Candidates at the Ingleside Neighborhood Association-sponsored event were light on specifics — and time — to explain how they sought to fund and facilitate their talking points. Those with current or prior lawmaking experience, like Kweisi Mfume, who represented the 7th District from 1987 to 1996 before departing to become president of the NAACP, touted their experience as a strength, while those who haven’t held office, like Republican Chris Anderson, made the case that “we don’t not need a status quo person” representing the district.

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With a primary on Feb. 4 and special general election April 28 to fill the rest of Cummings’ two-year term to represent the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties, the community forum was one of only a few opportunities the candidates will have to jockey publicly and answer voters’ questions.

Candidates made their appeals to Baltimore County constituents with just three minutes to tackle myriad questions, including crime, job access and infrastructure investment, as well as Social Security and health care.

Crime

In the wake of a record-breaking year for homicides in Baltimore County in 2019 — up 85% from the prior year — and 348 recorded homicides in Baltimore City, constituents in a packed room of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church asked candidates what they would do to resolve the problem.

Responding a question about youths who become entrenched in the criminal justice system, state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a public defender who sits on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the best measure of prevention is to “expand opportunities, education, resources, invest in our children” early on.

Republican Anderson, a self-described Baltimore community activist, said it was “doom and gloom” in the city, and that the crime is spreading to the counties.

Noting the Trump administration’s $1.8 billion in federal funding announced in September to combat the opioid crisis, Anderson said “none of that money made it to the city.”

“How can we solve crime until we solve economic theft in the city,” and “local governments stealing that funding?” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Baltimore County received more than $2.6 million to combat illicit opioid use, while the Maryland Department of Public Health received $7.2 million.

Anderson added that local law enforcement agencies should be “fully funded.”

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and Cummings’ widow, proposed federal funding geared toward “dealing with gun violence at its roots, meaning we’re taking a public health approach that targets where violence gets started,” one of her chief initiatives, she said.

That means working to rehabilitate and reassimilate “people who have actually been identified as having had violent pasts,” targeting “high-risk individuals” and communities to “provide supports while making sure we have broad social programming to educate young people against gun violence,” she added.

Michael Higginbotham, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said ending mass incarceration and facilitating criminal justice reform would be among his chief objectives if elected.

“Blacks and whites use marijuana illegally at the same rate, yet blacks are arrested four times as [much],” said Higginbotham, a longtime Baltimore City resident, using figures from a 2013 ACLU report. “We need to eliminate those disparities.”

Higginbotham added that he would seek to end discriminatory practices that prevent felons from voting and limit job opportunities upon release. In 2016, Maryland passed a law allowing ex-felons to vote if they have left prison but remain on supervised release.

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Social security and health care

“Social Security is under attack” with a proposal by the Trump administration that could end disability insurance benefits for thousands by looking with more scrutiny at who qualifies to receive those payments, one constituent said.

“We’ve seen assaults on unions, assaults on services and assaults on people,” said Del. Terri Hill, a doctor who performs plastic surgery and represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties in the General Assembly. “There’s just no question I’m gonna fight that with every … bone in my body. It’s unacceptable.”

Rockeymoore Cummings, who said she successfully led an effort against former President George W. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security, said that when she was a congressional staffer, “It was my job to bring together coalitions to fight against privatization. I guarantee that I beat George W. Bush and I would beat Donald Trump.”

As a physician, Democratic candidate Mark Gosnell said he was supportive of universal health care, “but how are we gonna pay for this universal health care?”

Gosnell proposed shoring up the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, by “improving the coverage from 55 years and older,” and by reassessing “discretionary spending” to find funds for an expanded ACA without raising federal taxes.

Rockeymoore Cummings said she supports a “national health program that covers every single individual in this country,” and would work to “bring down the cost of prescription drugs so that nobody goes bankrupt trying to save the lives of their loved ones.”

Job access and infrastructure

Reba Hawkins, a Republican and small business owner, said she would support a nationwide minimum wage increase, and advocated for expanding apprenticeship programs for high school graduates. With economic growth her priority, Hawkins said she intends to promote legislation that creates loan funds for small businesses and fight against “undue taxation and regulation,” according to her campaign website.

“We have the second-largest port in the nation,” she said about Baltimore City. "I want to push to create jobs — those jobs would not start at $10 an hour. They would start around $20.”

Republican Kim Klacik, of Middle River, which is not in the 7th District, noted that of Maryland’s 149 federally designated “opportunity zones” — distressed areas targeted for business investment by way of tax breaks — none exists in West Baltimore, where a large number of homes remain vacant and blight often goes unaddressed by the city’s Department of Public Works.

Klacik, who sparked Trump’s disparaging tweetstorm against Cummings after posting her videos of trash around West Baltimore, said she’s now working with the Trump administration to establish an opportunity zone there, and noted public transit needs to be improved in Baltimore City.

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Carter said she would throw her support behind America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act, which would authorize $287 billion over five years to maintain and repair U.S. roadways and reduce highway emissions.

“My job, as your congresswoman, would be to make sure that we maximize the benefits of that for areas in this district,” Carter said.

Mfume, who mostly fielded questions from constituents skeptical of his ability to return to Congress after 23 years as a private citizen, plugged the Americans With Disabilities Act that he co-authored in 1990, which prohibits employment discrimination against Americans with disabilities, as an example of his breadth of experience as a congressman.

“If you had to have heart surgery next week, do you want a surgeon that just came out of med school or do you want someone who’s done it over and over again?” Mfume said.

Another community forum is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 11 at the Randallstown Community Center, hosted by the West Baltimore County Democrats Club. A debate is scheduled for Jan. 20 from 5:30 to 8 p.m., and will be streamed on the Facebook page of the DMVCDaily.news site and at valuemyvote2020.com.

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