Challengers assail Rawlings-Blake in final debate

Mayoral challengers assailed incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in a vitriolic candidate forum Tuesday night, accusing her of burying Baltimoreans in burdensome taxes and funneling too much money to developers.

Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, WYPR and The Baltimore Sun, and moderated by Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, the last forum before early voting begins in the Democratic mayoral primary proved to be the rowdiest gathering of the candidates. The forum marked the fifth and final time Rawlings-Blake is expected to share a stage with her challengers, who have participated in more than a dozen debates without her.

Early voting in the Democratic primary begins Thursday and concludes on Sept. 13.

Audience members, who crowded into an upstairs room in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central library, cheered, booed and needled the candidates, who included state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, former city planning director Otis Rolley, Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and nurse Wilton Wilson.

When Rawlings-Blake returned to a familiar theme — that her opponents' plans to dramatically cut property taxes were unrealistic — audience members booed. They also jeered when Rawlings-Blake characterized the other candidates as "desperate."

The candidates trotted out now-familiar rhetoric on property taxes, school reforms and crime. Rawlings-Blake read her opening speech from cards in front of her, prompting a stare from Pugh, who sat next to her.

Landers tore into Rawlings-Blake in his opening remarks, castigating her for raising a slew of taxes to fill a substantial hole in the city's operating budget last year. "He asked, Is the mayor being responsible when the mayor hides behind high-profile endorsements" and avoids candidates' forums?

Rawlings-Blake boasted of her "wonderful relationship" with President Obama's administration, and said that White House officials had deemed her initiative to rid the city of vacant houses as "an exceptional program."

But Rolley pointed out that the city had lost $4 million in federal lead paint abatement funds after a city program failed to meet benchmarks. "There is no better way to secure federal funds from the federal government than to show we're using the money we currently have in a responsible way," he said.

The Baltimore Grand Prix, the high-speed car race set for the Inner Harbor this weekend, drew some of the evening's most cutting comments. Rawlings-Blake, one of the race's chief backers, has dedicated $7.75 million — including federal stimulus dollars — to prepare downtown streets for the race.

"It doesn't make economic sense for the citizens of Baltimore," Rolley said. "It's irresponsible to spend millions of dollars without doing due diligence."

Conaway said he doubted that the race would create the number of jobs, or economic benefits, that backers had projected.

"I don't like the way our downtown looks," said Landers, referring to the grandstands and barriers that have popped up in recent weeks.

Wilson and Conaway both asked the audience if they supported the race, which has snarled traffic for months, although backers say it garners good publicity for the city. Most audience members yelled "No" or booed, although a smattering of positive remarks could be heard.

Pugh criticized Rawlings-Blake for devoting roadwork funds to the race, rather than roads . "The rest of us will continue to have to get front-wheel alignments on a regular basis," due to faulty roads, she said.

"I'm not a big racing fan, I'm an economic development fan," said Rawlings-Blake, before criticizing her opponents for their negative remarks.

"I'm sitting here with people who are desperate, who are out of ideas," she said, as the audience hissed loudly.