Sitting inches apart from one another on the debate stage Friday, the top six candidates for Baltimore mayor confronted each other about campaign contributions, allegiances and political baggage.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon questioned rival City Councilman Nick Mosby's service to his West Baltimore district when rioting erupted last April.
Councilman Carl Stokes slammed Dixon for police brutality that he said happened under her watch. Businessman David Warnock challenged his Democratic opponents for accepting campaign contributions from developers seeking tax breaks and companies competing for city contracts.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh fielded criticism from Mosby and lawyer Elizabeth Embry about contributions to her campaign, which she defended as both legal and transparent.
Mosby asked Pugh to disclose more information about $66,000 in campaign checks that bounced and Embry questioned whether she should accept donations from Annapolis lobbyists.
The exchanges during the one-hour "Square Off for City Hall" were some of the most pointed the candidates have shared face-to-face. Previous forums have not allowed back-and-forth exchanges, but during Friday's filming, moderator Richard Sher encouraged it.
The program is scheduled to air at 11 a.m. Sunday on WMAR Channel 2 and repeat at 7 p.m. Monday. The candidates invited were the highest-polling among the 13 Democrats running in the mayoral primary April 26.
Sher opened the debate by asking the candidates to confront their opponents with the various claims they have made about one another on the campaign trail.
Mosby attacked Dixon over allegations made by a Howard County blogger that some of her campaign spending was unexplained, a complaint that state prosecutors were asked to examine. The state prosector's office would neither confirm nor deny it would undertake a review.
Dixon said she had corrected all discrepancies in her filings, then pivoted to strike at Mosby.
Dixon accused Mosby of not being present in his district during the unrest and other times.
"People have not even seen you," she said.
Mosby said he was attentive to his constituents' needs.
Dixon was then back on the defensive as Stokes challenged her claim that the rioting and looting that followed Freddie Gray's arrest and fatal injuries suffered in police custody would not have happened under her administration.
"People were being beat every day," Stokes said. "There is a small group of cops who get to do it over and over again, and nobody shuts them down."
Dixon said she "refused to allow officers to commit crimes" and pushed to get police on foot patrols and into recreation centers to build rapport with the community.
She condemned Stokes for not fighting harder as a councilman to stop problems he saw.
Warnock didn't attack a specific candidate but said the public should scrutinize the sources of his opponents' campaign contributions carefully. Warnock, a venture capitalist and philanthropist, has largely self-funded his campaign with at least $1.5 million in cash.
"Who has taken campaign contributions from major developers and major corporations?" he asked.
While the candidates sparred over who would be best to lead Baltimore for the next four years and why, they largely agreed on policy matters.
Most gave Police Commissioner Kevin Davis high marks for work to curb violence and restore community trust. They also agreed the city has failed to capitalize on momentum from the unrest by tearing down barriers to progress.
On the question of putting people to work, Warnock said he wants to "change the culture of low expectations" and bring a modified version of the Red Line to create a transportation hub at Lexington Market and connect residents to jobs.
Warnock said the first steps to dealing with unemployment are "writing the narrative that this is a great place to bring your family and your businesses, removing the barriers that our returning citizens have to employment, giving the people opportunity and having those kids graduate from high school with the tool kit that they need to get the jobs they need in today's economy."
Mosby said he worried less about job creation because "the jobs are coming" with the expansion of the Panama Canal — which is expected to increase traffic at the port of Baltimore — and redevelopment of Sparrows Point.
"We need to develop a way for our citizens to take advantage of those jobs, and go after the school-to-prison pipeline," Mosby said.
Embry said research institutions in Baltimore and the city's proximity to Washington have positioned it for jobs in the life sciences, robotics and big-data analytics.
Pugh said she would deploy mobile employment units to college campuses and struggling neighborhoods.
Dixon and Stokes pointed to a lack of job-readiness among some city residents.
The former mayor said she wants to triple the money spent on workforce development and team up with unions and trade groups to prepare residents for work in fields such as finance, health and construction.
Stokes said more skills need to be taught in public primary and secondary classrooms and in night schools for the underemployed.
"There are thousands of jobs in Baltimore for people with midlevel skills," he said.