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Catherine Pugh, Sheila Dixon fend off criticism during last televised Baltimore mayoral debate

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh entered the final televised debate of the mayor's race Tuesday as the front-runner — and emerged an hour later largely unscathed.

Only one of the five other candidates debating live on WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television directly challenged Pugh, and the longtime elected official was quick with a rebuttal.

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"Desperate people do desperate things," Pugh said after the debate. "I thought it was a good conversation."

The debate featured Pugh, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, lawyer Elizabeth Embry, businessman David L. Warnock and City Councilmen Nick J. Mosby and Carl Stokes — the top six of 13 Democratic primary candidates in a poll released last week that was conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.

Pugh led the field in that poll, followed closely by Dixon. Embry was a distant third.

Candidates were instructed not to speak to each other during the debate. But as the forum neared its end, Embry criticized Pugh for soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists working on bills before the Senate Finance Committee, of which Pugh is a member.

"I would restore public trust in the government," Embry said. "For too long we've not had that. We've had pay-to-play politics where we have had mayors distracted by conflicts of interest, by scandals, by investigations. … I would ask the senator, if the Board of Estimates has millions of dollars in contracts before them, would you solicit funds from the lobbyists? Is that the standard that we'll see in Baltimore City government?"

Pugh called Embry's questions "desperate." She pointed out that she is legally allowed to raise money during the General Assembly session because she is running for a local office, not a state office.

"I've done nothing wrong," Pugh said. "When the laws are changed, I will abide by those law as I have always done."

Dixon was not directly challenged by the other candidates, but moderator Charles F. Robinson III, an MPT correspondent, asked her about being forced from office in 2010 after she was found guilty of embezzlement and perjury.

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"I know that that cloud covers over me," Dixon said. "But I also know the people in this city are a forgiving people. … I made a mistake. I paid for that mistake. I learned lessons from that mistake. I know in my heart and soul I am a trustworthy individual."

Robinson also asked tough questions of Embry and Mosby.

He asked Embry why police involved in the deaths of residents weren't charged while she was a prosecutor.

"We actually prosecuted more police officers than our predecessor," Embry responded.

He asked Mosby to address the perception that he is "riding on your wife's coattails" — referring to State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

"Unfortunately, in our communities, we don't necessarily see families working together," Mosby responded. "I believe I am the only person on this stage that's married."

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Robinson also asked why voters should support Mosby, given the state of his West Baltimore district. Mosby placed the blame for the Sandtown neighborhood's struggles on the "failed policies" of past leaders.

"If you expected someone to become a City Council member and fix Sandtown in four years, unfortunately, it's not happening," he said.

There have been more than 40 mayoral forums and debates during the campaign, but Tuesday's was just the third to be televised. Most recently, the candidates appeared on WMAR's "Square Off." The first, sponsored by The Sun, the University of Baltimore, WJZ and the League of Women Voters, aired March 22.

Among the topics covered Tuesday were crime, city finances and a proposed $535 million tax increment financing deal for Sagamore Development's Port Covington project.

The debate opened with a question about how to improve the city's image — almost one year after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody sparked protests and rioting.

Pugh said she wanted to bring "all the marketing experts together" to better promote Baltimore. Embry said she believed the city needed to undo "billions of dollars of negative advertising globally" since last April.

But Stokes said the city doesn't need a new marketing campaign. It needs to reduce crime and improve failing schools.

"To fix the perception, fix the reality," he said.

Candidates also were asked how they would improve public safety — driving down crime while also bettering the relationship between the community and police.

Embry said she would instruct the police to no longer make arrests for simple marijuana possession.

Warnock said he would establish a "promote-from-within" culture in the Police Department.

"We've got to stop going to Oakland to get our next chief of police," Warnock said.

Mosby said he would end the practice of requiring victims of police misconduct to sign gag orders when they accept a city settlement.

Dixon said she would make more smart hires. She pointed to her selection as mayor of Frederick Bealefeld III as police chief.

"I picked one of the best police commissioners," Dixon said.

After, voters in the audience left with different impressions.

Rhonda Wimbish, a real estate broker in Ashburton, said many of the candidates made the same points, but she was impressed by Stokes.

"They're pretty much the same, but if I had to pick anybody it would be Carl Stokes," she said. "He did the audits in city government. He's done stuff on the charter amendments and the water bills — things I'm passionate about."

Octavia Anderson-Williams of Ashburton was disappointed more candidates didn't speak out against the Port Covington deal. Even so, she left impressed with Dixon's portrayal of herself as an effective city manager.

"She already knows the city," Anderson-Williams said of Dixon. "She works better with her employees. When you want something done with her, it doesn't take three or four days."

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