Candidates take advantage of soap-box session Top contenders, obscure hopefuls sound off in pre-election city forum.

One mayoral candidate promised to eliminate property taxes and give every Baltimorean $2,000 a year, every year.

Another said the city should "find a safe means for people to enjoy sex" as a way of fighting the AIDS crisis.


And a third linked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, "the drug Mafia" and Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, all because of Schmoke's controversial call for drug legalization.

That was the scene at St. Brigid's Catholic School Hall in Canton last night, as the Southeast Community Organization sponsored forum for citywide candidates.


The contenders ranged from Schmoke and his two main rivals, to a handful of obscure hopefuls and eccentrics.

Meanwhile, the top candidates for mayor, City Council president and comptroller struggled to articulate their vision, in what has become an electoral right-of-passage.

"It was an opportunity for fringe candidates to have a say, and for people to see that there are other views," said a diplomatic Kate Finston, president of SECO.

But she voiced disappointment with candidates in the closely contested comptroller's race.

"We got some nice answers about where they are as people," said Finston. "I didn't feel that I got any knowledge of what they stood for as candidates. I was very concerned about that."

At least 150 voters turned out for the event, which started with three Democrats running for comptroller: City Council members Joseph T. Landers 3rd and Jacqueline McLean, and Mary W. Conaway, registrar of wills.

There appeared to be little disagreement on such major issues as cuts in the property tax rate, vacant housing and the need for aggressive auditing.

Landers called a major tax cut "unrealistic," but said, "I do support modest reductions in the tax rate that are tied to real growth in the assessable tax base." Such a strategy could


produce important cuts over a five- to 10-year period, he said.

Conaway also linked cuts to an increase in the tax base, and said, "I certainly will vote for whatever the solution is, to get it done quickly."

All three candidates said they would support outside consultants to review major agencies.

All three stressed the role of community groups in solving the vacant housing problem, with Landers and Conaway vowing to speed up the process of getting vacant houses in to private hands.

And all three stressed their experience in public service, saying that, if elected, they would make the comptroller's office aggressive and accessible.

The night's only drama came when Daki Napata, a minister running for council president, announced that he would stop campaigning, saying he was "angry, very disappointed and very ignored."


On the issue of car insurance, Council President Mary Pat Clarke vowed to push ahead with efforts to cut Baltimore's high rates. The main vehicle will be a lawsuit against the state insurance commissioner charging discrimination, she said.

But it was the mayor's race that drew the most attention, as 11 candidates lined up for their say.

In the starkest exchange, the three top candidates tangled on the issue of how the city could best address the problem of AIDS.

"I think the city has got other problems that must be corrected first," said William A. Swisher, former state's attorney and a Democratic candidate, citing crime, schools and the economy.

Swisher said the federal government should pay to combat AIDS, adding, "I frankly don't think we as citizens of Baltimore should contribute any money to that."

Former Mayor Clarence Du Burns, meanwhile, pinned his hopes on research coming out of Johns Hopkins Hospital -- but saw a more limited role for city government in fighting AIDS.


"The role we have to play is for us to try to find a safe means for people to enjoy sex," he said.

However, Schmoke said "there is a lot that we can do and that we must do." Already the city has set up an AIDS coordinating council, and this year will distribute AIDS education booklets to sixth-grade students, he said.

And then came the others, a lesser-known set of contenders for Schmoke's seat:

* Ronald W. Williams, a Democrat who told the audience, "I'm offering you all $2,000 once a year, every year . . . If you own your own home, no more property taxes."

* John B. Ascher, a Democrat associated with jailed political leader Lyndon LaRouche, who said the "drug lobby" sees Schmoke's candidacy as a referendum on legalizing drugs.

"The mayor agrees with the drug Mafia, he agrees with Pablo Escobar in Colombia," said Ascher. "He does not believe in the war on drugs."


* Roy F. Carraher, a Republican whose platform is based on shutting down City Hall on Mondays and opening on Saturdays, with free parking meters on that day.

* Joseph A. Scalia, a Republican who slammed the Schmoke administration for profligate spending, saying Baltimore "spends more than $2 billion a year. That is more than eight states."

* Samuel A. Culotta, a GOP candidate who urged enactment of the Linowes Commission tax reform plan snubbed by the General Assembly last year -- and a 1 percent commuters' tax, if that initiative fails to generate revenue for the city.