Abundance of congressional hopefuls at forum means shortage of time to answer questions But then most in audience came with minds made up


At a 7th District congressional forum in Randallstown this week, each of the 19 candidates who showed up had two minutes to tell the public about his or her background and platform.

Most of the more than 150 people in the placard-cluttered audience already had their minds made up, however; they appeared to be campaign workers and volunteers for one candidate or another.

Then, three questions were posed to each candidate -- one on crime, one on the controversial Moving To Opportunity federal housing program, and the last on education. Down the line they went, with each candidate having one minute to answer each of the questions (the same time allotted for the later single-shot questions from the audience).

In short, the size of the field in the 7th District race for Rep. Kweisi Mfume's seat -- 32 candidates in all -- is making significant debate on the issues difficult and turning the race into a political beauty pageant.

On the other hand, how many defining issues are there? The race has 27 Democrats, all of whom agree that the Republican-controlled Congress is a bad thing, and five Republicans who agree that the Republican-controlled Congress is a good thing.

The forum Tuesday night, sponsored by RENEW Inc., a Randallstown-area umbrella community association, was just the latest example in what will be a long series of these programs between now and the March 5 primary election.

One audience member, taking the microphone, described the responses being offered by the candidates -- of both parties -- as "vague, ambiguous generalities" on issues "over which the U.S. Congress has no jurisdiction."

Jerome Goodman, a Randallstown Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland Senate in 1994, asked, nearly rhetorically, what specific legislation beneficial to the 7th District the Democratic candidates would hope to have passed "in a Congress controlled by Republicans."

Based on luck of the draw, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, got the opportunity to answer, in his first appearance at a public forum.

Dr. Reid responded that candidates can only be vague in such forums "when the time is limited and there are so many candidates" that they can "only provide sound-bite answers."

Another question involving the Moving To Opportunity program -- a plan that would enable poor black Baltimore families to move to middle-class, majority-white areas -- was one example of the candidates' thin and sometimes vague responses.

As the candidates began responding, the answers seemed clear. But as the question was sent down the line of congressional aspirants, who were arranged on stage for the most part in alphabetical order, the responses became more vague.

One man turned to a seat-mate and asked, "Was that a 'yes' or a 'no'?"

Beverly Goldstein, a RENEW board member who organized the program, said she believed it was a helpful tool to voters, but conceded that the matter of handling that many candidates in a meaningful and fair way was "mind-boggling."

"How are you fair to that many people?" she asked, responding to her own question by saying she believed the two-minute introduction and one-minute question-response time was best.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cadigan, who moderated the forum, said he thought such programs "give an overview," but also conceded that "the issues can't be discussed in depth."

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