For the first time in the summer-long mayoral campaign, the top Democratic candidates were unrestrained in a televised debate last night, challenging each other about racism, credibility and their commitment to the city.
Much of the caustic questioning came during a 20-minute portion of the one-hour debate that WMAR-TV Channel 2 dubbed the "wild card" round. And wild it was.
City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III took the offensive, again questioning former council ally Martin O'Malley about his vote against a council resolution last year condemning Crown Central Petroleum Corporation for alleged racism and sexism.
O'Malley immediately became irritated with the question, which Bell also delivered in the last televised debate, and said the allegations have never been proved.
"Lawrence, aren't you tired of this?" O'Malley said. "I'm getting tired of the innuendoes and accusation. You never called me a racist when we worked together."
Bell also took on former City Councilman Carl Stokes for claiming credit for sponsoring the council's living-wage legislation in 1994. The law requires that contractors in the city to pay their workers a city minimum wage that is now $7.90 an hour.
Stokes has said he sponsored the bill, which was introduced by former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Clarke offered the measure, but Stokes said he did most of the research.
"I did begin to put together and draft legislation," Stokes said.
During his chance to question his opponents, Stokes questioned O'Malley's commitment to the city, noting that he and his wife work in Towson, where his children go to a Roman Catholic school.
"I guess you'll move to Towson once you lose this election," Stokes said.
O'Malley said he chose to put his children in a Towson school to make it easier for him and his wife to adjust their schedules.
Reid endorsement noted
"Why don't you ask Rev. [Frank M.] Reid if I'm committed to Baltimore," O'Malley said, referring to the endorsement he had received earlier in the day from the pastor of the city's largest black church.
O'Malley criticized Stokes for making promises to restore city services without addressing where he intends to get the money. Stokes used the question to criticize O'Malley's support of tax breaks for downtown hotel developers.
"If you believe there is a budget deficit, why do you give $85 million in tax breaks to hotels downtown?" Stokes asked.
O'Malley asked Bell how he intends to work with the state after fighting with some of its highest-ranking officials. The city gets a fourth of its $1.8 billion annual budget from the state.
"The mayor should not be a puppet of anyone," Bell responded.
Debate moderator Stan Stovall forced candidates to address their most embarrassing campaign gaffes. Stovall asked Bell how he intends to manage the city when he hasn't shown the ability to manage his personal finances or campaign staff.
"I don't know that we've ever elected a perfect mayor," Bell said. "And I don't know that we ever will."
False claim addressed
Stovall confronted Stokes about his false claim that he held a Loyola College degree. Stovall asked Stokes whether he would hire a city candidate who lied on his resume.
"I would judge others as I wish to be judged," Stokes said, "by looking at the overall record."
Stovall asked O'Malley to explain his paying $1,000 to a local minister in hopes of getting the endorsement of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
"Nobody can buy the ministerial endorsement," O'Malley said. "I sought that help in good faith, but [the minister] had his own agenda."
The candidates continued standing on the platforms they have pushed throughout the summer. Bell asked voters to choose him based on his council record. He boasted of introducing public safety initiatives, supporting tax cuts, restoring recreation funds and fighting against the state partnership in the city schools.
Neighborhood focus urged
Stokes pledged to improve education by cutting class sizes, creating after-school programs and working with church and neighborhood groups. The former school board member continued his call for the city to focus on neighborhoods.
"We must pay as much attention to uptown as downtown," Stokes said. "I want a city where neighborhoods don't just survive, they thrive."
O'Malley again pledged to make Baltimore safer. By reducing crime as other cities have, he said, Baltimore would stem the exodus of 1,000 residents a month, boost its tax base and entice banks into economic development, O'Malley said.
"You cannot save a city financially that is losing 12,000 people a year," O'Malley said. "We have to make our city safe."
Moderators and observers graded the candidates high on drama but low on substance.
"It was really more about personalities than issues," said Linneal Henderson, a University of Baltimore professor with the Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
Moderator Odette Ramos, who help found the Neighborhood Congress, agreed.
"We tried to get to the heart of how these people will run this city," Ramos said. "They all skirted around the accountability question, and that's troubling."
The candidates will meet again today on radio. WEAA-FM 88.9 will be host of a candidate debate from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Morgan State University. The candidates will also face off Thursday morning on WOLB-AM 1010 in a 7 a.m. forum with former state Sen. Larry Young as host.
The Democratic and Republican primaries for municipal offices will be Tuesday. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sun staff writer Laura Lippman contributed to this article.