All three discussed their positions on issues ranging from ethical behavior of elected officials to Mayor Martin O'Malley's record at a forum broadcast live by the radio stations that were hosts for the event, WYPR-FM (88.1) and WEAA-FM (88.9).
None of the candidates broke new ground during the session at the Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown, but Pugh and Stokes attempted to discredit Dixon's candidacy by labeling her as a "rubber stamp" for O'Malley and claiming they would restore independent leadership to the council.
Dixon fought back by saying she has established a partnership with O'Malley that has served the city far better than the adversarial relationship that had existed between past council presidents and mayors. She said her cooperation with O'Malley has attracted $2 billion in economic development and created 9,000 jobs.
"Do we have to do more? Yes," Dixon said. "We have to continue to move the city forward."
The race for the city's second-highest elective office has taken on heightened importance because the victor would ascend to the mayor's office without an election if O'Malley is re-elected, runs for governor in 2006 as some people anticipate, and wins.
Dixon has used her incumbency and financial supremacy to her advantage with the airing of a television campaign commercial promoting her record.
Dixon is favored by many in the race because she has held the office since 1999 and served on the council since 1987. Her experience has garnered O'Malley's support and helped her raise more money - $120,000 - than her opponents.
Pugh is a first-term councilwoman with decades of civic involvement in the city. She owns a public relations firms, and her entrepreneurial experience has garnered widespread support in the business community. She has raised $91,000 to finance her campaign and promised to be an "independent voice" in city leadership.
Stokes has raised less than either candidate - $10,756. Still, he has repeatedly won over crowds at other debates by hammering his anti-incumbency theme against Dixon and Pugh.
Those same battle lines were drawn last night before an audience of slightly more than 50 people in the Central Library's Wheeler Auditorium.
Dixon was criticized by Pugh and Stokes for having held a state government job while serving as council president. She was also criticized for holding secret meetings and for hiring her sister to work as a part-time council assistant.
Pugh said a council under her charge would not hold "closed meetings" and would not "believe in nepotism."
Stokes said the council under Dixon's leadership has "become a place where secret meetings are held."
Dixon did not take the criticism lightly. She called Stokes' criticism of her "lies." She also questioned Pugh's claim of being a full-time council member because she runs a public relations business and holds a part-time position at Baltimore City Community College.
Pugh retorted harshly: "Don't make false accusations because you don't know what I do and when I do it."
The Rev. James H. Jones, a first-time politician also seeking the Democratic nomination, did not participate in the debate.
Dixon reiterated her work as the incumbent and parroted many of O'Malley's themes of reducing crime, increasing economic development throughout the city and improving schools.
Pugh stressed her civic involvement dating to the 1970s, when she worked on Mayor William Donald Schaefer's staff to develop neighborhood watch programs. She said she would make the council more open to the community by holding more frequent meetings and by publishing members' votes.
She said the mayor had failed to create a citywide development plan that considers community concerns. She did, however, praise O'Malley for attempting to increase city contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses.
Stokes focused on his anti-incumbency theme, and said that O'Malley and the council had mismanaged the Police Department's budget.
He also said the city needed better planning for development and that stable middle-class neighborhoods needed help before their frayed edges began to spread.