From the pews of an East Baltimore church, residents listened to the mayoral candidates answer questions about how they would combat crime. In a Hampden recreation center, voters heard them zip through their stump speeches in three minutes flat.
But Baltimoreans attending the crush of candidates forums organized in recent weeks by community and religious groups have been sifting through the rhetoric without the benefit of hearing from one of the most important candidates, Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Noting conflicts with her schedule, Dixon has missed four forums since July 23 and several others earlier in the race.
The mayor's campaign said her schedule -- packed with official and political events -- does not allow her to attend every forum and added that Dixon will appear with other candidates at least nine times before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.
Two of those nine events will be full-scale debates -- at least one of which will be televised.
Critics say Dixon is avoiding any stage she must share with another candidate. A poll conducted last month for The Sun showed that the mayor had a formidable lead over the seven other contenders in the primary. Conventional political wisdom, those critics said, suggests that candidates who are ahead avoid debating.
"I don't understand what she's afraid of," said one of Dixon's opponents, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. "I suppose she doesn't want to have a discussion about the murder crisis or her ideas on how she wants to deal with it. I think she has no idea how to deal with it."
Last week, Dixon was the only mayoral candidate to skip a forum organized by a nonprofit religious group called BRIDGE. The event, one of the best-attended forums this summer, drew several hundred voters to an East Baltimore church. BRIDGE leaders said the mayor agreed to meet with them this month.
At a recent forum organized by the Hampden Community Council, Dixon sent a representative -- Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. She also missed a candidates night hosted by the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce. Others have missed forums, but none of the leading candidates has missed as many as the mayor .
It is not just her critics who have noticed Dixon's absence. Voters who attended the forums and spoke to The Sun almost universally said they were disappointed that the mayor did not show. But many also said they understood Dixon's schedule was likely tighter than those of her opponents.
"I am impressed by people who do show up," said Walter "Wali" Gill, 69, a retired professor who attended the Hampden forum. "It's hard for someone else to speak for you. It's just not as effective."
Dixon's campaign said the mayor's schedule is set months in advance and that community groups often send invitations after she has booked the date for another meeting. Attending the forums, campaign officials said, would mean canceling another event -- including those put together by other community organizations.
As the candidates spoke at the BRIDGE forum last week, Dixon was in the Oliver neighborhood to announce an additional $1.2 million to revitalize the area.
While candidates attended a forum for the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce, Dixon took questions on crime, property taxes and city trees at a Butchers Hill neighborhood association meeting.
"She is invigorated by getting together to talk about ideas for moving Baltimore forward," said Dixon's campaign manager, Martha McKenna. "Mayor Dixon respects her opponents in this race and their ideas, and looks forward to continuing the conversation. ... It's important to Mayor Dixon to be in the community."
Azikwe Deveaux, 32, said the chamber's forum was important to help him get to know the candidates. He said he was let down, but not surprised, that Dixon did not show. He said the mayor met with the group separately in June.
"I wish Sheila Dixon was here," said Deveaux, who said he has not decided whom he will vote for. "That would have been nice, to hear her side-by-side with other candidates. I understand she's more than just a candidate."
Dixon has committed to attending a candidates forum this morning on WOLB-AM. McKenna said the mayor will also appear at debates organized by WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television, as well as the League of Women Voters later this month.
Still, her opponents said Dixon is dodging discussions about city issues that have proliferated at the forums.
Del. Jill P. Carter, who is also running for mayor, was the first to publicly raise the issue of Dixon's attendance. At a news conference outside City Hall -- an event that included someone dressed in a chicken suit -- Carter said Dixon has an obligation to talk about her vision for the city.
"She plays it safe by scheduling town meetings where no other candidates are permitted to come," Carter said. "She surrounds herself with city managers and city workers at these forums ... but refuses to come to where there's a choice of candidates to hear from."
Carter also criticized Dixon for sending city employees -- namely, her chief of staff, Otis Rolley III, and Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank -- to speak at the forums on her behalf. Though the move has raised eyebrows, city employees are generally allowed by state law to campaign after hours.
Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk and mayoral candidate Frank M. Conaway Sr. was the only candidate at the BRIDGE forum to note that Dixon was not in the room.
"I resent that the interim mayor decided not to come here and talk with you tonight," he said, prompting hearty applause. "I resent having someone speak for the person who's supposed to be leading the city."
PTA President Phillip A. Brown Jr., schools administrator Andrey Bundley, socialist A. Robert Kaufman and businessman Mike Schaefer also are running for mayor.
Forums, as opposed to debates, tend to be more genteel and focused on broad issues, such as crime and education. At the Hampden forum, candidates had three minutes to offer their stump speeches. At others, audience members have asked questions. The format usually leaves little room for candidate interaction.
But as candidates have sharpened their platforms in past weeks, the forums have given hundreds of city voters a chance to see them and hear their ideas. After watching the BRIDGE forum, Jeanette Spratley, 55, said the discussion helped her to see how the candidates presented themselves.
"I wish she had been here," Spratley said of Dixon, adding that she has not decided whom she will vote for. "I wish she had tried to make some time to get here because this is important. Something like that will impact people's opinions."