Mayoral hopefuls square off in debate

The Baltimore Sun

Facing off last night in the first and likely only live, televised debate of the election, seven Democratic candidates for mayor laid out broadly different approaches for how they would lead Baltimore - and one candidate used the platform to announce that he was dropping out.

In a freewheeling format that focused more attention on Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - considered the front-runners in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary - the candidates parried over government ethics, how to reduce homicides and whether the management of schools should be changed.

Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., who has run a peripheral campaign since announcing his candidacy in June, said during a highly unusual opening statement that he will drop out of the race and throw his support behind Mitchell. Conaway was promptly asked to leave.

The remaining candidates laid out the platforms they have sharpened for months on the campaign trail. The hourlong debate, which aired live on WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television, allowed the underdog candidates a chance to criticize Dixon and Mitchell and forced all seven to address what has become the election's most pressing issue: crime.

Dixon continued her call for a community-friendly approach to policing - an effort to rebuild the trust between residents and police that some feel has eroded - while Mitchell reiterated his promises to hire 400 police and give a 15 percent raise to every officer on the force.

"I believe that every citizen deserves to live in a safe city," Dixon said. "City government is being proactive, not sitting back waiting. We're going into the communities, ... saying to our citizens that we've got to do this together."

Mitchell blamed the city's crime woes on Dixon's administration, which took over in January when Martin O'Malley became governor. There have been 205 homicides in Baltimore this year, up 15 percent over the same period in 2006.

"The reality is, the interim mayor has lost control of the situation," Mitchell said. "Your neighbors know what's going on out in the community. The police have abandoned the interim mayor."

Del. Jill P. Carter, the only other woman running for mayor, argued that Mitchell and Dixon are to blame for crime, given that both held city office for years. If elected, Carter said, she would declare "a state of emergency" to whip up outrage over the rising number of homicides.

"Our city is bleeding and dying," Carter said. "It's a shame that we have the public safety situation that we have in Baltimore City, but it's not by accident. To be quite honest with you, it's the so-called leadership that stands here at the podium."

For most of the candidates who have not raised enough money to run television ads at this point in the election, the debate was an opportunity to reach a large number of voters at one time.

Schools administrator Andrey Bundley attacked Mitchell's plan to hire more police and argued that the solution to crime is to mobilize thousands of volunteers to knock on doors throughout the city.

"When we talk about 400 police officers, we're going to create in Baltimore an occupied territory with no withdrawal strategy," he said. "In order to address the issues of Baltimore, we're going to have to reduce the culture of witness intimidation."

Asked for a show of hands on whether the candidates believe the city-state partnership used to manage Baltimore's schools is ineffective, all but Dixon raised their hands. Dixon defended the city school system as having made progress and singled out the new CEO as someone who "gets it and understands we have to put our children first."

Mitchell said the school system needs "radical reform," and repeated his call for a mayoral takeover of city schools, as has taken place in Chicago and New York.

Bundley and Carter said they support a majority elected school board, while socialist A. Robert Kaufman noted that the city had mayoral control before the General Assembly created the partnership in 1997. Under that arrangement, the mayor and governor jointly appoint the school board.

"The schools aren't going to be fixed until we democratize the entire school system," said Kaufman. "Our school board should be made up of those most concerned with education."

Dixon and Mitchell were questioned about ethics controversies that have surrounded their campaigns. The first question put to Mitchell centered on allegations that his father, serving as campaign treasurer, misspent $56,000 in political contributions. Dixon, meanwhile, was asked about no-bid contracts issued by her office when she was City Council president.

"I'm not going to get into that," Dixon responded to WBAL-TV reporter Jayne Miller. "Because the truth of it is, there was no money spent on no-bid contracts. There's a process, but today in this debate is not where you discuss that."

A series of articles in The Sun showed that Dixon's former campaign chairman was paid to manage City Council computers, though he did not have a contract.

Rumors swirled throughout the day that Conaway, who has served as clerk of court since 1998, would drop out of the race. When asked about it yesterday afternoon, Conaway said the rumors were "not true."

Following the debate, Conaway said the decision was made after a weekend dinner with Mitchell and Bundley. At the dinner meeting, Conaway asked several of the candidates to step out of the way to avoid splitting the anti-Dixon vote.

"I don't think [Mitchell would] make a better mayor than I would make, but someone has to make a sacrifice," Conaway said. "There are too many people in the race. That way the interim mayor gets to be elected."

Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson questioned last night whether the debate would be useful for viewers. Given that all of the candidates took part, it was at times difficult for voters to distinguish among them.

Businessman Mike Schaefer and PTA President Phillip A. Brown Jr. also took part.

"So many generalities were thrown around, so many candidates, so much sniping without context," Crenson said. "I think many voters are going to find this somewhat dispiriting."

C. Vernon Gray, a professor of political science at Morgan State University, agreed that most of the candidates were short on specifics. But he said he thought voters would benefit from the exchange.

"It was good overall to get a sense of who the candidates are and get a feel for them and how they handle questions," he said.

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