At the end of a mayoral forum Thursday on environmental matters facings Baltimore, 8-year-old twins Christopher and Lenaya Conyers walked up to the microphone to ask the candidates what plans they have for the city's youth.
Councilman Nick J. Mosby, a Democrat, said he wants to launch an aggressive campaign to rid houses of lead paint and sue the manufacturers who produced it 50 years ago. Green Party contender Joshua Harris said he wants to make sure children have water they can safely drink in the schools. Republican Alan Walden said he would work to create a city that gave them more reasons to stay than to leave when they grow up.
But it was former Mayor Sheila Dixon's answer that stuck most with Christopher: a school that will stay open from "7:30 in the morning to 9 at night."
"I want you to have the best Baltimore," Dixon said to the children, speaking from the dais before a crowd of about 400 in the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in West Baltimore. "We have every ingredient to be successful."
Dixon mentioned her proposal for a school that stays open into the night as a place where families can go for a host of activities and services, as she ticked off a list of items she believes are necessary for a safe, clean and healthy city.
The twins, who attend the public charter school KIPP Harmony Academy, said the mayoral candidates seemed to be concerned about their safety and ability to get an education.
"They will try to keep the world safe and keep us kids safe," Christopher said afterward.
Eleven mayoral hopefuls participated in the 90-minute forum that was hosted by environmental and community development nonprofits, including the Parks and People Foundation. The Rev. Franklin Lance, a member of the foundation's board and pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, said education, policing and housing issues have gotten significant attention during the campaign, and the nonprofits wanted to offer voters information on the candidates' plans for green spaces, healthy waterways and other environmental matters.
"This is a watershed moment in the history of Baltimore City," Lance said. "The mayor's position will change, a number of council seats will change, so we want the citizens of Baltimore to be informed and educated."
About 30 candidates — including Democrats, Republicans, Greens and unaffiliated contenders — are vying to replace outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is not seeking re-election.
Addressing lead paint was a key theme during the forum. An investigation by the Baltimore Sun published in December found the state's system for protecting children from the dangerous effects of the paint when it chips and flakes is not adequately enforced. Thousands of rental homes in the city are believed to contain the toxin, but the city has money to repair only 230 of them over the next three years.
At least 4,900 Maryland children have been poisoned over the past decade.
Engineer Calvin Allen Young III said eliminating lead paint is one of his two top priorities, if he is elected. The other is education.
"Every dime that we find when we do audits is going to go to those two things, first and foremost," Young, a Democrat, said.
Lawyer Elizabeth Embry, also a Democrat, said the city must spend money on preventive programs to save money in the long run. By investing in programs that make homes safer for kids by addressing lead paint issues will cut costs the city faces when children get sick, require trips to the hospital and miss days at school.
"We need to spend the money to save the money," she said.
Former bank operations manager and Democrat Patrick Gutierrez said the system is in place to deal with lead paint abatement, "but the accountability is not. These same ideas being put out there are good ideas but if they are not followed through then we're going to be back here four years from now talking about lead abatement."
Councilman Carl Stokes, also a Democrat, said lead paint manufacturers — much like tobacco companies — knew of the dangers of the substance a half a century ago. He called for the city to sue the manufacturers for harm they've caused Baltimore children over decades.
"They knew it," he said.
The candidates also were asked about how they would address the transportation of crude oil shipments along rail lines in the city. Advocates have estimated that about 165,000 Baltimore residents live within a 1-mile radius of train routes, making them vulnerable to explosions caused by potential derailments. Some are pushing for a temporary ban on the expansion of crude oil terminals.
Cindy Walsh, a Democrat and former UPS manager, said as an environmentalist, she does not support exporting raw materials.
Young and Democratic state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh each said they support updates to the rail lines to improve safety standards to the infrastructure that is 200 years old in places.
"It's old, it's bad infrastructure and it needs to be dealt with," Pugh said.
Harris said he wants more emphasis on clean energy and sustainability while Embry said, at a minimum, she would demand more information from the rail companies and state officials on the train schedules and how much oil they're carrying.
"We have trains running under the city at any given moment ... that could result in an explosion that could cause death," she said. "We don't know when the trains are running or what they're carrying."
On another matter, the candidates were asked about how they would ensure the city meets a new deadline that will be issued in a consent decree with the federal and state government. A report released in December says the city deliberately dumped more than 330 million gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls over the past five years. The Jones Falls flows into the Inner Harbor. The report also detailed 400 complaints of sewage backing up into homes.
The intentional overflows are coming from two openings in the sewer system that the city was supposed to close years ago. The city has spent $700 million on sewer repairs to comply with the 2002 consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The order required an end to chronic overflows by Jan. 1.
Activists have pushed state and federal regulators to grant the city no more than five more years to finish its sewer work.
Businessman and Democratic challenger David Warnock said would support a proposal by environmentalists to create signage and maps to help the public understand the source of the sewage and the faults in the system.
"We need to give people the information," he said, adding that under his administration he would make the harbor swimmable by 2018, two years earlier than some environmental groups have pushed for.
Mosby said he wants to create a system in the city for certified project management oversight to make sure contracts — such as the ones involving the sewage system upgrades — come in on time and on budget.