The time was set. The hall reserved. But was she coming?
Nope. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby declined the invitation to debate her two primary challengers before law students this month.
After the city’s chief prosecutor declined, another candidate dropped out. The students canceled.
“We were disappointed,” said David Gray, the students’ law professor at the University of Maryland. “The students had done a ton of research and background work.”
With the June 26 primary election approaching, Mosby’s two Democratic challengers, Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah, have grown frustrated as they watch time running out on their chance to publicly confront her. The first-term incumbent has declined at least two debates.
Mosby announced last week that she would attend a debate hosted by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV and the University of Baltimore. But the event is scheduled for June 7 — just a week before early voting starts, and 19 days before the primary.
“We are committed to participating in debates,” said Zach Marcus, her campaign spokesman. So far, Marcus added, Mosby has been too busy to participate in them. He said she was not available to comment for this article.
“The state’s attorney is more than happy to defend her record,” he added.
St. Mary’s College political scientist Todd Eberly says Mosby’s approach to debates so far is the standard strategy for incumbents. It’s common for them to put off debates for as long as possible.
“Incumbency has its own built-in benefit. You tend to have better name recognition. You tend to have better coverage in the press,” Eberly said. “The minute you step on stage with someone who challenges you, you start to level that playing field.”
Four years ago, Mosby expressed the same frustration as her current rivals when she was pressing then-State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein to debate her. They eventually debated on the Larry Young Morning Show and WBAL-TV.
Mosby easily defeated the incumbent in an upset victory.
Bernstein was the first one-term incumbent to lose the city state’s attorney’s race in 40 years. Mosby is trying to avoid becoming the second.
But now her challengers are using her own words against her to demand more than one debate. They are trying to win a job that pays nearly $251,000 to oversee a $45 million budget and a staff of nearly 400 that handled 41,000 cases last year.
“She called out Gregg Bernstein when she was running, and now she’s doing the same thing,” said Bates, a longtime defense attorney who dropped out of the law school debate after Mosby declined to participate. “The silence has been deafening.
“We’re beyond frustrated. We want a debate.”
With Mosby and Bates absent from certain forums, Vignarajah, the former Maryland deputy attorney general, has showed up alone to answer audience questions and post photos on social media of his rivals’ empty chairs.
“I’m tired of debating empty chairs,” he said.
Mosby became one of the youngest state’s attorneys in the nation when she was elected in 2014 at 34 years old. She drew national attention the following spring when she brought criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. None were convicted.
Bates, 49, has called Mosby an ineffective crime fighter. He faults her for the violence that spiked during her three years in office. He said talented prosecutors have left her office, resulting in weak cases. He has campaigned on a strategy to aggressively prosecute violent criminals while providing drug and mental health treatment to nonviolent offenders.
Vignarajah, 41, has campaigned as a reformer, saying his office will stop prosecuting addicts for petty crimes, support immigrants and oppose mandatory minimum sentences.
Mosby, 38, has expanded youth programs and support for victims and witnesses.
While the challengers have been frustrated by their inability to face off publicly against Mosby, they have also fended off attempts to remove them from the ballot. Baltimore residents sued both men over whether they actually live in the city and qualify to run for the office.
A judge threw out both lawsuits, finding both men met the residency requirements to run.
The city has suffered more than 300 killings in each year of Mosby’s tenure. Bates and Vignarajah want to pin those record crime levels on Mosby.
Mosby herself used the same tactic in her run for the office, expressing outrage over Baltimore’s crime rate in 2014 — one of the city’s least violent years.
“I want to debate Marilyn Mosby anytime, anyplace, anywhere,” Bates said. “I just need Marilyn Mosby to return our phone calls.”
“I’m just as frustrated,” Vignarajah said. “We should all be on the stage, sharing our views and allowing the voters to decide.”