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17 mayoral candidates square off at public forum

Mayoral forum was the election-year equivalent of speed dating

With 17 — yes, 17 — mayoral candidates on hand Saturday to participate in a debate and forum, voters could pretty much find a contender asserting expertise on whatever issue lies closest to their hearts.

Are you suspicious of big government? Then you might see eye-to-eye with Cindy Walsh, an activist and social democrat.

Concerned that developers are getting handouts while neighborhoods suffer? Green Party candidate Joshua Harris and Democrat Patrick Gutierrez, a former banker and sports writer, want your votes.

And if you're most concerned about forging closer ties between the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, one of the three Republican candidates at the forum — transportation coordinator Larry Wardlow, former WBAL radio anchor Alan Walden and Chancellor Torbit — might appeal.

About 480 people attended the forum at the New Psalmist Baptist Church. It was moderated by Kurt Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor and current president of the University of Baltimore, and the local attorney and pundit Georgia Goslee.

Because remarks were limited to a strictly-enforced 60 seconds, the experience was similar to the election-year equivalent of speed dating.

Voters could stop to size up an attractive idea, quickly consider compatibility with their own values, and move on to the next candidate without having to risk a long-term commitment.

The audience was treated to veiled attacks on the perceived front-runners: former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Catherine Pugh — who avoided taking shots at each other.

Democrat Calvin Young III launched the first volley by referring to embattled city Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, who has come under fire for poor conditions in city public housing, including maintenance men who allegedly demanded sexual acts for making repairs.

"He's a symptom of a long-time failed leadership," Young said. "If you don't like Paul Graziano, don't elect somebody to be mayor who has already been in office in this city. Don't make the same mistake we've made in the past, because it will not lead to a brighter future for our children."

Some candidates dealt with the 60-second limit by going for sound bites that hit the high points. Others, such as Pugh, managed impressive displays of double-time talk.

When asked how she planned to provide more affordable housing in Baltimore, Pugh said: "We have 14,000 boarded-up houses in the city and 15,000 that are privately held, so we have to bring back the dollar house program so that people in our city who can't afford homes will be able to get homes.

"The other issue is creating more employment opportunities. I can identify at least 20 neighborhoods in the city where unemployment is at its highest and every time we do an economic development project, it ought to be tied to those poverty-stricken neighborhoods to make sure the people in those neighborhoods work."

Dixon said that improved health care for low-income residents would be a priority for her administration.

"First and foremost, we have to bring our babies into this world healthy," the former mayor said. "Number two, we have to deal with the violence that we face daily in our communities. Number three, we have to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to obesity. Our health department will be working cohesively with all our great institutions to create a healthy environment for our citizens."

Career prosecutor Elizabeth Embry stressed her experience as the deputy state's attorney, spanning years when Baltimore experienced a sharp reduction in violence.

"I've been working my whole career to make our streets safer, our workforce stronger and to build affordable housing," she said. "In all of these roles, I've made systems work better. I've made them fair, and I've made them more effective."

Businessman and philanthropist David Warnock stressed the achievements he's seen at Green Street Academy, the charter school he founded in West Baltimore. Ninety-six percent of the school's 650 pupils live below the poverty line.

"We have a tilapia farm, a greenhouse and solar panels," he said. "Our kids are going to graduate with certifications in energy, technology and health care. We have a real opportunity with this election to write the great American turnaround story."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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