Tomorrow afternoon, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will attend her first candidate forum in advance of Baltimore's September's primary election. However, the event is by no means the first debate of the election. Other candidates have been attending forums for months, and many of them, like the Empowerment Temple event last night, featured an empty podium and shaking heads at the mayor's absence.
In Ms. Rawlings-Blake's defense, she had a perfectly good reason to miss the Empowerment Temple forum — she was participating in National Night Out anti-crime events and had informed the event's organizers that she would not be able to attend several days in advance. She has committed to a total of five debates and forums before the primary (including a League of Women Voters debate Aug. 30, of which The Sun is a co-sponsor).
As her campaign spokeswoman explained to The Sun's Julie Scharper, "The mayor is the incumbent. She has a very busy schedule. She manages the city. She doesn't have the luxury the other candidates have" to attend the events.
With all due respect to the demanding nature of the mayor's day job, we hope she doesn't really consider mayoral forums to be a "luxury."
The mayor may conclude that as the incumbent, with advantages of campaign funds and name recognition, she doesn't need to attend every debate and forum to win this race. Traditional campaign tactics would dictate that she limit her attendance, both because debates are unpredictable and because standing on the same stage with the incumbent has the effect of elevating the challengers.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake hasn't refused to debate or engaged in the kind of debate-about-debates silliness that tends to crop up during gubernatorial elections. But her attitude about debates and forums has come across as somewhat imperious. Immediately after the filing deadline, the mayor's campaign issued a news release titled, "Mayor Rawlings-Blake proposes series of mayoral debates," in which the mayor announced her intention to work with the other candidates to set up four events in August.
The other candidates, understandably, greeted this proffer with some disdain; most of them had been attending forums and debates for months and had many more already scheduled. There have been at least eight debates and forums so far that the mayor has not attended, and other candidates in the race say they have committed to at least seven more that the mayor does not presently plan to attend. It was not the challengers who were deciding when they debated, about what topics and under what conditions but members of the community — churches, interest groups, neighborhood associations and others — who had been, and should be, setting the terms about what they wanted to hear from those who would lead the city.
Since then, the mayor has agreed to another event (the League of Women Voters debate was not on the original schedule), and we hope she will attend more.
The reason is that, although the candidates can cover a lot of ground in five debates and forums, most of which will be broadcast on television or the radio, a greater number of events increases the breadth and depth of issues that will be discussed. Tomorrow's event, for example, is hosted by the Maryland Disabilities Forum and will allow a much more detailed conversation about the issues that are most important to that community — issues that might not come up at all in a general interest debate. Although Ms. Rawlings-Blake is attending that event, she does not plan to attend a forum next week hosted by the Safe and Sound Campaign, or others this month by 100 Black Women, the Hampden Community Council, the National Action Network, the student group Intersection and the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. The mayor has also not agreed to attend a televised Fox 45 debate Aug. 29.
These events are the opportunity most voters will have to judge the candidates side-by-side, and they have a lot to ask about. Baltimore continues to lose population. Although crime is down, the city is still among the most dangerous in the nation. After years of solid gains, city student test scores slid back this year. Employment opportunities for residents are few, the foreclosure crisis is adding to Baltimore's already huge stock of vacant houses, and drug addiction continues to take a terrible toll on the city.
Because Ms. Rawlings-Blake was elevated to her post after the resignation of Sheila Dixon, she has never before had the opportunity of articulating her vision for the city in the context of a mayoral election. We urge the city's voters to pay close attention to the opportunities they have to take stock of Ms. Rawlings-Blake and all the other candidates, and we urge the mayor to make such events a higher priority. Baltimore's voters deserve no less.