Candidates vying to become Baltimore's next mayor clashed Tuesday evening in West Baltimore, offering differing views on how to reduce crime, spur the economy and improve schools.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick J. Mosby, lawyer Elizabeth Embry and businessman David L. Warnock were among those debating issues in the forum at the New Metropolitan Baptist Church.
Dixon, who resigned in 2010 amid a scandal, cited her recently released plan to reduce violent crime, which decreased under her administration.
"It was my administration that began to reduce crime," she said. "I know what it takes. I have what it takes."
Other mayoral candidates participating in the Historic Marble Hill Community Association's "Evening with the Candidates" included Democrats Patrick Gutierrez, Calvin Young, Joshua Harris and Cindy Walsh. Unaffiliated candidates Chukwuemeka Egwu and Laverne Murray also participated.
The forum was held just blocks from where unrest broke out in April after Freddie Gray suffered injuries in police custody and later died. Several candidates referenced the city's large challenges. Warnock said the mayoral election will determine "how the world will view us."
"We are in a state of emergency," said Young, a Harvard-trained engineer, citing the city's soaring murder rate and budget deficit. "We need new, fresh leadership."
Gutierrez was the lone candidate to take aim at Dixon, the early front-runner.
"I'm fed up with the way the city has been run," he said. "I'm fed up with the way people have been treated. I'm fed up with the way money has been wasted. ... Previous mayors have set a very low bar."
The forum took place just hours before a new poll was released showing Dixon maintaining a clear lead in the crowded field.
A survey conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies from Jan. 11 through Jan. 17 showed Dixon leading the race with 27 percent of respondents saying they would vote for her. She was followed by Pugh (18 percent) and Stokes (14 percent). Mosby was in fourth (7 percent), followed by Embry and Warnock with 5 percent each. About 21 percent of those polled said they were undecided.
"Dixon is in a pretty solid place," said Patrick E. Gonzales, who conducted the poll. "You've got five or more candidates breaking up the vote in a way that benefits her. The question is: Can one of those candidates capture the imagination of enough people that it becomes a two-candidate race?"
Dixon enjoys a 14-point advantage over Pugh among black voters and a 7-point lead among women. Those two voting blocs typically represent about two-thirds of Baltimore voters, Gonzales said.
Gonzales polled 356 registered Democrats in Baltimore on both landlines and cellphones. The margin of error is 5.3 percentage points.
Gonzales' poll showed similar results to a November survey conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore that showed Dixon leading Pugh by 11 points.
"I get the sense the race has been rather steady for a while now," Gonzales said. "But the election is three months from now, and a lot of stuff can happen."
The poll comes as the race for mayor is expanding. Twelve Democrats — and 21 candidates total — either have filed or announced their intention to run for the office. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the incumbent, is not seeking re-election.
On Tuesday, longtime WBAL news anchor Alan Walden, 79, filed to run as a Republican. He will face Brian Vaeth, a former city firefighter from East Baltimore, in the April 26 primary. The last time a Republican was elected to office in Baltimore was 1963, when Theodore R. McKeldin became mayor.
Some of the leading Democrats, meanwhile, have begun purchasing television advertisements. Warnock has begun airing an ad called "This Truck" on Baltimore TV networks, including ABC, CBS and FOX. It depicts him arriving in Baltimore in an old pickup truck with student loans.
"I worked hard. I built a business, and now I'm running for mayor because this city needs a leader — not a politician — one who has created real jobs and opportunities," Warnock states in the ad. "That's how we're going to turn Baltimore around."
Pugh's first TV ad began airing last week.
Campaigns must file their financial reports, detailing their contributions, by midnight Wednesday.
Dixon, Pugh and Stokes have run against each other before — 13 years ago. In 2003, Dixon won a race for City Council president with 54 percent of the vote, compared to 30 percent for Pugh and 15 percent for Stokes.
Gonzales also polled the job approval rating of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. He found 59 percent of Baltimore voters approve of Mosby, while 26 percent disapprove.
Black voters support Mosby 76 percent to 9 percent, while white voters disapprove of her job performance 62 percent to 23 percent.
"For any elected official in any jurisdiction, 59 percent is a strong number," Gonzales said.