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Forum for Baltimore mayoral candidates shows difference in vision, style

Several Baltimore City mayoral candidates met for a forum at the Arena Players Theater. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

Five of the leading Democrats vying to become Baltimore's next mayor shared their visions Thursday, including state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh's push to put ex-prisoners to work rebuilding the city and former Mayor Sheila Dixon's plan to use land trusts to spur investment in struggling neighborhoods.

Their style and delivery was as much on display as the platforms and goals they outlined. They were quizzed on their plans for improving public transportation, offering affordable housing, reducing the homicide rate and revealing what portion of their campaign materials have been produced by African-American- and locally owned businesses.

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Sabrina Harris took a front-row seat for the debate at the Arena Players theater in West Baltimore. The 58-year-old human resources consultant from Northwest Baltimore said she came prepared to vote for Dixon, but hearing the plans from the panel "opened me up to researching and investigating" policy platforms and campaign promises of each of the participants, who also included City Councilmen Nick J. Mosby and Carl Stokes and businessman David L. Warnock.

Harris called the election critical to the future of the city.

"Whoever is in office has to include other officials in the process," Harris said. "The uprising [in April] opened up a whole can of worms, and whoever is going to be the next mayor has to address what has come out of that."

The forum drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300, prompting moderator Larry Young, a radio talk-show host and former state senator, to warn that the room was overcrowded.

It was one of several debates held for the Democratic challengers looking to replace Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who isn't seeking re-election. The Democratic primary, which for decades has determined who becomes mayor of the overwhelmingly Democratic city, is April 26. Candidates were invited to the forum based on polling results, Young said. Lawyer Elizabeth Embry and civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson (who filed to run Wednesday) were not invited.

All told, 29 people have filed to run for mayor, including Republicans, Greens and unaffiliated challengers.

Mosby said he was the candidate who could "connect the dots," pointing to his modest upbringing in the city and a decade of professional experience.

"We have an amazing opportunity right now," Mosby said. "This is the first time in decades that we can collectively come together and elect a mayor without always kind of knowing who was next in line to lead our city."

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Stokes concentrated much of his commentary on the legacy of segregation that he says created "overwhelming impoverishment" in black communities. He pledged, as mayor, not to offer public financing to developers without requiring contributions to city neighborhoods.

"The direct, intentional segregation of black people — and don't look at me like it ain't so — is absolutely what is driving this city apart," Stokes said.

Warnock largely used his time on the stage to introduce himself. A political newcomer, he outlined his role in establishing a charter school and creating city-based jobs. He said he would look for homegrown talent in Baltimore to solve some of its intractable problems, such as the sharp disparity in life expectancy rates from one section of the city to another.

"I want to write, with you, the greatest turnaround story in America," Warnock said.

Dixon, who resigned from office in 2010 as part of a plea deal to resolve corruption charges, pointed to the rising homicide rate in trying to a draw line between when she was in office and the years since.

She said the City Council must work closely with the next mayor to deliver opportunities to residents.

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"The politics of Baltimore is what's destroying us," Dixon said.

Pugh stressed her desire for policies that provide equal opportunities across neighborhoods. As mayor, she also said, she would work to increase trust between the police and community by fostering respect between both groups.

"This city is not monolithic," Pugh said. "Some people in Sandtown-Winchester own their homes. They want the same thing that every community — whether in Roland Park or somewhere else — deserves."

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