Mayoral candidates sound off on issues before spirited crowd

Six candidates for Baltimore mayor sounded off on education, drug addiction, vacant homes and job creation at a Tuesday night forum sponsored by a coalition of nearly three dozen advocacy groups.

Speaking before a spirited standing room crowd of about 500 people, including many youth, candidates Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., education activist Vicki Ann Harding, former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, former city planning director Otis Rolley and nurse Wilton Wilson, hashed out their platforms for more than three hours.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not attend the forum, which was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the education outreach arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Associated Black Charities, among other groups. Organizers and the other candidates chided Rawlings-Blake for not participating.

Although Rawlings-Blake has agreed to participate in five forums or debates during the campaign season, she is skipping the vast majority of candidates forums, unlike her challengers. Political experts said that incumbents usually avoid debating their challengers, in part to signify that they belong to a different league.

"She is kind of implicitly arguing that the other candidates aren't legitimate," said Lester Spence, a professor of urban politics at The Johns Hopkins University. "She's reducing the ability of people to take pot shots at her that are out of her control."

Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at Hopkins, said that while candidates' forums are essential for challengers to communicate their platforms, an incumbent mayor has other means of garnering headlines.

"The opponents need these forums and debates to get visibility," he said. "She doesn't. She can simply call a press conference at City Hall to get press."

Indeed Sheila Dixon, Rawlings-Blake's predecessor, employed a similar tactic in the 2007 mayor's race. She attended seven forums, despite jibes from her opponents.

Travis Tazelaar, Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, said the mayor had a prior engagement Tuesday evening. Rawlings-Blake tweeted from a campaign account that she was speaking with voters in Belair-Edison.

Tazelaar said that Rawlings-Blake is choosing to interact with voters in many ways, including attending community barbecues and knocking on doors, rather than relying on forums.

The discussion at Tuesday night's forum, which was held at West Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church, ranged from technical discussions of property tax plans to comments that provoked laughter from the audience.

Landers, the former head of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, detailed his plan to reduce property taxes to spark growth in the city. He also said he would impose a "snack tax" on junk foods and devote the proceeds to health education.

Rolley said he would increase funding for youth programs.

"Either the youth of Baltimore are a priority or they're not," he said. "We have a mayor who could figure out who to raise $600,000 in one night for her campaign, but couldn't figure out who to raise enough money to employ all the young people who wanted a summer job."

About 5,000 young people have jobs through the Youth Works program this year; about 1,000 more had applied to work, according to city officials.

Pugh pointed out that Rawlings-Blake had staggered the schedule for pool openings this summer as a cost-cutting measure, and said the mayor had "balanced the budget on the backs of the citizens of Baltimore."

"Trust me with your babies. Trust me and I will guarantee that I will make a future brighter than any other city," she said.

Conaway, in particular, drew strong reactions for his remarks. Repeating remarks he has made at similar gatherings, he said he would replace top leadership in City Hall because "they don't look like us" and championing the education he received when schools were segregated.

He provoked the most spirited reaction of the evening in response to a question about childhood obesity.

"I love fat people. They're so jolly and cuddly," he said, adding that he would help create jobs to help obese people get exercise.

Harding, the lone Republican on the panel, also elicited strong responses by saying that she would fire schools CEO Andres Alonso and police Chief Frederick H. Bealefeld IV.

She said that city schools were full of contaminants and that eating vegetables grown in city soil — which she said was polluted — could lead one to "grow three eyes."

In response to a question about vacant houses, Rolley said he found some of the candidates' responses "frustrating."

"I feel like we're not getting to the heart of the issues relevant to people in this room," he said.