Baltimore mayoral hopefuls agree city needs a new direction. At forum, they make the case for who should lead.

Candidates in Baltimore’s crowded mayoral race pledged Saturday to regain control of what some called a city in crisis, appealing to voters during one of the first public forums of the campaign.

More than 1,000 people filled an auditorium at Morgan State University as mayoral hopefuls offered ideas for tackling crime, poverty, joblessness and failing schools.


Among those at the event put on by the Greater Baltimore Urban League were Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is fighting to keep the job he took on last spring after former Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned amid a corruption scandal.

While most on the stage criticized current and past city leaders for mismanaging everything from the city budget to resources needed in low-income neighborhoods and city schools, Young focused on programs and services he has started since taking on the job and on his plans to continue that momentum.

“I’m committed to making sure that economic development is equitable throughout the city of Baltimore," Young said in response to a moderator’s question. “If you want honesty, transparency and a mayor who always put people first, I have provided honest government and quality constituent service my entire career.”

A total of 24 Democrats, seven Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate had filed to run by Friday night’s filing deadline. The primary is April 28, with the general election Nov. 3. The primary functions as the de facto election, as Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1.

Dixon, who resigned as mayor nine years ago amid a scandal in which she was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, argued her success at decreasing the murder rate and reputation as a strong city manager made her the best candidate. She said people often approach her around the city to ask her to return to public life.

“We have an amazing city, but things have become too normal,” she said. “When I say normal, crime, murder, incidents that are happening in our community have become the norm. There’s no emergency for us to make changes."

Washington positioned herself as an experienced lawmaker, with nine years as a state delegate and senator who could accomplish positive changes that City Hall leaders have failed to bring.


“I’m frustrated with the false promises of old leadership that things will change,” she said. “I’m frustrated that we’ll continue to utterly fail our families ... Our institutions fail our children by not investing in their education and the root causes of violence, economic despair.”

She called for the city health department to be a cabinet-level position and lead the way in trauma-informed care.

“We need leadership that’s honest, that’s tough and that’s smart,” she said. “We don’t have that right now.”

Candidates were asked how they would reduce crime in a city with 348 murders last year.

Smith said the city needs to focus resources in the East Baltimore and West Baltimore communities most plagued by violence. Catalina Byrd, one of only seven Republicans in the race, said she would work with Gov. Larry Hogan on reforms to prevent ex-offenders from becoming repeat offenders. Vignarajah proposed programs to find apprenticeships for people released from prison.

Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, which he said was forgotten by city leaders except during Preakness, stressed his city council work to ensure city government treats people fairly regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status.


Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general who painted Baltimore as a city sorely in need of new leadership, pledged that the city would fund public school improvements recommended by the so-called Kirwan Commission in part by raising taxes on abandoned property and from casinos. He promised to cut property taxes in half over 10 years. He told voters he was prepared to take responsibility, not credit.

“If crime doesn’t go down on my watch, blame me," Vignarajah said. “If the schools don’t improve, if the students aren’t learning, blame me.”

He was among a majority of candidates at the forum portraying themselves as non-politicians.

One of them, business owner Rikki Vaughn, drew cheers and applause with comments about addressing the root causes of violence.

“We talk a lot about crime in Baltimore, but we don’t talk about the root cause,” Vaughn said. “We don’t talk about lack of resources for mental illness and mental health in Baltimore. We don’t talk about homelessness.”

Politics, said Byrd, “especially Democratic politics, have kept us behind for too long.”

Yolanda Pulley, a tenants’ rights activist, said she’s not the candidate for anyone looking for another politician, calling herself a “peoplestician.”

“If you believe that the power belongs to the people, then I’m your candidate,” Pulley said.

South Baltimore resident Raynell Jett-Aka said she came to the forum with no clear favorites in the race. She left feeling hopeful.

“It’s good to see the passion they have about the city and the economic growth that needs to help, along with educating our youth," Jett-Aka said of the candidates’ presentations.

Asked if she was leaning toward one candidate, she said she was impressed by Vaughn.

“He was very passionate,” she said. “When someone starts speaking like that, you know it’s something in their heart that they see is missing that needs to come back to the city.”