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Faced with coronavirus challenges, Baltimore mayoral candidates argue in televised debate they’re up for the job

Baltimore 2020 mayor candidates, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, TJ Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Jack Young.
Baltimore 2020 mayor candidates, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, TJ Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Jack Young.(Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

The top six Democratic candidates for Baltimore mayor squared off in a debate Wednesday night, with half saying they will harness their political experience to lead the city through the coronavirus recovery period and half arguing an outsider is needed to bring fresh perspective to the city’s longstanding problems.

The WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television debate gave candidates vital screen time just as mailed ballots are reaching voters, many of whom say they are still undecided about who to vote for in the June 2 primary.

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The race — which many are calling the most important city election in a generation — has been upended by the pandemic. Not only will Baltimore’s next mayor be tasked with addressing the public health crisis, but they will have to tackle a massive budget hole and a rising unemployment rate. And that comes on top of the city’s historic levels of gun violence.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Brandon Scott, former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith, former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young addressed crime, education and public trust during the hourlong program.

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The debate, recorded remotely via Zoom, came with the same kinds of hiccups people have come to expect during video conference calls that have become widespread amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Young’s phone started ringing during the debate, with the sound enlarging his camera’s view, even though another candidate was speaking.

When moderator Jason Newton asked the mayor to please mute his phone, Young retorted: “You know, I’m still running the city."

The candidates threw fewer punches than in forums earlier in the campaign, though there were some direct hits. Vignarajah slammed Miller for a 2006 donation to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is now the majority leader. The former prosecutor lobbed vague allegations against the entire pool of candidates, saying several are facing ethics and campaign finance complaints. And his central argument was that the career politicians who are running for mayor had their chance and failed.

“They haven’t led,” Vignarajah said. “I will.”

Dixon, meanwhile, pointed to her time in office, saying she’s the only candidate with experience leading a city during a recession and lowering the crime rate.

During Dixon’s years as mayor, from 2007 to 2010, homicides in Baltimore dropped and the violent crime rate went down each year. She’s seeking her old seat a decade after she was found guilty of embezzling gift cards and resigned as part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge.

“No one has had the track record of reducing crime,” Dixon said.

But Young criticized the former mayor for her administration’s role in overseeing what became the disgraced Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. Members of the once-elite group have been convicted of federal racketeering charges for robbing citizens, falsifying probable cause and lying on official documents.

“I’m paying for her Gun Trace Task Force right now,” said Young, referencing the flurry of litigation stemming from the officers’ actions. “I could use that money to spend somewhere else.”

While the task force was created while Dixon was mayor, it performed more administrative functions until 2016. That’s when the task force began “proactive” operations under then-Commissioner Kevin Davis during the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Other candidates didn’t directly criticize Dixon for the scandal that forced her from office — a sharp contrast to the 2016 election, where her conviction was frequent fodder for attacks. Nevertheless, Dixon addressed it herself when the candidates were asked about their moral compasses.

Less than three months ago, former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh was sentenced to three years in federal prison for her fraudulent “Healthy Holly” children’s book scheme. Her May 2019 resignation triggered Young’s ascension to the seat.

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Dixon said she’ll “work three times harder than anyone else to be transparent.”

“I made a mistake, and I have to live with that,” she said.

Scott said he’s taken steps as City Council president to increase elected officials’ accountability and restructure local government. He’s pushing to shrink the size of the city’s powerful spending panel and voted to ensure more independence for the ethics board.

Scott said he is “doing things that will weaken my power as mayor, but that’s the best thing for Baltimore.”

Miller, who worked in the Obama administration’s Treasury Department, reminded voters she’s already been through two U.S. Senate confirmation hearings.

“I would bring that level of rigor to Baltimore City,” she said, adding she would make sure “no mayor ever holds business dealings while in office.”

Smith took a veiled swipe at Vignarajah, saying there’s never "been a hidden camera crew following me around.” A conservative organization, Project Veritas, posted videos of Vignarajah in an awkward hotel encounter with an unidentified woman in 2015, in which she prodded him to give up confidential legal information.

Candidates touted their ideas for helping the city recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Dixon said the city must enhance recovery plans for small businesses. Miller said leaders must strategically tap into federal aid; she’s repeatedly pointed to her work in the U.S. Treasury helping cities recover from the Great Recession.

Young promoted the work his administration has done already, including partnering with Goldman Sachs for a small business loan program. He announced Tuesday that Baltimore would use federal coronavirus relief funding for a rental assistance program.

“I’m doing everything that these candidates are talking about,” said Young, adding that the White House has commended Baltimore’s work in flattening the curve.

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Vignarajah argued that the city must use the crisis to chart a new future, and plugged his 35-page recovery proposal that includes a broad range of ideas, including a plan to cut property taxes in half over the next decade. Scott said he was the first to put out a plan for how to move forward from the virus.

When asked about education, the candidates all agreed that Maryland must fund an ambitious and expensive plan to overhaul the state’s public schools — a massive piece of legislation that was recently vetoed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

“I do support the Kirwan recommendations and I think the state General Assembly is going to override the veto so we can get moving with that,” Smith said.

Asked about the city’s crime rate, Young and Scott both pointed to things they’ve done in office: The mayor championed new Community Intelligence Centers and the council president said he’s worked to strengthen the gun offender registry.

But the other candidates say the officeholders’ actions are not enough as homicides continue unabated even in the midst of the pandemic.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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