Mayoral candidates face off in only televised debate

Just days before early voting begins in Baltimore's mayoral primary, candidates squared off on police scandals, the high crime rate and school cheating issues in a fast-paced televised debate Monday night.

Maryland Public Television and Fox 45 co-hosted the debate, which aired on both stations Monday evening.

Jennifer Gilbert of Fox asked Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about a recent Wall Street Journal essay that said Baltimore's property tax — more than twice as high as the surrounding jurisdictions — had left the city "in a death spiral." Gilbert asked Rawlings-Blake whether her plan to cut the rate by 9 percent over nine years was "too little too late" and whether her proposal's reliance on revenue from a long- delayed slots parlor was irresponsible.

Rawlings-Blake, returning to a familiar message from the campaign trail, said she had drafted the only realistic strategy to cut taxes and that her opponents' plans to reduce property taxes from one-third to one-half of the city's current rate were "reckless" proposals that "would force cuts in things like public safety, things like sanitation. It would cripple our ability to provide public education for our kids."

Former city planning director Otis Rolley fired back that he did not plan to slash services but to attract new residents to the city by improving schools and job opportunities.

Rolley — along with state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. and former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers -— attacked Rawlings-Blake's plan to hire 300 police officers.

"More police officers do not change the climate of our city," he said. "What changes the climate of our city is having a mayor who ... looks to create jobs, invest in rec centers, invest in our schools."

"If you do more to invest in the people of Baltimore, you do more to reduce crime in our city," he said.

Pugh said Rawlings-Blake has not made strides in growing the city's population.

And she chastised Rawlings-Blake over the city's recent budget cuts — necessitated by the second significant deficit in as many years.

"If you've been in office for two years and everything still seems to be a big problem for you, perhaps you should not be in that position," Pugh said.

A Baltimore Sun poll this week showed Rawlings-Blake with a commanding lead, carrying 50 percent of the vote. Pugh and Rolley were in a statistical tie for second place, with 12 and 10 percent of the vote, respectively. Landers and Conaway both received 5 percent.

Early voting in the Democratic primary begins Thursday; the final day to cast a ballot is Sept. 13.

In response to a question about the string of scandals that has rocked the police department in the past year, Conaway said he would fire Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld IV.

Rawlings-Blake did not directly state what her plans were for Bealefeld, who was appointed by her predecessor, Sheila Dixon. The city's homicide rate has dropped dramatically during his four-year tenure.

In a phone interview, Rawlings-Blake clarified that she is "confident in the commissioner's abilities" and that they shared the same goals. "I have no reason to believe that won't continue," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.