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Several candidates for the 7th Congressional District seat formerly held by the late Rep. Elijah Cummings debate at Soul Harvest Church-Ministries.

Democratic candidates for Baltimore’s vacant 7th Congressional District seat sought to separate themselves from a crowded field during a debate in which criminal justice played a leading role — and provoked one of the evening’s rare disagreements.

The event, at Soul Harvest Baptist Church in West Baltimore, was billed by organizers as the first and perhaps only debate of the campaign to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. A number of forums and town halls have also been held.

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Ten candidates were asked questions by a four-person panel, and the audience of about 150 people submitted questions as well.

The candidates were seated together on a stage and were so close together that their elbows were practically touching.

Gun violence and criminal justice were prominent topics. State Sen. Jill Carter criticized former 7th District Rep. Kweisi Mfume — who is seeking to reclaim his old seat — for supporting a 1994 crime bill signed by then-President Bill Clinton.

The bill, which added police officers and money for new prisons, has been blamed by Carter and other progressives for fueling “mass incarceration” disproportionately affecting minorities.

Carter called Mfume “a champion of the crime bill.”

Mfume replied that Carter had “overlooked” facts.

“In 1993 we had 353 murders in the city — more than we had last year,” Mfume said. “The level of violence was so high it was almost like New Jack City.”

Mfume added that “her [Carter’s] presidential candidate Bernie Sanders voted for it."

University of Baltimore law professor F. Michael Higginbotham said he worries that society is still focused on reacting to crime when it should be focused on prevention.

“I’ve never been more concerned,” Higginbotham said.

Some candidates, such as community activist Saafir Rabb, have proposed broad-based measures on crime prevention and other problems facing the city. Rabb says he has helped “thousands of people” recover from addiction through a program he helped lead.

The Mfume-Carter exchange was a rare moment in which the candidates aimed barbs at one another. More often, the candidates spoke of their own experience and expertise.

Some of the toughest questions were posed by audience members.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the former state Democratic chairwoman and widow of the late congressman, was asked about the support of Elijah Cummings’ daughters for another candidate.

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Jennifer Cummings and her sister, Adia, support the candidacy of Democrat Harry Spikes, an aide to Cummings for 15 years who also participated in the debate.

“Elijah loved his daughters,” Rockeymoore Cummings said in reply. “I am so glad they are focused on having their voices heard in this debate.”

Mfume, who headed the NAACP for nine years after leaving Congress, was asked about an affair with a subordinate while leading the civil rights organization.

Mfume, as he has before, said he made a mistake dating a woman as a manager in a work setting.

“I was a single man,” he said. But he added: “I shouldn’t have done it.”

Mfume was still delivering his response when he was cut off and told his allotted time was up.

“I’m right in the middle of a sentence,” Mfume said.

The debate was organized by Hassan Giordano, a communications consultant and political strategist. It was to be streamed on the Facebook page of his DMVDaily.news site and also streamed at valuemyvote2020.com.

There are 32 candidates in the race — 24 Democrats and eight Republicans.

Giordano said he selected seven Democrats to participate who received the most votes in an informal online survey.

But three more candidates ended up participating. That was because three candidates who are state lawmakers — Carter, Del. Terri Hill and House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch — left early because the General Assembly was conducting business Monday night.

Carter joked that she hoped the audience wouldn’t “hold it against” her that she departed before the more than two-hour debate was over.

When the three candidates left, their places were taken on the stage by three other contenders: Spikes, physician Mark Gosnell and dentist Leslie Grant.

The debate was moderated by radio talk show host Larry Young.

The 7th Congressional District includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

Cummings, who had cancer, died Oct. 17. The primary is scheduled for Feb. 4, with a special general election April 28 to fill the rest of Cummings’ two-year term.

April 28 is also the date of the regular U.S. House primary. Candidates who want to win a full term of their own representing the 7th District must run in that race, as well.

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