The six leading Democratic mayoral candidates debated in a forum hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee and WBAL-AM.
The recent spate of crime in Baltimore — nine people were killed over Memorial Day weekend and a police officer was shot overnight — loomed large over a mayoral debate Wednesday.
In a forum hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee and WBAL-AM, the six leading Democratic candidates either sought to distance themselves from the violent status quo or pointed to work they’ve done while in office to address the problem.
City Council President Brandon Scott said the city desperately needs a comprehensive approach to reducing crime. He said his personal story — a black kid growing up in Park Heights surrounded by violence — gives him a unique perspective for how to tackle the problem. He’s the candidate, he argued, who can unite the city in the fight against crime.
“It’s never been the case in Baltimore of how many people get arrested, it’s always been about who,” he said, referencing declines in both homicides and arrests from 2003 to 2011. “It’s about targeting the right people.”
That gave former Mayor Sheila Dixon an opening to tout her record of reducing crime while in office. During Dixon’s years as mayor, from 2007 to 2010, homicides in Baltimore dropped from 282 a year to 238. She appointed a commissioner from within the department who emphasized targeted arrests of violent shooters. Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III remained in place through 2012, though Dixon resigned in 2010 amid a corruption scandal.
“I am so excited that Brandon realizes the plan that we put in place was effective and was working and making a difference,” she said. “If we had had the consistency today, I guarantee you we would not be in the situation that we’re in.”
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack" Young, who assumed the office in May 2019 after the resignation of Catherine Pugh, defended his plan for reducing crime. He repeated a frequent retort: “Everything these candidates are talking about — I’m already doing it.”
After a recent poll by The Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM showed him in fourth place, former state deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah came out swinging Wednesday, criticizing other candidates and seeking to differentiate himself by pointing to his detailed policy proposals, especially related to crime. He argued the city needs a prosecutor at the helm.
He touted his plan for cutting the property tax in half over the next decade and for getting squeegee kids off corners — an issue he called a “ticking time bomb.”
“Right now, it is causing people not to have dinner at Harbor East,” he said. “But if one of these young men is killed, either by being run over as happened in 1986 or shot and killed, this city will burn in ways that we have not seen in decades.”
Mary Miller, a former U.S. Treasury official, said Baltimore doesn’t have only a crime problem, “we have an opportunity problem." She hammered home her campaign message that she can leverage her deep financial knowledge to help lead the city through an economic recovery that will create much-needed jobs.
“The Obama administration recruited me to work on a strong economic recovery for our country," Miller said. "Now, I want to do that for Baltimore.”
She has pledged to give Police Commissioner Michael Harrison support and resources to carry out his crime plan. Miller said she would not be the kind of mayor who holds news conferences at crime scenes “for political gain,” and would instead meet with Harrison to figure out what comes next.
The comment appeared to be directed toward Vignarajah, who livestreamed Tuesday night from near the scene in Federal Hill where the officer was shot. The officer was pursuing a suspect who fled a traffic stop, police said. The man crashed into a parked car and ran away on foot, police said, firing at the officer. The officer was treated overnight at a hospital and released Wednesday.
Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith said Baltimore could use a former law enforcement officer, not a politician, to turn things around in the city. Before becoming the Baltimore Police Department’s spokesman, he was an Anne Arundel County police lieutenant.
Police must “hold violent people who want to kill people’s family members accountable," said Smith whose brother was killed in the city. He sought to differentiate between the idea of mandatory minimums and what he says is the need for stronger gun penalties.
The race is expected to be close: The Sun’s poll showed Dixon and Miller tied with 18% support. They were followed closely by Scott at 15%, putting those three candidates in the lead at the time pollsters surveyed voters in mid-May. Vignarajah had 11% support, Smith followed with 6%, and Young had 5%.
The poll also found that 60% of Baltimore voters believe stopping violent crime should be the next mayor’s most urgent concern, even as the COVID-19 death toll and unemployment rise.
The debate was held Wednesday morning via video conference call. WBAL-AM planned to air it Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Candidates also debated the ways in which they would try to help Baltimore’s economy come back from the blow dealt by measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some criticized Young for his administration’s proposals to cut personnel costs, which include the potential for furloughs or layoffs.
The mayor pointed to his frequent meetings with state partners regarding COVID-19 and his plans to use federal funding to create a rental assistance program. He’s had to revise his budget proposal in recent weeks to account for a massive drop in revenue.
“I’m relooking at everything, from contracts to see if there’s any duplications to looking at how agencies are run,” he said. “Working with the unions, even though none of them endorsed me, on how they can play a part in this whole plan of retooling and rebuilding Baltimore.”