Why Won't Schmoke Debate?

August 30, 1991

The fire was burning so low in this year's city electio campaign that it must have been the August heat that finally got the political pot simmering. After months of total disorganization, Clarence H. "Du" Burns, the former mayor, is belatedly moving his campaign into high gear. While William A. Swisher, the former state's attorney, seems to be heading nowhere in his one-man campaign, Mr. Burns at least is getting his name in newspapers and on television.

How does Mr. Burns do that? By raising issues. Remember them, issues? For some time, we feared that the Sept. 12 primary would arrive without any candidate ever mentioning the issues.

There is a difference between being able to raise issues and having them debated, however. So far, Mr. Burns has had little success or opportunity to engage Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in a true debate. Although they appear at the same election forums almost every night, the formats used are too restrictive to allow any genuine give and take. In many cases, mayoral candidates are asked to deliver a brief stump speech. Questions often come so late in the evening that the candidates already have gone to their next event. And while Mayor Schmoke has promised to send a reply later to specific written questions from the audience, this clearly is not a satisfactory way to explore either his administration's performance or other campaign issues.

Mr. Schmoke should exhibit some political courage and agree to debate Messrs. Burns and Swisher. That way, Baltimore City voters can compare the three major candidates, their platforms and ideas. Although we have endorsed Mr. Schmoke, we do not buy his campaign organization's ridiculous assertion that he is so fully booked before the election that a debate cannot be accommodated.

It is time to return to some old-style campaigning that allows spontaneity and unscripted exchanges among candidates. In a city like Baltimore, the three mayoral candidates ought to present themselves in a forum that gives voters a good chance to openly scrutinize them. The issues -- from crime and housing to stadium and gay rights -- demand a frank debate.

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