Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Republican challenger Samuel A. Culotta squared off in the only scheduled debate of the 1991 campaign last night, mixing gentlemanly criticisms of each other with proposals to deal with crime, failing schools and a shrinking city budget.
Mr. Schmoke, who for the past week has been struggling to cut $26 million from Baltimore's budget, blamed much of the fiscal deterioration on the Republican Party -- pointing out that federal assistance to cities has steadily decreased over the last 10 years.
"With two successive Republican administrations at the national level, the economy is in the worst shape it has been in since the Great Depression," he said.
But Mr. Culotta blamed the city's troubles on Mr. Schmoke's lack ofleadership and creativity. "We were supposed to have this great renaissance," Mr. Culotta said, referring to education. "We were supposed to have the same kind of renaissance as the Inner Harbor. But he's onlyhad failure."
Mr. Culotta hit the mayor hardest on the city's rising crime rate -- noting several times that in 1955 the city, with 25 percent more people, had only 55 homicides, compared with 305 last year.
"Crime is epidemic," Mr. Culotta said, calling the city "a dangerous place to live -- it's not safe." He said that if elected he would ask the governor to declare a state of emergency in the city and send between 200 and 500 National Guardsmen and state police to work with the Baltimore police.
But in response, the mayor recited what he called his "creative leadership" to attack the crime problem: mounted police in the neighborhoods, drug-free zones, community-oriented policing and new weapons for officers on the beat.
On fiscal matters, Mr. Culotta proposed a 1 percent commuter tax on the 200,000 suburbanites who come to the city for their jobs. The tax, he said, would raise $40 million and bail the city out of the kind of fiscal crisis it now faces with the impending loss of $26 million in state aid.
"I wouldn't want to be in his shoes," Mr. Culotta said of the mayor, who next week must decide where the budget ax is to fall.
For his part, the mayor stressed statewide tax reform as Baltimore's best bet. He said that while his administration had made progress in downsizing the city government since he took office in 1987, the current budget cuts will mean that "we're essentially going to remake government."
Still, he said that under his leadership Baltimore has avoided the fiscal disasters that have struck other cities. "When you step back and look at us in comparison to other cities,we are doing well. We are an All-American city, and we deserve that designation."
Last night's debate was Mr. Schmoke's first since 1987, when he faced then-incumbent Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns in what would be a successful Democratic primary campaign. But in last summer's primary, Mr. Schmoke refused offers of debate unless all eight candidates were invited.
Mr. Culotta, a 67-year-old lawyer who lives in Clifton Park, has won the Republican mayoral nomination in every election since 1979. But this year he barely edged out two other GOP candidates in the Sept. 12 primary.
Last night, the candidates remained relaxed and cordial throughout the hourlong debate, which was broadcast live on WMAR-TV, Channel 2. They stood behind lecterns and answered questions from a panel of four journalists, often smiling at each other's remarks. Only in his closing statement did Mr. Schmoke accuse Mr. Culotta of a "cheap shot" -- a remark about the mayor's thoughts on the decriminalization of drugs -- but even then he managed a smile.
Mr. Culotta attacked Mr. Schmoke on a range of issues, from schools to crime to economic development to the size of Mr. Schmoke's personal staff. "If we're going to be laying off, the place to start is the mayor's office," Mr. Culotta said. "Middle managers, consultants, public relations people -- they should be the first to go."
The GOP candidate repeatedly referred to his experience as an aide to former Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin and his service in the state legislature in the 1950s. "I know how to be mayor," he said.
Finally, Mr. Schmoke retorted at one point that Mr. Culotta "has really got a view of government that's stuck in the 1955, and not here in 1991."