Nearly two dozen candidates for Rep. Kweisi Mfume's congressional seat gathered last night for the first public forum of the primary season, offering a variety of views on the challenges facing the 7th District.
The two-hour forum, sponsored by Marylanders Organized for Responsibility and Equity (MORE), brought together candidates whose names are known throughout the 7th District, along with the politically unknown, and put them on stage together to answer questions.
The extraordinary size of the field made the gathering at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons of Maryland, on Eutaw Place, look more like a choir rehearsal than a political forum.
But the candidates -- a bipartisan 22 of the 32 who filed -- sat patiently waiting their turns to deliver answers to three questions sent to them earlier, within the allotted three minutes.
Many of the hopefuls mentioned jobs and economic development as the biggest challenges for the next representative and generally agreed that the federal budget should be balanced -- but over a longer period of time than that being pressed by the Republicans on Capitol Hill.
State Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Democratic legislator from Northeast Baltimore, offered a realistic assessment of the biggest challenge that will face the new congressman, saying it would be "to get something done."
Through "coalition building," Mr. Montague said, he would be able to "push a progressive agenda in a conservative environment."
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, echoed that theme, saying she believed the biggest challenge of the next representative would be "not to be irrelevant in a sea of Republicans."
Ms. Kelley said she would endeavor to "develop common ground and voting blocs" among the members of Congress to maximize her effectiveness.
Traci K. Miller, 28, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore's Juvenile Courts Division who is on leave of absence to run for office, offered herself as the example of "a new generation of new leadership."
Ms. Miller, echoing her announcement speech, said it was time to "raise our expectations" to "successfully move into the 21st century."
One of three questions candidates were asked by MORE was what each would do to "ensure that your position on issues reflects the needs, desires and views" of the 7th District constituents.
State Del. Elijah E. Cummings, speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates and a four-term legislator from West Baltimore, answered in part by saying that he would hold town meetings and allow constituents "access" to him.
"People only want to touch their congressman," Mr. Cummings said.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, did not attend last night's forum.
Charles G. Tildon Jr., retired president of the Community College of Baltimore and chairman of MORE, said Mr. Reid had accepted the invitation to attend but was unable to because of a scheduling conflict.
The forum was the beginning of a multistep candidate assessment process planned by MORE, a group with roots deep in the city's black political power structure.
State Sen. Larry Young, who assisted MORE in developing the forum, said again last night that he would like to see the field narrowed to six or fewer. The 28 Democrats and four Republicans running to succeed Mr. Mfume for a two-year term that begins in January 1997 have until tomorrow to withdraw.
A special primary -- with a separate filing deadline -- will be held to select a Democrat and a Republican to face off in a special general election for the right to complete the last 11 months of Mr. Mfume's current term.