Lesser-known candidates use forums to push issues

August 01, 1999|By Gregory Kane

THERE'S AT LEAST one positive to having a large number of candidates run for mayor: you have to listen to them, even the ones not given much of a chance.

So 10 of them showed up Wednesday at the Family Life Center of New Shiloh Baptist Church on Monroe Street. And they showed up early. They were all there at 7 a.m. sharp for the mayoral forum on former state senator Larry Young's talk show on WOLB. Democratic candidates Richard Riha, Martin O'Malley, Lawrence Bell, Carl Stokes, Charles Dugger, A. Robert Kaufman, Jessica Davis, Mary Conaway, Phillip Brown and Gene Michaels were on hand to convince Baltimoreans why one of them should be our next mayor.

Young said after the show that Dugger made the most poignant and memorable statement.

"I walk around the city and see signs that say `R.I.P.,' " Dugger said. "I want to see signs that say `L.I.P. -- Live in Peace.' "

Dugger was referring to the graffiti that can be found on many a vacant house or wall around Baltimore's inner city: R.I.P (Rest In Peace) followed by the name of one homey or another. The spray-painted scrawlings are an ugly testament to Baltimore's homicide rate, which may, for the first time in years, not reach 300 in 1999.

In other election years, we might not hear from a Charles Dugger at all, but it wouldn't be for a lack of effort on his part. Dugger was teaching at Forest Park High School when I met him. That was 30 years ago. He's been teaching since. And preaching. He's constantly telling city leaders what they need to do to make the city and its schools better.

Last year, he wanted an election to recall Mayor Kurt Schmoke for what Dugger said was the mayor's total failure to provide funds for Baltimore's foundering recreation centers. For years, Dugger has urged the mayor and city school officials to call an emergency meeting on school discipline, particularly in middle schools. Dugger has insisted that the main failure of the schools is the appalling lack of discipline among the students. And teachers, Dugger added, can't teach in an atmosphere of chaos. Dugger believes -- and other city school teachers have seconded him -- that the main reason for the lack of discipline is the middle school concept. For years, Dugger's been ignored.

But we have to listen to him now. He probably won't win the primary come September. That victory will probably go to one of the front-runners: Bell, Stokes, O'Malley or Conaway. But as long as the mayoral forums continue, Dugger will be able to bring up his points about education.

In such forums as the one held Wednesday on WOLB, Dugger can make his case that the middle school concept has destroyed discipline in Baltimore's schools. The front-runners will then have to respond. If they agree, they'll have to tell us whether they intend to scrap the middle school concept and return to those days when Baltimore had junior high schools with grades seven through nine. If they disagree, they'll have to tell us how they'll restore discipline under the current middle school system with grades six through eight. In either case, it will have been Dugger -- the candidate with little chance of winning -- who would have forced the issue to the forefront.

Education was not the focus of Wednesday's forum. Public safety, community and neighborhood development, and economic empowerment were the issues. Public safety dominated the discussion, which centered on police brutality and whether the candidates, if elected, would adopt New York City's "zero- tolerance" crime-fighting policy.

Almost all the candidates expressed disdain for zero tolerance.

"I would fire police officers accused of misconduct," Brown said. "I wouldn't wait for the trial board."

O'Malley and Bell both patted themselves on the back for bringing racial disparities in discipline within the Baltimore Police Department to light while on the City Council. But what neither said -- and what Baltimore voters should know before we go to the polls -- is if they would keep Commissioner Thomas Frazier or fire him if they are elected.

Frazier has been harshly criticized by the Fraternal Order of Police for his rotation policy and by the Vanguard Justice Society, which has accused him of failing to promote black officers and allowing racism to fester within the department. But other black cops have defended Frazier off the record, praising him for promoting blacks. Frazier is also popular with civilians, who hold the notion he's been a pretty darned good police commissioner. All mayoral candidates owe voters an explanation of what would happen to Frazier under their administrations.

The answer lies in future mayoral forums. Voters would do themselves a service by attending.

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