Candidates offer 3 visions for city

Bell, Stokes, O'Malley address issues, from deficit to character

Mfume moderates debate

Gaffes in campaigns, charges of `political opportunism' revisited

August 31, 1999|By GERARD SHIELDS AND IVAN PENN | GERARD SHIELDS AND IVAN PENN,SUN STAFF

In an ironic twist in the city's mayoral campaign, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume -- once courted by many to run for Baltimore's top job -- forced two leading Democratic contenders yesterday to apologize for campaign gaffes and the third to justify his candidacy.

The tough interrogation by Mfume during a televised prime-time debate on WBAL-TV and radio focused on several questions that have lingered throughout the city's first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years.

And much like the campaign that has been dominated by candidate imperfections, the debate stretched into its second hour before discussions of more substantive issues emerged. Among them: how to repair the city budget and stem the exodus of city residents.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III faced the toughest questions from Mfume, who is Bell's second cousin.

In a televised segment on race relations, Mfume asked Bell about an incident earlier this month in which Bell supporters disrupted an endorsement event for mayoral rival and fellow City Council member Martin O'Malley.

Bell blamed the event on "overzealous" campaign supporters.

"It was a mistake and I certainly apologize for that," Bell said.

Bell also was forced to address a question about his use of more than $4,000 in campaign contributions to purchase clothes in New York.

Bell said he felt the expense was legitimate, but acknowledged: "Perhaps it wasn't the best judgment, and I apologize."

Mfume also challenged former City Councilman Carl Stokes about his false claim that he held a degree from Loyola College.

Stokes had been forced to acknowledge that he did not have a degree. Mfume asked Stokes to explain to voters how they could trust him after the incident.

Stokes asked voters to balance his error against his record on the City Council and the school board.

"There are times in life when you do things inexcusable," Stokes said. "I apologize."

O'Malley also did not escape Mfume's biting queries.

The Northeast Baltimore city councilman was put on the spot when Mfume asked him about entering the race so late after two strong black candidates were already running.

Mfume noted that O'Malley, the leading white candidate, has been criticized as a "political opportunist" for attempting to capitalize on the fractured black vote in a city with a population that is 60 percent African-American.

O'Malley said he decided to run only after Mfume and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway -- both of whom he urged to enter the race -- chose not to run.

"I've never backed down from a tough fight," O'Malley said. "The future of this city is a tough fight that I refuse to back down from, despite the color of my skin."

In addition to Mfume's hard-hitting questions, candidates challenged each other.

Police strategy

Stokes criticized both Bell and O'Malley for their proposal to adopt the "zero tolerance" police strategy that has helped reduce violent crime in cities across the nation, such as New York.

Stokes called the strategy "bullcrap," saying it gave police license to stop blacks and Hispanics.

"I don't need to go to New York for new ideas," Stokes said.

O'Malley defended the strategy that calls for police to enforce laws against minor offenses in order to snare violent repeat criminals before they commit more serious offenses.

O'Malley said that failing to adopt the strategy protects neighborhoods such as the Inner Harbor and Guilford while allowing crime to run rampant in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"We need to stop the double standard that causes us to look the other way in shootings and murders in some neighborhoods when we would never accept them in others," O'Malley said.

Bell also defended the policing strategy, saying it should be combined with other improvement efforts, such as providing neighborhood cleanups and drug treatment. "We don't want to out-tough everyone, but out-care them," he said.

Bell also took a swipe at his council colleague, O'Malley.

The two worked together in the City Council, earning the nickname Batman and Robin for their partnership in calling for tougher crime-fighting strategies.

During an exchange in which O'Malley turned to Bell and called him "my friend," Bell made the studio audience erupt in laughter by replying: "I'm thankful to have friends like you, Mr. O'Malley."

Bell used the O'Malley opening.

"When he saw there was a split vote, he leaped into the race," Bell said, following up on Mfume's question.

Slightly different show

The studio audience, filled primarily with supporters of the three candidates, saw a slightly different show in person than those watching on television.

In the studio it was possible to see how the three men interacted with one another, while the televised debate focused on one candidate at a time.

The body language on stage was largely good-natured and remarkably free of tension, despite the strong words used by the candidates in their dialogue.

Viewers of the event commended Mfume for his hard-hitting questions.

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