City political debates hardly talk of the town

Few citizens attend, not even all candidates

October 17, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

A general election in Baltimore is typically, as one political observer said, a "big yawn." In a city where Democrats vastly outnumber all other parties, predicting a winner - especially in citywide races for mayor and City Council president - doesn't take a bevy of high-paid political pollsters.

In council races, it is unclear whether the smaller 14 single-member districts will give Republicans or third-party candidates a better chance against Democratic incumbents than in past elections.

Debates tend to be the best way for voters to measure candidates side by side.

The recent presidential debates attracted tens of millions of viewers and are expected to influence voters' opinions Nov. 2.

But the local debates, held this month and last by the League of Women Voters, have garnered little interest - even from candidates.

"It's the power of the incumbency," said Millie Tyssowski, a past president of the league and debate organizer. "We're such a one-party city that people just assume that the Democratic ticket will win, and why bother?"

The general election debates are a sharp contrast with the lively forums conducted before the primary election 14 months ago, when Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon engaged their opponents in heated, informative debates.

However, O'Malley and Dixon don't plan on attending forums scheduled for their races this month.

Council members Helen L. Holton and Paula Johnson Branch did not appear at the league's recent debates for their district races, and council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake left her Oct. 7 forum early to attend a scheduled community meeting.

"If you look at them [forums] all over the city, the turnout is not good," said Holton, who missed her Wednesday forum because of a contentious council hearing on a Comcast Cable franchise with the city. "Debates are good when people come. When people don't come, it's really not the most productive use of time. I could meet more voters ... out on the street."

Shared sentiment

That's a sentiment shared by many council members, even those who are planning to attend their forums.

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said he first told the league he was not going to attend his 2nd District forum because he could reach more people going door to door than he could at "a meeting where only a dozen people show up."

Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said it does not benefit candidates, especially citywide ones such as O'Malley and Dixon, to risk having issues raised in a public debate that they would otherwise not have to face.

"They don't want to create issues where there aren't any," Crenson said.

Some candidates questioned the league's viability because some forums attracted no more than a dozen people.

But Crenson said the league is important for its voter guides and its work at educating the electorate.

"It's not the league, it's the election," Crenson said. "It's a big yawn."

He added that he believes incumbents - especially O'Malley - have an obligation to go through the motions of a debate to say how they will conduct city business over the next term.

"A lot has happened since last he stood before the public" about 14 months ago, Crenson said. "This has been an election without a campaign."

Challengers use the debates to attack incumbents. If incumbents decide not to show, it only adds to their rivals' litany of criticism.

"I feel that [O'Malley] does not want to debate me because he is afraid that I will uncover that" he is performing poorly, said Elbert "Ray" Henderson, a Republican candidate for mayor.

O'Malley cannot attend the league's mayoral debate because he has a meeting with the Jewish National Fund, at which he will be a keynote speaker. Dixon has not responded to the league's invitation for the council president forum.

Both forums are scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at St. Michael's Church on St. Paul Street.

Dixon's Green Party opponent, Joan L. Floyd, said she hopes the council president will debate her.

"It looks bad when you don't show up," Floyd said.

Melvin A. Bilal, the Republican challenging Rawlings Blake, criticized her for leaving the 6th District debate early.

"She didn't want to face the people," Bilal said.

Rawlings Blake said that she stayed as long as she could, but that as a councilwoman she is obligated to meet with community organizations.

She left for a scheduled meeting with the Roland Park Civic League, which the group confirmed.

She also said that few community members were in the audience, and that the crowd of nearly 30 people consisted mostly of Bilal supporters.

"I apologized in advance for not being able to stay," Rawlings Blake said. "But I'm a working council member. He has the luxury of just campaigning, but I have to work, too."

`Loss to the community'

One 6th District community member at the debate, Michele Rosenberg, said she was disappointed that Rawlings Blake left early, and that it could cost the candidate votes.

"She has the potential to be a rising star," said Rosenberg, whose son, Seth, challenged Rawlings Blake in last year's primary. "I think she blew it. By not responding to the community, it's a loss to the community, and to her as well."

But Rosenberg said she knows that Rawlings Blake, as a Democrat in a Baltimore general election, need not worry about missing such events.

"She'll probably end up winning," she said.

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