City Council president candidates take swipes

August 22, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

Taking subtle and at times direct swipes at one another, the candidates for Baltimore City Council president met for a debate last night seeking to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field in what has become an increasingly competitive Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, Michael Sarbanes, a longtime civic activist and the son of retired U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, hits the airwaves today with the first television commercial in the race, with at least two of his competitors saying they will follow suit soon.

The two-hour debate at the Enoch Pratt Free Library was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and WYPR's Marc Steiner Show. The forum will be broadcast today from noon to 2 p.m. on WYPR.

Candidates fielded questions ranging from the serious - tackling such topics as crime, drug treatment and education - to the more frivolous, such as whether they would take down the controversial art piece in front of Penn Station if they had the authority.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake made the most direct attack when she accused Sarbanes of diminishing her accomplishments. She then blamed him, in his role as the director of Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention a decade ago, for the problems in the state's boot camps for juvenile offenders.

The attack came at the end of the forum in response to a question about improving the city's school system. "I don't appreciate the condescending and patronizing way that Mr. Sarbanes continues to diminish the accomplishments and service of not only myself but Mayor Dixon and the other members of the City Council," said Rawlings-Blake, who was elected by City Council members to lead the council in January.

"No one can say, honestly say, our city is worse off than we were seven years ago. We have made tremendous strides. ... It's just so easy to stand on the side and criticize and it is much harder to be in the trenches doing the work," she said.

In response, in his closing statement, Sarbanes said, "I regret that the interim president decided to throw in some misleading and negative and inaccurate things at the end that really weren't in response to the question."

Later, Sarbanes said that the boot camps during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening were run by the Department of Juvenile Justice, not his office. "It's a bizarre attempt to mislead and distract people," he said. "The boot camps were in a completely different agency from the one I was running.

"In response to a question about accountability for school spending, where she did have a role to play, she attacked me for something a decade ago in which I didn't have a role to play," he said.

Though the City Council president position is far less powerful than the mayor, the race is shaping up to be closely watched in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary that will likely determine the city's new leaders.

Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes are the leading contenders, in a virtual tie in a poll conducted for The Sun last month, with a large portion of voters undecided.

Sarbanes most recently was the executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and previously served as an aide to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. He is making his first run for public office.

Rawlings-Blake - the daughter of the late Howard P. Rawlings, a longtime state delegate - was elected to the council in 1995, its youngest-ever member. This is her first City Council president race.

Also running in the primary are City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Charles Ulysses Smith, a frequent candidate. The winner will face Maria Allwine of the Green Party in November's election.

In terms of fundraising, Sarbanes and Rawlings-Blake are virtually tied.

Sarbanes raised nearly $40,000 more than Rawlings-Blake and has a slight edge in cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections last week. The reports cover the period from Jan. 11 to Aug. 7.

But Sarbanes has raised questions about Rawlings-Blake's cash balance of $220,783, given the fact that her campaign closed her first committee account with a nearly $65,000 negative balance. Luke Clippinger, Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, has insisted that that account has a zero balance and that the campaign is working to resolve what they believe is an accounting error.

At yesterday's forum, Sarbanes continued to portray himself as an independent voice who would not act as a rubber stamp of the mayor. "I think the City Council president is the most underutilized job in all of city government," he said.

Rawlings-Blake stressed her experience as City Council president, and Harris focused on his role as an independent voice on the City Council.

The City Council president candidates are expected to meet again to tape a forum at WBAL-TV tomorrow morning that will air on Sunday morning. That is expected to be the only televised debate among the candidates.

Sarbanes' 30-second television spot - to run on all local network affiliates until the Sept. 11 Democratic primary - is an introductory ad that touches on his family, experience and goals.

Clippinger said yesterday that he expects the Rawlings-Blake campaign to begin its first TV ad no later than Monday.

Harris said he is in production for a commercial that will run on the local affiliates.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

Debate broadcast

Last night's debate among candidates for City Council president is set to be broadcast from noon to 2 p.m. today on "The Marc Steiner Show " on WYPR-FM. After the broadcast, the debate will be available online at baltimoresun.com/elections.

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