Mayoral hopefuls in lively debate

Six candidates focus on housing, crime, schools, city's strengths in a two-hour session

August 29, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

With less than two weeks to go before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, six Democratic candidates for mayor squared off in a feistier-than-usual debate last night that focused on crime but also touched on housing, schools and Baltimore's strengths as a city.

Several hundred people -- including dozens who could not find seats and stood along the walls -- crammed into a dark community room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street to hear the candidates as they spoke during the two-hour debate, which will be broadcast today on The Marc Steiner Show on WYPR-FM.

Sponsored by the station and the League of Women Voters, the discussion came a day after the candidates met for what will likely be the only live, televised debate in the campaign. But last night, the candidates seemed looser and more argumentative than they did on television. The audience, which included many campaign volunteers, frequently applauded or offered catcalls at the responses.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, who took over as mayor in January to serve out the remainder of Gov. Martin O'Malley's term, argued that her administration is focusing police efforts on the city's most violent offenders and also on rebuilding the trust between the police department and residents, which some believe has been tattered in recent years.

"We have made major strides. Do we have challenges? Yes. Do I want to see another person murdered? No," Dixon said when asked about Baltimore's status as the city with second-worst homicide rate in the country, behind Detroit. "This is a systemic issue that we can't just put a Band-Aid approach on."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., reiterating the centerpiece of his platform on crime, said that, if elected, he intends to hire 400 police, create gang units in each of the city's nine police districts and offer a 15 percent raise to every officer on the force -- promises that could cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

"Any time you have to summon 500 officers to explain the crime plan, the message is not getting through," Mitchell said, referring to a closed-door meeting Dixon had with police officers in June. "Bottom line is, there is no plan. There is no leadership."

Most of the candidates' campaign organizations filled the room with supporters, and a number of high-profile members of the Dixon administration were in attendance, including her chief of staff, Otis Rolley III, and the city's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano.

The debate, which was moderated by Steiner, also might be the last citywide discussion to take place before the election, though neighborhood groups continue to schedule their own forums.

Because significantly more time was available than in Monday's televised debate, the candidates were able to delve into topics and also address other issues that have not been raised as frequently this year.

The candidates each spent several minutes explaining how they would deal with the thousands of vacant properties in Baltimore -- including many that are owned by city government.

"How did it get this far out of control? It got this far out of control because [of] the flight of the middle class, because of the neglect of education," said Del. Jill P. Carter, adding that she would expand a program created by O'Malley in which the city purchases vacant properties and attempts to redevelop them. "Why do we have 40,000 abandoned buildings and have homeless people sleeping in the street?"

Schools administrator Andrey Bundley argued that development should not only be taking place in the neighborhoods, but that local residents -- especially young people -- should be hired for the construction work that follows that development.

Bundley said he's seen people holding "stop" signs to direct traffic at construction sites in Park Heights standing next to young men who are just hanging around on the corner.

"You're going to tell me that the individuals at Park Heights can't hold a stick that says `slow' and `stop'?" Bundley said. "Nobody down at [City Hall] said you will hire Park Heighters to do some street fixing."

As they did on Monday, many of the candidates attacked Mitchell and Dixon -- who are considered the frontrunners.

At times, the debate turned away from the heavier topics of crime and development and moved to the proposed Charles Street trolley that would connect the Inner Harbor with the Charles Village neighborhood, and also the metallic statute located in front of Penn Station. (Mitchell and Dixon both said they would keep it in place.)

Businessman Mike Schaefer repeatedly referred to Dixon as "queen for a day," prompting Dixon, who was responding to a question regarding housing, to say: "The queen will give the facts."

Socialist A. Robert Kaufman said he believed the two leading candidates, Mitchell and Dixon, either had their hands in the pockets of big insurance companies or that they were "unbelievably stupid."

The only candidate who did not show yesterday was PTA President Phillip A. Brown Jr.

Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. dropped out of the race during Monday's debate.

Last night's debate will be broadcast today from noon to 2 p.m. on WYPR-FM. After the broadcast, the debate also will be available at baltimore.sun/elections.

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