Candidates trade barbs, plans at morning debate
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Democratic challengers teamed up against her Tuesday as they sparred over development, property taxes, school construction and crime in a spirited radio debate.
Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr. described Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley as “conjoined twins” that only the renowned surgeon Dr. Ben Carson could separate, a line that drew laughs from the audience of about four dozen — primarily campaign staffers and politicos — huddled in the Gywnn Oak studio of WOLB.
Forner city planning director Otis Rolley said “I will work with the governor, not for the governor,” a not very veiled criticism of Rawlings-Blake's relationship with O'Malley.
Rawlings-Blake fired back that her opponents' plans to cut property taxes were “reckless,” and compared them to the proposals of tea party members.
And she said her close relationships with O'Malley and other state leaders have helped her push the city's agenda in Annapolis.
“While some of us think it's a liability to have the support of the governor and the lieutenant governor and so many members of the state legislature, I consider it a plus,” she said. “I'm very proud to have the support that I have and I use that support to make our city better.”
Conaway, Rolley, former Baltimore Board of Realtors Executive Vice Chairman Joseph T. “Jody” Landers, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and nurse Wilton Wilson are challenging Rawlings-Blake in the primary next month that is expected to decide the mayoral election in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore.
Former state Sen. Larry Young, moderating the debate on his radio show, questioned the candidates on their solutions to the city's toughest challenges, including repairing aging school buildings, reducing the murder rate and reversing decades of population loss.
Rawlings-Blake spoke of balancing the city's budget deficit large deficits in the past two years, making the city's required payment to the school system and plans to hire 300 police officers to fill vacancies.
She said that her family, like many others in Baltimore, had been touched by violence, a point she has also made in a radio advertisement. Her younger brother, Wendell Rawlings, was stabbed in a robbery attempt outside her condominium several years ago.
Landers, a former city councilman, focused in his opening remarks on the central issue of his campaign: His view that the city needs to cut property taxes to draw residents and businesses. The city's tax rate is more than twice that of surrounding counties.
“The fiscal cisis we find ourselves in year after year is partly a result of the city leadership's failure to put the city back in a better standing from a fiscal standpoint,” Landers said.
Pugh vowed to create year-round job opportunities for young people, focus on driving small business growth and create a program modeled on William Donald Schaefer's “Dollar House” initiative to refurbish the city's vacant houses. The most recent Census counted 47,000 vacant properties in Baltimore.
“Everyone knows the best crime reduction strategy is crime prevention,” she said. “But this administration balanced its budget on the backs of young people, closing rec centers and pools opening late.”
Rawlings-Blake did not close any rec centers this summer, but has said that she hopes to turn over about half of the city's 55 centers to nonprofits or community groups in January. Those that are not managed by an outside entity could be closed.
She also opened the city's pools on a staggered schedule this summer to save money, a move criticized by youth advocates.
Rolley spoke of his experience working in the administrations of three mayors — Kurt Schmoke, O'Malley and Dixon — but also stressed his humble background.
“Like many of our children, I grew up poor. My family had challenges. I attended a failing public school, lived in a neighborhood that had violence and drugs,” he said. “But I had the opportunity to go beyond the realities of my block and my neighborhood, and I want the same opportunity for all the children of Baltimore.”
Rolley said that the city has been held back by “failed leadership” that “focuses in on their own needs and the needs of their contributors instead of the needs of the people and of our neighborhoods.”
Rawlings-Blake said she had worked with the Downtown Families Alliance and other groups to help improve schools and keep young families from moving out of the city.
In response to a question about improving school buildings, both Pugh and Rolley said they would forge partnerships with businesses to pay for improvements.
“It has to be about public and private partnerships,” said Pugh. The mayor's responsibilities include “galvanizing support around the state for better schools,” she said.
Rolley said he would devote almost all revenue from the city's planned slots parlor to float bonds to pay for school repairs.
“There's no better investment than in our schools,” he said. “People will move into a neighborhood, even if it's not the best neighborhood, if there's a strong school.”
Rawlings-Blake said she would use 10 percent of slots revenue as a “creative funding stream” to finance school improvements.
Rolley called a proposed African-American arts district “insane.”
The other candidates said they supported the proposal.
Rolley noted that African-Americans comprise 64 percent of the city's population, yet own 8 percent of the wealth.
“We don't need a district. We don't need crumbs,” he said. “We've been eating crumbs for so long we think it's a meal. I want every Baltimorean to feel comfortable having a good time, getting a job, living and feeling safe all throughout Baltimore City.”
Both Rawlings-Blake and Rolley fired off emails after the debate declaring victory. Pugh sent an email saying “my message is resonating with voters and we can see victory in sight.”
The candidates are slated to face each other again Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the interfaith coalition BUILD. That group has been asking candidates to sign on to a platform centered on fixing schools and boosting job and recreational activities for young people.