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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen7:00 amMay 14, 20110

Forum for Baltimore mayoral candidates draws capacity crowd

Above: About 100 people jammed the Greater Baltimore Urban League auditorium for a candidates forum in the 2011 mayoral race Wednesday. Frank Conaway is standing. To his left Jody Landers and Catalina Byrd, to his right, Otis Rolley and Carl Stokes.

Baltimore got a chance this week to size up the likely mayoral candidates in the September 13 primary, as almost all of them assembled for a candidate’s forum.

The incumbent and current fund-raising champ, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, did not attend, but the rest of the pack was there (well, all but State Sen. Catherine Pugh), giving the audience a taste of their substance and style.

“I know I’m supposed to have a minute, but I’m going to take two. I’m a black man, I can do that,” deadpanned candidate Otis Rolley III, getting (after a pause) a pretty good laugh.

It was a large audience they faced, about 100 people jamming the headquarters of the Greater Baltimore Urban League Wednesday for an event organizers called “The 2011 Baltimore City Mayoral Candidates Forum,” presented by a coalition of community groups calling itself “The People’s Platform.”

Catalina Byrd, independent candidate in the Sept. 13 Baltimore mayoral primary. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Catalina Byrd, independent candidate in the Sept. 13 Baltimore mayoral primary. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Candidates attending were: City Councilman Carl Stokes, former city planning director Rolley, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., Independent candidate Catalina Byrd and former executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III.

The field isn’t set yet, but the forum was scheduled anyway because waiting until the July 5 filing deadline wouldn’t give city voters enough time to get educated about the race, said organizer Doni Morton Glover, entrepreneur, radio personality and bmorenews.com journalist.

Even before the event got underway, some observers remarked on how starkly it seemed to highlight the city’s racial separateness, the degree to which political, community and media institutions often seem to function here in parallel black and white universes.

“The news trucks should be here, but I bet they won’t,” Kenya Johnston said, on the way in to the auditorium.

Indeed, attended by an almost-100 percent African-American crowd that included prominent ministers and community leaders, this forum for aspirants for the city’s highest office, (all of them African-American except for Landers) attracted no coverage from The Baltimore Sun or other print media and no cameras from local TV stations.

Hassan Giordano, a campaign consultant who writes a political column in The Baltimore Examiner, picked up on some of that sentiment, along with the irritation in the room over Rawlings-Blake’s absence.

Four Men, One Woman, Many Issues

Prompted by panelists, and with Marcia Reeves-Jews serving as moderator, the candidates were asked to cover a wide range of topics, including housing, education, youth and jobs.

Landers spoke passionately on the subject of housing, arguing that people are wrong to think the national foreclosure problem has eased, in Baltimore at least.

“We have a foreclosure crisis,” he said. “40 percent of all home sales here are ‘Distressed.’ This year, so far, 50 percent have been ‘distressed.’”

“We have 47,000 vacant houses and 30,000 vacant buildings . . . I go around the city and I don’t even recognize it,” Landers said. He proposed that the city “should buy these mortgages at a discount and turn around and offer that discount” to qualified residents to allow them to remain in their homes.

Present, (l to r): Carl Stokes, Otis Rolley, Frank Conaway, Catalina Byrd, Jody Landers. Absent: likely candidates Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Catherine Pugh. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Participating in mayoral forum, from left, Carl Stokes, Otis Rolley, Frank Conaway, Catalina Byrd, Jody Landers. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The portion of the program devoted to the economy was kicked off with a fiery warning that Baltimoreans demand one main thing above all from their politicians, jobs. Panelist Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. delivered that sermon, invoking the memory of Bethlehem Steel, where his father worked. But when his turn came, Rolley begged to differ.

Technology and small and mid-sized start-ups hold the key to Baltimore’s economic future, Rolley said, not large employers or government jobs.

“I smile when I hear about the past that’s not coming back,” he said, moving on to a major plank in his campaign platform, a 3.5 percent property tax cut. At the current rate, he said, a smart, say, Morgan University graduate would have no reason to remain in Baltimore after graduation.

“Your CPA tells you you’ve gotta be crazy to open your business here,” Rolley said.

Conaway, when his turn came, scoffed at the notion of slashing property taxes (Stokes and Landers want to cut them too.) “Where’s the revenue going to be made up? That’s ridiculous!” Conaway said. “It’s mathematically impossible. You cannot do it and run the city.”

Catalina Byrd, meanwhile, focused on her issues, supporting community groups and the arts and improving health through better nutrition and food access. She said Baltimore should follow the example of other cities that have said food stamps can’t be used to buy sugary soft drinks.

“Having those drinks to choose from is not giving you a choice, it’s ‘pick your poison,’” she said. On housing issues, Byrd echoed other speakers on the need to attack the foreclosure problem and housing blight, but also noted where she differs from them.

“I don’t want to see all of it developed into houses and businesses,” she said. “Community gardens and green spaces can promote healthy living.”

Stokes, for his part, had the crowd clapping enthusiastically with his condemnation of city officials who, he said, approve subsidies for development projects that bring no benefit to the community.

Exhibit A in his remarks? The biotech park near Johns Hopkins Hospital, being built by East Baltimore Development Inc. “EBDI put 800 black families out of East Baltimore (for that project) and they spent $200 million. How much of that went to the people who lived there?” he thundered.

Stokes held city council hearings following the Maryland Daily Record’s five-day investigative series in January slamming the controversial project in his East Baltimore district. He offered a similar critique of the city-subsidized Harbor East development.

“That’s public housing,” Stokes said. “The city took your taxes and gave it to them.”

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