The need to improve public education. The dearth of job opportunities. Candidates ran through a familiar litany of issues at last night’s 41st District Delegate Candidate Forum at the Bolton Street Synagogue.
But George E. Mitchell veered into sensitive territory when he implored the crowd to “get real” about where these problems exist in the district.
Bad schools and unemployment aren’t really faced by affluent communities like Roland Park, where the event took place, he said, but are mainly suffered by residents of impoverished areas, such as Mitchell’s own Park Heights neighborhood.
“Only 1 in 14 kids in Park Heights can read at a 4th grade level. That’s criminal,” said Mitchell, president of Neighborhoods United. “I’m not prejudiced. I’ve got a lot of Jewish friends. But those folks who live north of Northern Parkway don’t have those problems. These folks in Roland Park don’t have the same issues.
“We’ve had years of disparities, people, and it’s time for it to stop,” he continued before a crowd of more than 100 people.
It was one of the more raw moments at the forum, organized by two district residents, Claudia Diamond and Elinor Spokes, ahead of the June 26 Democratic Party primary. Voters will be able to chose three from a list of 11 declared candidates.
All of the candidates participated except for Dalya Attar, who responded to the organizers’ invitation, but said she was unable to attend, Diamond said.
3 of 4 Appointed, Not Elected
The forum was inspired by concerns Diamond raised in an op-ed lamenting the state of representation in the 41st. As she pointed out in the article, only one of the four people representing the 41st, Del. Sandy Rosenberg, was elected by voters.
The other three – Sen. Nathaniel T. “Nat” Oaks and delegates Angela Gibson and Bilal Ali – were appointed by the 41st District Democratic Central Committee to fill vacancies. (It’s not clear whether Oaks, facing federal corruption charges, will attend a separate forum for Senate candidates planned on April 8, organizers of that event, Baltimore Women United, said.)
Last night’s gathering was an opportunity for newer candidates to introduce themselves to prospective voters.
“Every day in the faces of my patients I see the suffering of a city that’s been neglected for years by public officials who are more interested in padding their pockets than investing in our communities, our businesses, our community organizations and our schools,” said physician Richard Bruno.
Wearing a doctor’s white coat emblazoned with his alma mater, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, he advocated a preventive approach “to attack poverty at it its roots,” calling for better education and job training, teaching young people to code and other strategies.
Grassroots and Equity
On the hot topic of public safety, the idea of expanding grassroots organizations “that are doing the work police can’t do” got a plug from candidate Tony Bridges, former director of human services and operations for Park Heights Renaissance.
Hug Don’t Shoot, Operation Ceasefire, Safe Streets and Turnaround Tuesdays were among the initiatives mentioned by Bridges, who has also worked as executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and Constituent Services.
The city should take back control of the police department from the state of Maryland, Bridges also said, the only speaker to mention the issue.
Several candidates said they supported funding the city’s compliance with the Department of Justice consent decree as a way to improve safety. Del. Ali said better-trained police officers would also build trust with the community.
“We need to overhaul the educational process at the police academy when 80% of your cadets can’t pass a constitutional policing class,” he said.
Candidate Sean Stinnett, a West Baltimore native who works as an administrator at the Maryland Department of General Services, said he has the broad background to build trust across a diverse district.
“I’ve been that person, who has to put on two or three different jobs to make up one good salary just to support my family,” he said, noting that he supports a statewide $15 minimum wage.
City Government Fixtures
Other candidates sought to showcase the strengths they bring to their candidacies. Walter J. Horton, a veteran city real estate officer and 37-year resident of the 41st District, said he would push to make reforms of the tax sale process stronger still.
“Investors are buying up these certificates and getting away with all kinds of unscrupulous activities,” said Horton, whose resume includes managing the William Donald Schaefer-era “dollar house” program.
Tax incentives, via TIFs and PILOTs, could be used to promote economic development projects throughout the district, he added.
Del. Gibson, who had served five Baltimore mayors as a government relations lobbyist, spoke of accomplishments in her first term in office.
She cited her work to help pass a bill to limit the hours of nuisance businesses in the district and to prevent state employees from being forced to relocate when their agency offices were to be moved away from Reisterstown Plaza.
“We were able to get the bill amended to say those employees wouldn’t have to move,” she recalled.
Longtime Democratic political fixture Joyce Smith, currently first vice chair of the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, said she is running for office because she wants to “serve the district at a higher level.”
“My platform is based on relationships, respect and results,” she said.
Former Baltimore NAACP president Tessa Hill-Aston stressed 40 years of activism that she said has given her a knowledge of the streets and how “there’s always more to the story.”
“When you see someone who had a fire, it’s usually drug-related. When you see somebody got shot, it’s usually drug related,” said Hill-Aston, who called for more drug treatment slots.
Lead Paint and Pimlico
Del. Rosenberg, a member of the House of Delegates since 1983, talked about his accomplishments on both policy and neighborhood issues.
He pledged to fight for the implementation of the Kirwan Commission recommendations to make school funding more equitable and vowed to continue the push on protecting children from lead paint poisoning.
“The rate of people testing positive is down, but there’s more work to be done,” he said.
On the subject of funding an overhaul of Pimlico Race Course, one of the district’s major issues, Rosenberg was enthusiastic.
He said he pushed for the $426,000 study of the site that’s currently underway because he believes the spot has potential to uplift the community if it gets more use than the once-a-year Preakness event.
“That is a site for 365-day-a-year economic and community development,” Rosenberg said. “It’s not a one-day deal that we’re talking about anymore.”