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Politicsby Fern Shen5:13 pmFeb 6, 20200

A workman-like Q&A for 23 candidates for mayor

Education, food deserts, housing and police spending were on the agenda at last night’s mayoral forum. Missing in action: the office’s current occupant.

Above: Former Mayor Sheila Dixon stresses her record on crime issues at a forum for Baltimore mayoral candidates. (Fern Shen)

With an intense red backdrop behind them, a large audience in front of them and just 40 seconds to answer each question, 23 candidates for mayor grappled with Baltimore’s big issues last night.

One of them, businessman Rikki Vaughn, had a pithy way to show he cares about education equity, observing “we got individuals sitting in City Hall with heat, but you don’t have heat in city schools.”

“I would make sure if my students are in classrooms with no heat, then we would have no damn heat at City Hall,” Vaughn said, drawing applause.

Others got an audience reaction with ideas from the 1970s.* One candidate vowed to bring back “home economics” and another said “food deserts” should be ended by bringing arabbers, Baltimore’s horse-drawn food peddlers, back to the city.

“We have programs in the past where we used to give vacant houses to people for a dollar – we’re going to bring that back,” said Thiru Vignarajah, who also cited a more modern idea, community land trusts, in addition to the Schaefer-era “Dollar Houses.”

* Hat tip to @bmoreProjects, who shared this observation at the event.

Thiru Vignarajah at a mayoral candidates' forum held at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

Thiru Vignarajah at the mayoral candidates’ forum held at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. (Fern Shen)

Schedule Conflict for Young

Their observations came as part of a mayoral forum held at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum last night, with questions based on a survey funded by Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the T. Rowe Price Foundation.

“Blueprint for Baltimore” asked 5,000 people their priorities in key areas, including education, community development efforts and public safety.

It was moderated by Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor of the Baltimore Beat and an executive producer at the Real News Network, and WYPR radio host, Tom Hall.

Among the candidates in attendance were: City Council  President Brandon M. Scott, former mayor Sheila Dixon, former police spokesman T.J. Smith, state Senator Mary Washington, former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah and former T. Rowe Price executive Mary Miller.

One candidate not present at the forum was Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Organizers said they were told he had “a schedule conflict.”

Affordable Housing

A few candidates had easy answers to some of the questions, such as the one about the voter-approved $20 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund, partially funded by real estate transaction fees. The Fund should prioritize reusing vacant buildings for affordable housing, 40 percent of Blueprint respondents said, “do you agree?”

“I absolutely agree, that’s why I one of the co-sponsors of the legislation that added the $20 million,” Scott said.

Candidate Dante C. Swinton called that law “a great start,” but argued that more is needed.

“That’s why I want to re-allocate an additional $72 million to go to affordable housing in different communities across the city, like Park Heights, Curtis Bay, Sandtown-Winchester – communities of color,” Swinton said.

The fund is meant to help “folks making $14,000-$32,000 a year, and we have 76,000 households making $18,000 a year right now,” he pointed out.

Dante Swinton, Frederick Ware Newsome and Sen. Mary Washington at a mayoral candidates event. (Fern Shen)

Waiting for their 40 seconds: Dante Swinton, Frederick Ware-Newsome, and state Sen. Mary Washington. (Fern Shen)

Policing v. Education

Regarding education, most of the candidates called for full funding of the Kirwan Commission recommendations and criticized the city’s high spending on police, especially for overtime.

“As mayor, I would flip that around,” Washington said, also plugging “trauma-informed care” and fully funding the “community schools approach.”

The only candidate who spoke out against lowering police spending was Brian J. Salsberry. Addressing the subject of public safety, he said he would “ask the president of the United States to send in military units.”

To which Ralph E. Johnson Jr. offered a “hell, no!” response.

Johnson also vehemently rejected a crime-fighting proposal that Vignarajah has strongly backed, but did not mention last night – a privately-funded pilot program to fly a surveillance plane over the city.

“The first thing I will not do is bring in the spy plane,” Johnson said to audience cheers.

Question Draws Boo’s

One moment of tension at an otherwise low-keyed, good-government event occurred when Hall directed a question about the Police Department’s federal consent decree to former mayor Sheila Dixon.

“Catherine Pugh – remember her, Ms. Dixon? – she was personally involved in negotiating the consent decree,” Hall began.

Amid booing and hissing in the room, he stopped mid-question. Clearly irritated, Dixon told the audience, “He does that a lot to me.”

“Oh, no, it’s a joke,” Hall said. “I apologize.”

Hall resumed asking how Dixon as mayor would implement the consent decree and change the culture at the BPD.

Speaking with some heat, Dixon directed listeners to her campaign website:

“You will see my extensive, holistic approach to reducing crime, not only in the future, but my past record as the only mayor that was able to reduce crime, convict individuals, work with the state’s attorney and court system and reduce the police department’s budget,” she said. “So let me just put that out there.”

That was pretty much the only mention of Pugh at the event.

The ex-mayor’s recent guilty plea to federal crimes – together with the broader subject of city government corruption – was not broached by anyone speaking at the two-hour forum.

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