Baltimore Mayoral Debate Lacked Fireworks, but Not Candidates

Nine mayoral hopefuls showed up for the debate, which included former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson.

Activist DeRay Mckesson speaks as former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon looks on during a mayoral candidates debate in Baltimore on March 10, 2016.
Activist DeRay Mckesson speaks as former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon looks on during a mayoral candidates debate in Baltimore on March 10, 2016. WBAL-TV Baltimore

Baltimore has been in the national spotlight for the past year on issues of police brutality, civil unrest and an unprecedented court case in which Maryland’s highest court is compelling a police officer to testify against his fellow officers.

As a result, local issues were laid bare on a national stage for all the world to see: Baltimore’s staggering heroin and crime epidemic, mystifying school and recreation-center closings, blighted housing and extreme poverty.

At Thursday’s first major Baltimore mayoral debate, which took place on the campus of Morgan State University, many of these issues went thoroughly unexplored. Some, like the heroin epidemic and school and recreation-center closings, weren’t even mentioned.

“All of the issues are common. It’s nothing new for any of the candidates. It”s just a matter of how they would prioritize them that makes it unique,” said Baltimore resident Sonia Harmon, 52, who said she was still undecided after the debate.

The auditorium at the Murphy Fine Arts Center on Morgan’s campus was filled to capacity at 2,300 people for a debate moderated by a panel of media personnel. Audience members did not get the opportunity to ask questions, and midway through the debate, nearly half the crowd left, presumably frustrated by the skirting of the serious issues.

Still, there were a few highlights.

The most colorful part of the debate was the candidates themselves. There was the quiet reserve of internationally known Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson; the fiery tone of Nick Mosby, who is married to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and has sparked chatter about a conflict of interest; business-oriented, Harvard-educated newcomer Calvin Young; venture capitalist David Warnock; and Elizabeth Embry, director of the Criminal Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and daughter of Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation. There are also three seasoned politicians in the race: Maryland state Sen. Catherine Pugh, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes and former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Mckesson, a celebrated activist who made headlines around the world with his last-minute entry into the race, walked in wearing his signature, blue Patagonia bubble vest, unassuming, blending in with the thousands of audience participants.

During his one-minute introduction, Mckesson called for new blood.

“If the establishment is who we choose, we know exactly what we’re going to get,” Mckesson said. “They are part of the problem that got us here.”

During his opening remarks, Mosby presented himself as a product of Baltimore’s challenging environment, painting himself as someone who knows what hardships a large portion of the city’s poorer residents face.

“Statistically, I am not supposed to be here. Growing up in a three-bedroom house with six siblings and sharing a bed with my mother and my sister until the eighth grade,” Mosby told the audience passionately. “We have two choices: We can focus on the failed policies of the past, or we can continue with a new vision.”

Pugh said she knows how to work with everyone from “the streets to the suites,” while Warnock also presented himself as an everyman, announcing that he had arrived in a “pickup truck” and that this was “the most important election of our generation.”