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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

Although Dixon has been the long-standing, popular front-runner, according to recent polls in the Baltimore Sun, she and Pugh are currently tied for the lead.

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In the pool of nine candidates, including community activist Patrick Gutierrez, the three standouts were Pugh, Dixon and Stokes.

Issues discussed included the changing landscape for the 40 percent of Baltimoreans who can’t afford housing, calming the number of murders in the city (which ballooned to over 300 last year), job creation, education, landlords who still do not comply with lead-paint laws, restitution for illegal arrests and reforming the Civilian Review Board.

Stokes called for financial reparations for the aggressive policing that took place during former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s administration. The policing led to hundreds of thousands of illegal arrests that are still in the system and are presumably negatively impacting former arrestees’ employment prospects.

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Known for his eloquence on national news, Mckesson was surprisingly understated and reserved during the debate.

“I wish DeRay would have had an opportunity to speak up more. I think he has great ideas and aspirations for the city,” said 33-year-old Jason Hart after the debate.

Also during the debate, Warnock charmed the audience with his humor and Young impressed with his passion and his knowledge of the business community and the intricacies of government. Young, an engineer, turned down a job in Birmingham, England, after graduating from Harvard and seeing the riots on television, realizing that he needed to turn his talents to his hometown.

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Still, with the wealth of candidates on the stage, some focused on the front-runners.

“Sheila has the lead, but Cathy has the momentum,” said Eric Dodson, a native Baltimorean and small-business owner. “It depends on when we get out of this arena where there are so many candidates and we can really have a back-and-forth debate about some of the real issues. Sheila has the most experience, but it comes down to how forgiving the voters will be in the city of Baltimore.”

Dodson was referring to Dixon’s conviction for taking gift cards supplied by city contractors. She resigned as mayor and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took the position.

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Despite this, or maybe because of it, Dixon is the only candidate who knows how city government works from a mayoral standpoint.

“I paid my price. I have learned. I have been transparent,” Dixon told The Root in the lobby after the debate, in response to how she would overcome the negative sentiment that lingers from her conviction. “I know I can gain people’s trust back. I know I can be the one to move the city forward. I know I have to get over that hurdle. I didn’t have to get into this. Citizens in this city came to me for the last three years to ask me to run.”