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Mayoral Candidates Make Their Case In First Forum

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

The deadline to file a run for the mayor’s office of Baltimore isn’t until Jan. 24, but 12 candidates made their case to  voters at the first forum of the election season Wednesday night. The New Park Heights Community Development Corp. hosted the event. 

About a hundred mostly black Baltimoreans gathered at the Zeta Senior Center, standing room only, to discuss an election that several candidates and community members called the most important race in recent memory. Candidates attempted to stand out from the crowded field: the forum’s organizers split the many candidates in two separate panels so each could get enough speaking time. 

The questions clued candidates in on what issues are important to voters in the northwest Baltimore neighborhood. Transparency, education, poverty and police brutality were at the forefront.  

“Baltimore cannot afford a trial period,” said one panelist before asking the candidates to explain what experiences they had that could help them lead Baltimore forward. 

“Think about my experience as the city council president, the chief policy maker for the city right now. I put out the first policy platform in the council president’s office history,” said City Council President Brandon Scott, a 35-year-old Democrat from Park Heights. “What we need right now in Baltimore is someone with experience, but we also need the next generation. It's time.” 

Former Mayor Shelia Dixon, who left the office in disgrace after a 2009 federal conviction, said her tenure in City Hall shows the people she's capable of taking on the challenges facing the city. 

“We have all the tools in front of us but because of some of the dark ways that we created in this city, we are hemorrhaging right now,” Dixon said. “We need someone with that experience, along with working with individuals who want to come into government and public service for the right reason to help to move Baltimore in the right direction.” 

Dixon ran in 2016 but lost the Democratic primary narrowly to Catherine Pugh, who similarly left office amid a scandal that led to a federal conviction last year. 

State Senator Mary Washington pointed to her expansive record throughout various elected offices as a solid community leader. 

“I want to do what I have always done as a daughter, as a community association president, as a state delegate, as a state senator,” Washington said. “I have stood in the gap when there were people whose voices weren't heard. ... I believe that the solutions that we have for our city are right in this room, that the people that have the power and the knowledge to fix what's wrong, whether it's police or education or transportation or education, is right here.”  

Entrepreneur Rikki Vaughn said a leader with his background would run the city to run more smoothly that career politicians. The Baltimore native went from working at a McDonalds to owning and operating over 100 restaurants. 

“To go from having that to now, you need someone with the experience of contracts, with the experience of marketing, but you need someone who's able to bring everyone to the table,” Vaughn said. “Baltimore needs someone who understands the holistic part in all aspects of managing and running a company because city government is actually a business.”

Altogether, 12 candidates answered residents’ questions. Washington, Yolanda Pulley, Dante Swinton, James Jones and Valerie Cunningham spoke on the first panel; all are Democrats.  

Democrats Dixon, Vaughn, Scott and Mike Jenson spoke on the second panel, as did Republican Shannon Wright.

The New Park Heights Community Development Corp. invited 17 candidates total. Some did not attend, including Democrats Thiru Vignarajah and Mayor Jack Young. 

Primaries, which are crucial in deep-blue Baltimore, will be held on April 28.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.