Mayor Brandon Scott, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, and other Democrats hoping to win over city voters this May made their case to North Baltimoreans at a Monday night forum, marking the first time that all the top contenders gathered for a public debate.

Neighborhood associations in North Baltimore hosted Scott, Dixon, attorney Thiru Vignarajah and businessman Bob Wallace for a forum moderated by Kaye Wise Whitehead, a Loyola University professor and WEAA radio host. The standing-room-only event featured audience questions.

The politicians stuck with the same rhetoric they’ve employed throughout this campaign season. Scott repeatedly asked attendees at Roland Park Presbyterian Church if they wanted to return to “the broken ways of the past,” while Dixon painted her opponent as an inexperienced city manager unable to deliver city services.

A choice of past or present

Dixon launched darts at each of her opponents. She incorrectly asserted that Vignarajah currently owns a principal residence in Howard County and said that for all of Wallace’s talk of being raised in Cherry Hill, “there’s not a building in Cherry Hill with his name on it.” She slammed Scott for high rates of turnover among his senior level staff and years-long delay for recycling, and repeatedly questioned his competence.

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“Inexperienced leadership is why city government is so dysfunctional today,” she said. “You need good talented people who are going to stay with you and not a revolving door.”

For the most part, Scott avoided direct criticisms of the other panelists, save for asserting that Wallace didn’t deserve to be mayor after the businessman said he would fire the entire school board. Two positions on the board are elected by residents, not appointed by the mayor.

Instead, Scott tacitly reminded attendees of Dixon’s corruption charges. “We’re facing a big choice in this election: Whether we only continue to move Baltimore forward on the renaissance that is building in our city, or whether we’re going to return to the broken days of the past,” he said during opening remarks.

Vignarajah and Wallace both maintained their brands as change candidates. Each man pointed to Scott’s and Dixon’s tenures, arguing they failed to deliver while in office.

“Which is worse — corruption or incompetence — is not a debate worthy of this city,” Vignarajah said, pledging to serve as a “turnaround CEO” that would transform City Hall.

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The overflowing crowd listens to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott speak during the mayoral debate held at Roland Park Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Emphasis on “perceptions of crime”

Whitehead acknowledged a historic decline in homicide during Scott’s tenure, and asked panelists how they plan to “address the perceptions of crime” as nonviolent crimes like car thefts increase.

“Don’t talk about realities, how are you going to change perception?” she asked.

Scott was nevertheless quick to point to the numbers, citing drops in violent crimes.

“We made 531 auto theft arrests last year, and 286 of them were young people,” he said, saying that city and state agencies must team up the ensure that juveniles have access to support after being charged.

Dixon latched onto the perception angle, sharing that she recently experienced a break-in at her home in Hunting Ridge, where she said most of her neighbors are hesitant to call the police.

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She said City Hall should partner with Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates on resuming the prosecution of nonviolent, low-level offenses.

“Individuals have to be held accountable, and citations are a way to get at quality of life crime issues,” she said.

First of an unknown number of debates

Different mayor campaign signs are seen outside the mayoral debates held at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Monday’s forum included just the best-known candidates in the Democratic field. Also running are Wendy Bozel, “Uncle Wayne” Baker, Texas Brown, Kevin Harris, Wendell Hill-Freeman, Yolanda Pulley, Joseph Scott, Keith Scott and Yasaun Young. Michael Moore, Donald Scoggins and Shannon Wright are competing for the Republican nomination.

Late last month, Scott published an open letter to Dixon, Vignarajah and Wallace, saying he was writing to kickstart “a collective conversation on the broader debate schedule.” He asserted his desire to take part in debates hosted by “established and impartial media outlets” and deferred the benchmarks for participation for such debates to the media outlets who choose to host them.

Last Wednesday, some Democratic candidates appeared at a panel hosted by environmental groups, but Scott skipped the event to speak at a White House event instead, according to a spokesman. His campaign provided a video address for the event, which was met with boos.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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