Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah and City Council president hopeful Shannon Sneed each touted their use of the city’s newly instituted Fair Election Fund at a housing forum Saturday, a jab at their opponents who have received large donations from developers and lobbyists.

Vignarajah, who has run unsuccessfully in three previous elections for mayor and Baltimore state’s attorney, and Sneed, a former city councilwoman who ran for council president four years ago, each homed in on their publicly financed campaigns during the afternoon debate. They said eschewing large donations would allow them a degree of freedom in crafting housing policy that their competitors cannot match.

“I am unbought and unbossed,” Sneed said to a round of applause during the City Council president forum, quoting a campaign slogan from the late U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress.

Responding to a question about the influence of developers in city policy, Sneed said her candidacy would ensure no one influence would have sway over her tenure.

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“If we really want to break the cycle ... we got to start from the beginning and run our campaigns differently,” she said.

A survey published this week from The Baltimore Banner and Goucher College Poll found that Sneed and Vignarajah lag behind their opponents about a month before the start of early voting. Sneed entered the City Council president’s race in October, about six months after City Councilman Zeke Cohen said he would challenge incumbent Nick Mosby.

Mayor’s forum targets money

In the mayor’s race, Vignarajah committed in January, joining former Mayor Sheila Dixon and a slew of lesser-known candidates vying to unseat Mayor Brandon Scott.

Vignarajah said low-income communities have too often been ignored due in part to policies that favor higher returns for developers.

“How are we going to ensure that this changes in the future? Part of it is not to take donations from developers and lobbyists and PACs [political action committees] and corporations,” he said, drawing approval from the crowd.

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The mayor responded to one question at Saturday’s debate, held at Baltimore Unity Hall in the Bolton Hill area, before rushing to the scene of a shooting involving a 7-year-old girl at Mondawmin Mall. In response, Dixon, who finished second behind Scott four years ago, condemned the violence in the city before resuming the forum.

The city’s new public financing system multiplies small donations if candidates forgo contributions larger than $150 and donations from unions, corporations and PACs.

Vignarajah has raised nearly $700,000 using the system since January and has more cash on hand than Dixon but less than Scott, campaign finance records show. Sneed has about $237,000 in the bank, less than Cohen but slightly more than Mosby.

With polling indicating both races are highly competitive, the two candidates used their allotted time Saturday to attempt to draw contrasts with their opponents.

Vignarajah, calling Baltimore housing a “vital failure” of the city, pledged to bring back a version of the famous “dollar house” program that would enable the city to act as a guarantor to provide loans to help with home renovation costs. He also said he would end the “unconstitutional” tax sale foreclosure process that has caused residents to lose their properties due to missed tax payments on “day one.”

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The perennial candidate, along with Dixon, said he would champion legislation that would cap yearly rent increases in the city at 3%, a controversial policy that surrounding counties have had difficulty implementing.

Bob Wallace, a businessman who is largely self-funding his campaign for mayor, said he would be open to the idea of minimizing the risk of rent fluctuations but did not specify if he supported a 3% cap.

Heated council president exchange

Mosby, during the council president’s forum, said he would support a 3% rent cap, while Cohen and Sneed said they would need to see market data and consult experts before weighing in.

“I’m 110% behind that,” Mosby said.

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The forum for the council president candidates at times turned heated. Mosby took a swipe at Cohen, who said he learned intimately the problems with Baltimore City Public Schools’ conditions after teaching seventh grade in West Baltimore.

“I didn’t have to teach in the school for one year,” Mosby said. “I lived it.”

Cohen, highlighting his proposed Strengthening Renters’ Safety Act that would put more pressure on negligent landlords to make repairs to their buildings, also boasted of his endorsements from labor unions including AFSCME Maryland, which Sneed acknowledged she was sorry she did not get.

Sneed shared more personal details about her upbringing. In her first remarks of the afternoon, Sneed said, after graduating college, she did not have a place to go.

“All I had was my car,” Sneed said. “And so that’s why I said, please, when you think about housing, it’s so important that we ... have opportunities for people who don’t have housing.”

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Trading barbs

Meanwhile, during the forum for mayoral candidates, moderator Claudia Wilson Randall of the Maryland Community Development Network urged candidates to stick to policy after they spent the first few minutes of the forum trading barbs.

Wallace blasted Dixon and Scott for having more than four decades combined in public office but not solving the city’s housing challenges, particularly with vacant properties.

Vignarajah took a shot at Dixon for helping to ink the deal with New York developer La Cité, which holds the development rights in the badly battered Poppleton neighborhood, while she was in office nearly two decades ago. And Dixon joked that Wallace, who used to live outside the city, should not have gotten rebuttal opportunities during the forum.

Early voting in the Democratic primary begins May 2. Primary Day is May 14.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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