The three Democratic candidates for the Baltimore’s City Council president clashed in a televised debate Wednesday, with incumbent Nick Mosby taking the offensive against both of his challengers.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, former Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and Mosby took turns in the debate hosted by WBAL-TV, WBAL Radio and Maryland Public Television staking their positions on issues ranging from a proposed ballot measure to slash the city’s property tax rate to enforcement of low-level crimes to controversial plans for the redevelopment Harborplace. While the matchup was largely collegial, exchanges between Mosby and Cohen, in particular, in some moments turned tense.

The debate, held on a tape-delay Wednesday afternoon at Morgan State University, comes as the Democratic race for City Council president has entered its most competitive stretch. A survey conducted earlier this month by The Baltimore Banner and Goucher College Poll found Cohen with a slim, four point edge over Mosby. Sneed, meanwhile, trailed by 10 points, but remained in striking distance.

More than a third of respondents to The Banner poll said they were still undecided or preferred another candidate entirely, suggesting that a potentially decisive share of the voters remains up for grabs.

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The Democratic primary election for City Council president will be held on May 14. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 10 to 1 margin in Baltimore, and the primary winner is a heavy favorite in November’s general election where they will face the GOP’s Emmanuel Digman.

Mosby and Cohen clash on Baltimore bona fides

Cohen, a Massachusetts native who began his professional career teaching in West Baltimore through the nonprofit Teach for America, spoke Wednesday of his time in classrooms that lacked air conditioning, sufficient light and potable drinking water, describing the experience as formative to his policy positions today.

“It was a school that looked more like a jail than a school,” Cohen said. “I remember thinking to myself as a first year teacher: If we send our children to places that look like prisons, what do we expect them to become?”

While Cohen has painted himself as a convert to Baltimore who fell in love with the city, Mosby has pitched himself as the lone candidate in the field who knows personally the hardships and disinvestment that face many low-income residents.

“I sat in those classrooms that Zeke talked about where you couldn’t see outside, where it was hot, it was cold,” Mosby said later in the debate. “I had teachers like Zeke that were revolving-door teachers, that taught for one year, poured into us and then left.”

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Cohen, who went on from teaching to found a local nonprofit providing summer programming for high school students, touted his endorsement from the Baltimore Teachers Union and countered that his experience with low-income students went beyond his stint in the classroom.

“I’m incredibly proud of the nine years that I spent working with young people in this city,” Cohen said.

Sneed, who represented a swath of East Baltimore on the council from 2016 to 2020, touted her work on legislation requiring top police officials to live in Baltimore. A Philadelphia native, Sneed described her upbringing with a single mother and her own experience in motherhood as fundamental to her leadership approach.

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby, right, answers a question while candidate Shannon Sneed, left, awaits her turn during a televised debate hosted by WBAL in Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Mosby homes in on union deals

Jeff Salkin, a news anchor for Maryland Public Television and one of three hosts at Wednesday’s debate, asked candidates how they felt about the nearly $1 billion plan to redevelop Harborplace, a proposal that zipped through the City Council earlier this year but still faces a voter referendum on the November ballot.

Cohen praised lead Harborplace developer P. David Bramble and said he supports the new vision for the public waterfront. The 1st District councilman, though, added that he’s “going to be looking very carefully” at any requests the developer makes for taxpayer support. So far, Bramble and his team have said they do not plan to ask for financial support from the city and expect some $400 million in public funding to come through state and federal support.

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But with the city gearing up for such a massive construction job, Mosby raised concern about his opponents’ positions on a policy that could mandate collective bargaining agreements with unions on major city projects.

During her term on the City Council, Sneed introduced legislation to require such “project labor agreements,” and Mosby alleged Wednesday that Cohen secured support from trade unions because of his own support for the policy.

City Council presidential candidate Shannon Sneed answers a question during a televised debate hosted by WBAL in Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Such deals risk forfeiting construction jobs — as in the case of the Harborplace redevelopment — to unions whose members don’t live in Baltimore, Mosby argued.

“I have very severe concerns about the way that Shannon structured the deal and the way that Zeke has supported this deal” in order to win support from influential labor unions, she said.

Sneed pushed back on the argument that project labor agreements would outsource jobs to nonresidents, and said her legislation — which the city did not adopt at the time — would do the contrary, helping to ensure fair working standards and guaranteeing that workers are paid on time.

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Cohen said he’s proud of the backing he’s gotten from unions, among them the Baltimore-D.C. Metro Building Trades Council, and pledged to ensure that any major development projects under his leadership prioritize Baltimore workers.

A looming cut to property taxes?

This November Baltimore voters could face a ballot question that proposes slashing the city’s high property tax rate, an idea both Cohen and Sneed made clear they do not support.

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Cohen said that the city must collaborate with neighboring counties and state leaders to bring down property taxes, but argued the proposed ballot measure risks sending the city into receivership, potentially carving deep cuts into core services like road maintenance and the city’s police and fire departments.

Sneed similarly criticized the proposal to cut property taxes as “irresponsible” when the city is still coming up short on basic city services.

“Until we have five stars across the board, I don’t think we should be having the conversation,” she said.

Mosby noted that many affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods of the city have grown while Baltimore’s population loss has been driven largely by an exodus of Black households. The council president touted legislation he worked on during his tenure in the Maryland General Assembly to impose tiered taxes on vacant properties as a tool for combating predatory speculators, arguing that the city needs to focus on policies that prioritize low-income households to help rebuild blighted neighborhoods.

“We can no longer continue to just put all of the weight on the middle class, the folks that have been living through the decay, the folks that have been living through their houses being destroyed by vacant properties,” he said. “It’s time to hold these speculators accountable.”

Shaking up City Hall

WBAL Radio host Clarence Mitchell IV, also known as C4, asked the candidates where they stand on another possible ballot measure that could dramatically reshape the City Council, cutting the body from 14 districts down to eight. After petitioners for the measure, which is bankrolled by Sinclair Inc. executive and Baltimore Sun owner David Smith, submitted far more signatures than needed to the Board of Elections last year, the proposal is likely to make the ballot.

Both Sneed and Cohen stressed that they don’t support the measure, arguing that maintaining the council’s current 15-member structure is important for ensuring that constituents get the help and attention they need.

Baltimore City Council presidential candidate Zeke Cohen answers a question during a televised debate hosted by WBAL in Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Mosby didn’t directly address the question, saying he thinks there are “a lot of structural changes that need to happen in Baltimore.”

All three candidates, though, said they believe a restructuring is in order for the city’s powerful spending board, the Board of Estimates.

Under the city charter, the mayor holds a controlling majority on Board of Estimates, and the candidates agreed that the administration’s power should be checked by removing two mayoral appointees from the panel. Cohen pointed out that he introduced legislation last year to study those kinds of reforms. That bill, he noted, stalled in a City Council committee — a dig at Mosby, who as council president assigns bills for committee hearings.

Even so, Cohen emphasized the council president’s ability to influence policy even under the city’s strong mayor system, by deferring spending board decisions and rallying public input into City Hall decisions.

“Even under the current alignment, the council president has a lot more power than has been discussed,” he argued.

Mosby dismissed Cohen’s points as “rhetoric and platitudes,” and argued over the last four years he has demonstrated what a council president can accomplish. He pointed to his opposition to the Scott administration’s conduit deal with Baltimore Gas and Electric and “hundreds” of spending decisions that he has delayed from his seat on the spending board.

Not mentioned Wednesday was the turbulent year in Mosby’s personal life: In January the council president took the fall for the delinquent tax returns of his and his ex-wife, former Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, and federal prosecutors accused him of perjury in open court. Mosby, though, alluded to those trials in his closing remarks.

Leadership is defined by the work officials accomplish, Mosby argued. “In the face of adversity, in the face of challenges, I showed up every single day, Baltimore, and did that work.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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