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Politicsby Fern Shen2:43 pmMay 12, 20200

Promises, rebuttals and a regret: Baltimore mayoral candidates debate

The online joust between the six leading candidates comes as the primary enters its final three weeks

Above: Participants in a mayoral candidates’ debate sponsored by the Baltimore NAACP and the AFRO newspaper. From top left, moderator Ashiah Parker, candidates T.J. Smith, Jack Young, Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah, Mary Miller and Sheila Dixon and moderator Farajii Muhammad. (Facebook)

After weeks of seeing Baltimore’s 2020 mayoral candidates present themselves individually, either in the news or on social media, there they were last night debating in Zoom “gallery view,” all together on one screen.

We saw them at times bouncing nervously in their seats (former Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith), serenely sipping tea (City Council President Brandon Scott) and when they went past their time limit, being unceremoniously cut off by an air horn (former mayor Sheila Dixon).

We saw one of them forget the name of a small business program, drawing a blank after a long pause (Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young), another betray a smirk (former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah) at an opponent’s answer, and a third (retired money manager Mary J. Miller) respond to an embarrassing question by owning up to it and basically saying “oops.”

“I certainly regret that,” Miller said when asked about the 2006 donation of $1,000 she made to U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. “I have no respect or liking for him.”

In no particular order, here are some takeaways from a lively debate featuring the six top candidates (all Democrats, chosen based on their polling numbers and fundraising) sponsored by the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and the AFRO American newspaper.

1. I’m doing great!

After opponents critiqued the city’s performance on the coronavirus, saying it needed to be much more comprehensive and systemic, Mayor Jack Young said they were describing actions he had already taken.

“I’m glad to know that they all are talking about what I’m already doing. I’m already doing everything that they just talked about, you know, so I’m glad that everybody is looking at what I’m doing. That makes me feel like I’m on the right track.

2. Buying the Election

Asked about her record-breaking spending on the primary, Mary Miller chose to focus on her own $1.5 million contribution to her cause, making a virtue out of it:

“I will be the most independent, pragmatic mayor who is beholden to no one,” she said. (She did not discuss the potential influence of the 48  donors who each handed Miller the maximum allowable $6,000, including the retired vice chairman of T. Rowe Price, the CEO of Nasdaq, and Gallagher, Evelius & Jones powerplayer Rick Berndt.)

3. Billionaire Backer

Asked the same question about outside money, Thiru Vignarajah claimed to have a greater number of less-than-$100 contributions than any of his opponents – 1,000 of them – and brushed aside mention of the $25,000 or so he has received from surveillance plane funders, Texas-based John Arnold, his wife Laura, and related parties.

“They’re worth $4.5 billion. They don’t need a contract from Baltimore City,” he said, pointing out that the former Enron hedge-fund trader has also contributed to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

4. Sometimes Snarky 

Coming out of candidate quarantine, several let loose with the sarcasm last night, particularly Vignarajah, as in this pivot from a question about his own campaign contributions:

“Mary’s right. She does have donors from Baltimore City. They’re right along the White L and then they go right up into Pikesville and then Owings Mills and then further north. It’s a really, really diverse coalition she’s built.”

5. Smith v. Dixon on BPD Corruption

 Smith called for Baltimore Police Department “culture” change, saying, “I’ve seen some of the prolific criminals who wore the uniform that lasted way too long.” He pointed to Gun Trace Task Force offenses back to 2007-2008 – i.e., when Dixon was mayor.

Dixon responded that the corrupt police unit “got out of control” after she left City Hall, pointing out that some of its criminal behavior took place when Kevin Davis was police commissioner – i.e., when Smith worked for the agency.

“People should put the correct information out,” Dixon huffed.

“Well, thank you, Mayor Dixon, for acknowledging that the GTTF began under your administration,” Smith shot back.

“It’s important you be mindful of talking about corruption,” Dixon retorted, “when you were double-dipping between Anne Arundel County and then on the payroll of Baltimore City.”

6. Vignarajah v. Scott over J.P. Grant

In full-on prosecutorial mode, Vignarajah came prepared with challenges for Brandon Scott, asking him if he would commit to funding the currently unbudgeted Ethics Board. Yes, Scott said, “it’s something I’ve been talking about since July.” Easy.

Then came mention of J.P. Grant, the Columbia businessman who wrote a $20,000 check to former mayor Catherine Pugh’s 2 Chic Boutique, which Pugh then used for personal expenses and to fund her 2016 mayoral campaign. Grant, who was never charged in connection with this and other payments, has a profitable role in city government as the master leaseholder, a sort of middleman arranging financing for millions of dollars of city purchases.

“Would you agree,” Vignarajah demanded of Scott, “to break that master lease, which has been in place for far too long?”

Without responding yes or no, Scott answered this way:

“I actually am the person that has an investigation with the Inspector General right now into Mr. Grant’s contracts with the city, including the master lease. So we will follow what our Inspector General finds.”

7. Questions Never Asked

No one asked Dixon about her 2010 resignation as mayor after she was convicted of embezzlement for taking gift cards intended for poor children.

No one – except Vignarajah himself, oddly enough – brought up his late-night police stop on Greenmount Avenue last September, in which he asked a police sergeant to turn off his body camera video.

It came up when Smith pressed him about the influence of tens of thousands in campaign dollars from owners and others connected to the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose local Fox 45 station has featured Vignarajah on air every Monday morning for weeks as well as on multiple “town halls.”

“People ask me about the traffic stop all the time,” Vignarajah said, claiming to be asked about it every time he appears on Fox 45 and saying he is “not afraid” to answer.

No one picked up on his challenge last night.

Watch the entire debate on the NAACP Baltimore Facebook page.

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