As the Baltimore City mayor’s race heated up last week, the sense of urgency among those who want to take the title from current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seemed to rise.
During last week’s second mayoral forum sponsored by the Baltimore chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League at Coppin State University in West Baltimore, the contenders and pretenders all leaned in a little further to make their prospective cases.
At the casual 6:30ish start (the event was slated to begin at 6 p.m.) there were only three candidates on the dais: former Councilman Jody Landers, State Sen. Catherine Pugh and Clerk of the Courts Frank Conaway. A few moments later a man named Wilton Wilson joined them and said what just about everybody else in the room was thinking.
“Some of you have never heard of me,” he said. “But, I’ve been around for a long time.” Still don’t know who he is or where he came from, but his West Indian brogue leads me to believe, he came from the Caribbean.
Veteran journalist Charles Robinson of Maryland Public Television served as moderator for the forum, and besides his somewhat bludgeoning style of interrogating … I mean questioning the candidates, there were a few interesting moments during a mostly sleepy event.
Robinson immediately roused the ubiquitous, yet mostly un-discussed issue of race and aimed it at Landers, the only White candidate in attendance. “Some suggest the Pat Jessamy race (for Baltimore State’s Attorney), was about race,” Robinson said.
“First of all I’m not running because I’m a White candidate,” Landers said curtly. “For me it’s not an issue … I’m a graduate of Morgan State University … It’s not a question of race to me. I’ve lost confidence in the existing leadership, that’s why I’m running for mayor.”
Pugh quickly moved off the issue of race and shifted the conversation to jobs and leadership.
However, Conaway, as only Conaway can, dove into the race issue with glee. “You can be Black on the outside and White on the inside,” Conaway said, sparking nervous grumbling throughout the audience. “We have to be careful when you talk about you want a Black mayor. You want a mayor who thinks Black and wants everybody to have a piece of the pie.”
At about seven o’clock Councilman Carl Stokes – who has a few citywide races under his belt – and former Baltimore Director of Planning Otis Rolley made their way to the forum and were promptly admonished for their tardiness by Robinson.
And my colleague Shernay Williams, who was one of the journalists questioning the candidates, took a subtle shot at Stokes and Rolley for popping in about an hour after the debate was scheduled to begin. “Glad you could join us,” Williams said before she moved the conversation to education.
As the forum continued and the candidates attempted to create memorable moments, perhaps the most powerful statement didn’t come from any of the challengers at the forum that night. Maybe it was made by the woman they were all taking aim at, the woman whose absence perhaps spoke volumes: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Was SRB’s absence from the Urban League, NAACP debate as some suggested, a clear indication she didn’t think the event was important enough for her to attend? Or was it simply a scheduling conflict? Or was it that the mayor realizes there are going to be several of these forums and she wants to make her impact felt closer to Election Day?
Whatever the reason for her absence it seems her advantage in money and political juice statewide continues to be daunting, whether her opponents admit it or not. Last time I looked SRB had about $1 million in her campaign war chest. I’m not sure who’s in second place as far as money on hand, but I’m confident it’s a distant second, probably in the $200,000 range.
And, last week, the mayor received another round of powerhouse endorsements from the county executives of Prince George’s, Howard and Montgomery counties at the same time. Add this to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. Elijah Cummings and what amounts to essentially a political blank check from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and their seems to be a certain air of inevitability in the mayor’s race.
The truth is there are more than a few people in Baltimore – outside of the men and women who are challenging SRB – who believe there are a lot of reasons to change leadership at City Hall.
But, it’s up to the challengers to make a viable and compelling argument against a mayor, who seems energized (despite her blowing off the forum at Coppin) and who quite frankly hasn’t made many glaring mistakes since she’s been in office.
Of course Pugh, Rolley, Landers, Stokes, et al. disagree. But in boxing, you typically have to beat the champ up pretty badly to win the belt, and it’s often the same in politics. And the closer we get to September the harder it will be to land a clean combination, let alone beat up SRB given her personal political acumen, her formidable machine and most importantly her million-dollar war chest.