Panelists from a local interfaith organization grilled Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and three of her leading Democratic challengers Aug. 25 about their commitment to youth opportunities and employment and their investment in uptown.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), which represents a reported 150 city congregations, hosted the mayoral forum inside the nation’s first Black Catholic parish, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in East Baltimore.

Hundreds packed the traditional church to hear Rawlings-Blake, former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, and former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors head Joseph “Jody” Landers respond to the group’s most rallying points.

Democratic candidates Frank Conaway Sr., Clerk of the City Court, and Wilton Wilson, a nurse, were absent from what BUILD organizers called the “accountability session.”

Panelists sought answers to very specific questions related to their youth and neighborhoods-centered agenda, even demanding that candidates give straight “yes” or “no” answers.

All of the mayoral challengers answered “yes” when asked if they would double YouthWorks employment from 5,000 to 10,000, even Rawlings-Blake, who slashed funding for 2,000 summer youth jobs in the city’s most recent budget to close a deficit.

When asked if they would double funding for after-school programs to $10 million and create 55 new, high-quality recreation centers, Landers was the only candidate to answer “no.”

The candidate’s affirmation of BUILD’s ideals splintered after questions turned to new school construction and investment in the city’s neighborhoods.

BUILD leaders wanted to know who would allocate the $2.8 billion needed to renovate the city’s schools and construct 28 new ones.

Rolley said he would commit to his personal plan to rehab 50 schools over 10 years by leveraging current city and state resources and establishing public-private partnerships.

“I’m not going to say I can renovate all schools because my mother told me not to lie in church,” Rolley joked.

Landers also said immediate renovations were impossible.

“It takes faith and money,” he said. “It’s not a simple answer. We have to build our tax base so we can commit to the programs we want.”

BUILD panelists criticized Rawlings-Blake for not releasing a concrete plan to address the $2.8 billion need. But the mayor countered that her team does have a plan, not a “reckless policy that would make it impossible to provide current services,” as the other candidates.

She appointed a taskforce to address the school funding gap late last year, but the panel has yet to release their report.

“I’m committed,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I have a plan and I’ve been working on a plan.”

Pugh said she would tap the philanthropic community and work with the governor and state legislature to secure more funding for school construction.

“Isn’t that what you want for the city?” Pugh asked.

Next, BUILD asked if the candidates would support a community investment fund, where for every dollar invested downtown, another dollar would be invested uptown.

Pugh said she would. Rolley countered that he would not, because such a plan would “short change” communities.

“Our budget should be the community investment fund,” he said. “If you invest in neighborhoods in a real way, you start to see growth.”

BUILD panelists also asked if the contenders would put a moratorium on tax breaks for developers.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Landers said. “But I’d be a much harder bargainer” than the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the city’s economic development arm. He also said he would restrict subsidies from downtown.

Rolley responded that he would nullify the BDC and cease special big business incentives unless they would result in jobs.

Pugh asserted that the city has become too “developer driven,” though she did not offer a clear cut answer as to whether she would issue a moratorium.

Said Rawlings-Blake, “I’m not going to sit here and talk out of both sides of my mouth…Subsidies are providing jobs.”

The incumbent’s closing was most telling: “Now is the time to continue to move Baltimore forward,” she said. “It’s doing what we have been doing.”

“Reckless plans will destroy our city,” Rawlings-Blake continued. “We don’t need criticism…A leader finds a solution to the problem.”

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO