There have been several mayoral forums over the summer, but perhaps none has been more high-profile, or well-attended than the one hosted this week by the Empowerment Temple AME Church and its influential pastor, Jamal Harrison-Bryant.
But, like all of the previous mayoral election events, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not participate, and her absence could not have been more conspicuous.
There were seven lecterns on the stage of the church’s sprawling sanctuary; mayoral candidates stood behind six of them, but the seventh—reserved for the mayor—stood empty right in the center of the stage.
At the end of the 90-minute forum – attended by state Sen. Catherine Pugh, former Councilman Jody Landers, Clerk of the Courts Frank Conaway, community activist Vicki Ann Harding, former city planner Otis Rolley and community activist Wilton Wilson – much of the chatter in the halls of the Empowerment Temple was about the mayor’s latest no-show.
“The way they were beating up on her, maybe it was good she didn’t show up,” one woman said as she exited the church. ?“But, she looked worse not showing up,” was another comment, which got several head nods in agreement as the crowd streamed out onto the parking lot.
But, the most stinging jabs aimed at Rawlings-Blake in her absence were certainly thrown during the course of the forum and they came from all directions.
“I passed her (Rawlings-Blake) earlier today…but she should have been here…at least out of respect,” said Pugh during her opening salvo.
Rolley added, “We have a current mayor who puts her head in the sand,” during the first moments of the forum.
And Bryant did little to mask his displeasure with the mayor’s decision not to attend the Empowerment Temple forum. “Regrettably,” Bryant said with a hint of sarcasm during the discourse on education, “we do not have a comment from our mayor on education.”
Bryant leveled a few more sardonic quips at Rawlings-Blake, who allegedly had originally agreed to attend this week’s forum, but backed out and participated in several National Night Out events, including one in nearby Park Heights, instead.
Earlier in the summer Rawlings-Blake received scattered criticism for her no-shows at some of the earlier forums. At that time her camp replied that the mayor was waiting until after the July 5 candidate filing deadline to see who would ultimately get into the race. Now, a month later and still no appearances—and the criticism may be getting louder.
“She really doesn’t want to face the voters in any kind of a situation where she’s going to be challenged about some of her programs and priorities,” said Jody Landers prior to the forum.
“And I think that’s a shame, not just as a candidate, as a citizen I think that’s a shame,” Landers added as he mingled with fellow candidates Otis Rolley and Frank Conaway in a waiting area at the church.
“It looks bad…absolutely the mayor should be here,” Conaway said. “It’s typical of some elected officials that like to stay away from the people instead of mixing with the people,” he added.
Rolley believes the absence of Rawlings-Blake has led to less mainstream media coverage at the forums and perhaps some erroneous observations on its part.
“There have been articles saying that there hasn’t been dialogue about crime, while we’re at events and we’re talking about crime…we’re talking about neighborhoods and how we can fix them,” Rolley explained. “But because the incumbent is absent often a lot of the television and radio are not following us as we talk about these things.”
“It’s a political move,” added Rolley. “And it’s consistent with what’s she’s done as mayor. Many of the decisions have been based in politics instead of what’s in the best interest of the citizens of Baltimore.”