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A BRIDGE over Troubled Water

by Andre German
A candidates' forum sponsored by the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality pushed those running for major office in Baltimore City to confront the issues of housing, education and community safety.
Frosted glass windows letting the light shine through as if beams from the heavens were smiling on this meeting. Red cushions on comfortable pews with shelves on their backs, containing handsome leather-bound Bibles. Bronzed eight-armed electric chandeliers hanging from the ceiling—a testament to the fire and passion of old-time revivalist religion, where memories of the reverence and romance of true faith might be rekindled.

This was the setting for a Candidates' Forum held on Tuesday, July 31 at St. Philip’s Lutheran Church on N. Caroline Street in East Baltimore. It was sponsored by Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE), a faith-based organization that brings together 28 local churches and the University of Baltimore in an effort to "unite communities across denominational, racial, geographic, and socio-economic boundaries in the Baltimore metropolitan area in order to create equity and justice by changing policies that perpetuate concentrated poverty and deep disparities between communities."

At first, I had some “separation of church and state” reservations concerning this forum. However, after Reverend Dr. Hoffman F. Brown, III spoke, my concerns were largely laid to rest, and the rest of the meeting only quelled them further because the topics were centered on community issues in particular, and not religious or moral issues. Noteworthy was current City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s apparent belief in separation of church and state when, in one response, she was careful to distinguish spiritual matters from political matters.

Father Michael B. Guy, Sr., the pastor of 117-year-old St. Philip’s (the second oldest African-American Lutheran Church in the U.S.), opened the meeting, reading a Bible verse and leading the audience in a prayer focused on social justice. He was followed by Rev. Hoffman Brown, pastor of the Wayland Baptist Church, with a message that was humanistic rather than particularly faith-based. Both pastors set the stage for the tone of the meeting to come.

The moderator of the forum was Rev. Karen Brau, pastor of Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. She explained, or perhaps preached is the better word, to the crowd what BRIDGE is, and where its efforts were directed, mentioning BRIDGE’s successful involvement in pressing for the passage the Baltimore City Inclusionary Housing Bill, and thanking various political personages who had contributed to the push for the bill as well. Among those she mentioned were Rawlings-Blake, Councilman Jack Young, and Councilwoman Helen Holton. Also thanked was Senator Nathaniel McFadden for working with BRIDGE in the “Holy Ground” campaign, specifically for supporting two $250,000 dollar housing bills, the first $100,000 installment of which had already been received.

This was followed by a roll call of the various congregations present at the Forum, with Wayland having the largest presence there, followed by Amazing Grace. The audience was a fairly equally divided mix of white and black, as could be expected from the name of the group. However, one thing did stand out among the audience: they all appeared to be 35 years of age or older.

The audience was in high spirits before Father Guy spoke, but light-hearted chatter quickly changed to attentive, almost solemn focus when the candidates started speaking. The program turned into a “call and response” format that would not have been out of place during a Sunday preaching, with a few “go ahead, go aheads" called out after a candidate was judged to have made a significant point.

The candidates present were, for Mayor: Dr. Andre Bundley, Philip A. Brown, Jr., State Delegate Jill Carter, Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway, A. Robert Kaufman, Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, Jr. and Mike Schaeffer; and for City Council President: Rawlings-Blake, Councilman Ken Harris, Michael Sarbanes, and Charles Ulysses Smith. The candidates were met with smatterings of applause, as were their points, with Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes tied for second most amount of applause, Mitchell taking home first.

Current Mayor Sheila Dixon declined to appear, citing scheduling conflicts, an announcement greeted with some skepticism by some audience members. One audience member stage whispered: “Yeah, right!” Martha McKenna, who was sent as Dixon's representative, was not offered a chance to speak, in accordance with BRIDGE's policy that only candidates and office-holders are allowed to speak at such gatherings. It was announced that Dixon had agreed to confer with BRIDGE leaders during a meeting on August 9.

Each mayoral candidate was given two minutes to respond to a pre-selected question on one of the three main issues: Housing, Education/Youth Education and Safe Communities. Each City Councilman candidate was given two minutes to answer a different question concerning the same issue.

During the questions, most of the candidates were fairly vague in their plans. Though most of the candidates seemed to agree on the general, if not the specific, of how to deal with a given problem, a few candidates did make remarks that clearly separated them from the crowd.

During the housing segment, Mitchell avoided the issue by stressing the importance of public safety and education over the current housing problem in Maryland, and Schaeffer advocated a reach-out to local people and companies with an excess of money.

During the education segment: Dr. Bundley advocated his One Baltimore plan, while Philip Brown blasted former City administrations for the current public education shortcomings. Carter likewise criticized former administrations for the state of public education. Frank Conaway assailed Dixon for not showing up and asserted that “young people” were “the ones that messed the city up.” Mitchell attacked the city schools' city-state partnership.

During the public safety segment, Conaway, Schaeffer and Mitchell promoted an increase in the police force and/or an increase in police pay, although neither mentioned where the money would come from, considering the state's budget deficit, while Bundley, Kaufman, Brown, and Carter supported combat with the socio-economic factors that were perceived as the ultimate root of the public safety problem. Mitchell, Carter, and Brown also cited a need for change in the leadership of the police force. Among the City Council President candidates, Rawlings-Blake called for efforts towards both increasing the police force and affecting socio-economic factors, while Sarbanes called for a more locally knowledgeable and invested police force and community.

Mayoral candidate A. Robert Kaufman took on much the same role as former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) has assumed in the Presidential elections: that of a solid, grassroots, gruff (some may say crotchety) outsider candidate who tells the truth as he sees it, even if that means being occasionally adversarial towards the other candidates.
In my view, the most impressive mayoral candidate of the night, the one major standout, was Robert Kaufman. Throughout the forum, he seemed to take on much the same role former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) has in the Presidential elections: that of a solid, grassroots, gruff (some may say crotchety) outsider candidate who tells the truth as he sees it, even if that means being occasionally adversarial towards the other candidates.

During the housing question, Kaufman jabbed at both Mitchell and Schaeffer, the former for downplaying the importance of efforts towards more affordable housing, calling it a “chicken or the egg” problem and stating that the roots of many problems facing the city’s constituents are centered around one issue: poverty. He then outlined a program based on the Conservation Corps of the 1930s to fix it. Kaufman criticized the suggestion that Baltimore’s richer citizens should be asked tohelp with the housing problem because it would mean looking for help from “the people that caused the problem in the first place."

During the education question, Kaufman called for a plan to take politicians out of education, instead relying on decisions made by the “parents, teachers, and even students." He took issue with Conaway’s dismissal of young people, saying that they are “our future, and they have the future, if they don’t die at a young age, as so many of them expect to do." He added, “With a little help from us, they can organize, not around their race, not around their religion, not around selling drugs but....around their economic interests."

During the public safety question, Kaufman called the other candidates' request for increased policing as a step toward making Baltimore City “a police state," and advocated instead for an end to treating addiction as “a criminal issue” instead of a “public health issue.” He claimed such an approach would increase the morale of police while decreasing court costs, police costs and other related government costs. Until such decriminalization occurs, he called for a “red-light district” for drugs and prostitution in order to relocate these problems from the streets.

The least impressive candidate of the night, in my view, was City Council President candidate Charles Ulysses Smith, who started off as strong as any other candidate when responding to the first question, but who, with the second question, wandered away on a tangential answer that started with a comparison between him and the mythical Ulysses, and continued through a restatement of his college, military, and work history. By the third question, he merely repeated his and others' prior answers, in a rambling fashion.

Overall, this meeting served a greater purpose than allowing any particular candidate to surge ahead or fall behind opponents. Though all candidates had different ways of dealing with the issues presented during the session, some better than others, the ultimate benefit of thIS BRIDGE Forum was to forge a public commitment by each candidate to confront the issues of housing, education and community safety.
Andre German reports from Harford County.

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This story was published on August 3, 2007. One name change (Brown to Brau) and one clarification re: Ms. McKenna's role, were made on Aug. 10.