Baltimore’s top Democratic candidates for mayor traded sharp barbs Wednesday as voters in the June 2 primary continue casting ballots by mail.
For roughly an hour during the debate hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee and radio station WBAL, the top six aspirants shared their proposals to mend the city’s various woes including crime, taxes and corruption. Candidates also addressed opponents’ perceived weaknesses directly, and regularly mentioned the name of the target of those critiques.
“Mister Mayor if you think we have a (crime fighting) plan you are not paying attention to what’s happening every day in every neighborhood,” Vignarajah said in an exchange with Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young over crime in the city and the shooting of a police officer Tuesday.
Vignarajah, after prefacing his comments by saying former Mayor Sheila Dixon paid a steep enough price for past transgressions, raised the issue of her resignation from the city’s highest office in early 2010.
Dixon stepped down after about two years in office following a plea deal with federal prosecutors. She was convicted the year before of misdemeanor theft of gift cards intended for poor city residents.
Without mentioning Vignarajah’s name Dixon, earlier in the debate, questioned the candidate’s status as a city resident and retaliated against the mention of her resignation with what she called Vignarajah’s “questionable sexual” indiscretions.
In 2015 Vignarajah was filmed by right-wing activists, known for releasing heavily edited video, in a bid to catch him violating lawyers professional conduct code. In the video Vignarajah, who was married at the time, flirted with the young woman who was surreptitiously filming him while posing as a law student.
Last year Vignarajah was also pulled over by Baltimore police on Greenmount Avenue after midnight. During the stop he demanded the officer turn off his body camera. Part of the controversy surrounding the stop involved a woman in the passenger seat of the candidate’s car who appeared to attempt to hide from being filmed by the body camera and was allowed to leave the scene.
The only two candidates in the race who have served as mayor also butted heads over the issue of cleanliness and who was to blame for Baltimore’s struggle with litter. At one point Dixon complained about the lack of cleanliness in the city. Young, a former city trash collector, has emphasized efforts to make the city cleaner since taking over as mayor last year.
Young in turn blasted the city’s so-called “1 + 1” trash collection system, which reduced the amount of trash collected while increasing the frequency of recycling. It was a system Dixon implemented, along with the first overhaul of trash routes in decades, in 2009.
“We should’ve never gone to 1+1 because the city’s too dirty,” Young said.
Mary Miller, a former Treasury undersecretary in the Obama administration, continued to clash with Vignarajah during the debate. Those candidates have collided for weeks as polling shows the two siphoning votes from one another in the closely contested primary.
Without mentioning Vignarajah’s name Miller criticized him for holding press conferences at crime scenes around the city and objected to the use of tragedies for political benefit. Vignarajah, who’s of Sri Lankan descent, accused Miller, who is white, of not having the courage to show up to crime scenes in the majority African-American city out of fear she’ll be labeled a racist and opportunist.
The pair also sparred over using municipal bonds to boost the city’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vignarajah said he wanted to use $4.5 billion in bonds, along with $250 million in city revenues, as local stimulus to help the Baltimore economy recover from the lockdown. During the debate he wasn’t clear about how those funds would be used. In previous interviews, however, Vignarajah specified bond money would be used for capital projects, such as roads or bridges.
Miller used the opening to show her understanding of municipal finances and cast doubt about the feasibility of Vignarajah’s proposal.
“I don’t think you understand municipal bonds if you think you can use them for for operating expenses,” Miller said.