At last Wednesday’s 46th Legislative District forum, residents learned about candidates beyond the fact that they are all in favor of safe streets, clean neighborhoods and good schools.
“You can lift the needle if you’re tired of the broken record,” quipped incumbent Delegate Luke Clippinger at one point, as he and the other candidates nevertheless acknowledged the importance of the above goals.
The forum—organized by the League of Women Voters of Maryland, sponsored by the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and supported by the Baltimore Guide—did coax out some major differences between the seven Democrats and one Republican who attended the forum.
Participating were both state senate candidates–incumbent Bill Ferguson and challenger Mateen Zar, both Democrats–as well as delegate candidates including incumbents Pete Hammen and Luke Clippinger and challengers Liam Davis, Bill Romani, Brooke Lierman (running on the ticket with Hammen and Clippinger) and Roger Bedingfield, the lone Republican candidate at the forum. Republican delegate candidates Joseph “Joh” Sedtal and Duane Shelton were not in attendance.
Audience members wrote questions on index cards, which were then posed to the candidates by John T. Bullock, executive director of Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.
The Red Line
The candidates most differing and direct statements perhaps came in response to a question querying them on their stances on the Red Line.
Zar: “I think we need a lot of other stuff,” said the doctor, who is running for state senate, referencing the current $2.65 billion price tag on the rail line as compared to other costly problems the city faces, such as homeless citizens. “Personally, if you ask me, I am not in favor of this.”
Ferguson: “It’s a billion dollars over budget without a single shovel in the ground,” said the incumbent state senator, adding that, at most, the federal government may contribute $900 million to that cost.
He said that he is in favor of better public transportation, but has reservations about the Red Line.
“I so badly want the Red Line to be the Holy Grail,” he said. “I am concerned that it is not the right option.”
Clippinger: The incumbent delegate said that he strongly supports better public transportations.
“I have a lot of concerns about the Red Line,” he said, adding that one of those is the $200 million contribution expected from the city.
He also referenced a failed attempt in Annapolis last year to create “special taxing districts”–geographical areas that would benefit from transportation projects, such as the Red Line.
Had the bill passed, those districts would have been required to levy special property taxes to pay, in part, for the transportation projects within their borders.
“If there’s one thing that would absolutely discourage development in the city, it’s increasing property taxes,” said Clippinger.
Bedingfield: The Republican challenger pulled no punches.
“I can honestly say that the Red Line as planned will be a fiasco,” he said, referring to the line’s proposed underground construction near the waterline and also to the effects it would have on Boston Ave. traffic.
He also expressed doubt that car use would decrease among residents as a result of the rail.
“When it all comes down to it, people love their automobiles,” he said. “You’re not going to have a wholesale changeover for a rail system.”
Davis: The 24-year-old Democrat challenger said that he was in favor of the Red Line, despite the cost. He noted that the Bay Bridge, Fort McHenry Tunnel and other projects were also expensive.
“Big infrastructure projects are expensive, but they have big results,” he said, adding that the state should divert some of its investment dollars from “the D.C. suburbs” to “a great American city like Baltimore.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Davis said. “If we pass up on it, there’s no guarantee that any alternative plan will move forward.”
Hammen: Speaking of alternative plans, incumbent Democrat Delegate Pete Hammen said that he supported the plan recently put forward by the Right Rail Coalition, a group of activists that wants the state to reconsider the current Red Line plan.
The Right Rail Coalition says that their plan would cost about $1 billion less than the MTA’s, and Hammen said that that money could be used to expand Charm City Circulator bus services.
Lierman: The Democrat candidate mentioned that she supports Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s stated goal of growing the city’s population by 10,000 new families.
However, “We don’t want them to bring 20,000 cars with them,” Lierman said. “Right now, though, there’s no other option because the public transportation system is so awful.”
She said she was in favor of the Red Line as part of overall improvements to transportation, including busses, pedestrian and bicycle access, and the water taxi. She added that she would “champion a reform” of the bus system and the MTA.
Romani: “I want to be very clear,” said the delegate hopeful, “that I am a proponent of the Red Line.”
Romani said that he had seen the Right Rail Coalition’s plan and presentation, and that some of the information presented was “conjecture.”
As for the expected city contribution of $200 million, Romani said that the city doesn’t necessarily have to write a check for $200 million, but can provide “in-kind services” such as providing land for the Red Line or establishing a system in which the Department of Public Works performs maintenance.
“The city’s doing a good job of writing legislation to do just that,” he said.
One of the questions asked candidates how to attract people to the city.
Ferguson: The state senator said that “attracting people to the city is hard, tedious work.” He brought up La Raza, the bar at Eastern and East avenues that had its liquor license revoked in a hearing in which Lierman–an attorney–represented the community.
“This is a building where two people were stabbed–nearly murdered–that is now turning into an arts building, an arts complex, for the Creative Alliance,” he said.
Zar: The doctor, who is challenging for Ferguson’s seat, passed on this question.
Clippinger: The delegate, who is a prosecutor, said that there needs to be less violent crime.
“I think we need to do more to address violent crime,” he said, “things that make people uncomfortable sitting in their homes.”
He added that he would like to see the elimination of “good-time behavior”–in which well-behaving inmates are released early–for those convicted of gun crimes.
Bedingfield: “Have any of our current representatives pushed for any legislation to prevent recidivism?” asked the Republican candidate for delegate.
“The green and open spaces are icing on the cake. It comes down to safe streets, good schools and school choice, and lower taxes…You’re not going to attract families to Baltimore if you’re taxing them to death.”
Davis: The Democrat vying for a delegate spot agreed that Baltimoreans pay a lot in taxes and fees, and he specifically referenced the stormwater fee, referred to by some as the “rain tax.”
“That was a federal mandate that we are being forced to pay, but what I wish would have happened is the legislature made it a flat fee across the board,” he said, noting that Baltimore City is paying the most while being the most “environmentally friendly.”
Hammen: The incumbent delegate said that neighborhood redevelopment would attract new residents. He made reference to his work in that arena, starting in the 90s in the Patterson Park neighborhood, which led to the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, which puts state funds toward redevelopment projects.
“We’re doing the same thing up by Hopkins,” he said. “We can turn that around with the right investment.”
Lierman: “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” said delegate hopeful Lierman. “A robust private sector is critical to Baltimore City’s success.”
She also endorsed the creation of “innovation districts,” which would “facilitate connections between innovators and entrepreneurs.”
Romani: The delegate candidate called for a “balance between our neighborhoods, our hospitality businesses and our boutiques.” He cited his work with a bill, passed in 2009, in which “the public has input into that initial zoning decision” for live entertainment. He said that the bill contributed to the balance to which he referred by giving the neighborhoods a voice.
The League of Women Voters of Maryland encourages residents to use an online service they have sponsored, available at VOTE411.org. On the website, voters may input their home addresses to obtain information on the candidates in their area. The blog SOuthBmOre.com has posted video of the forum on their website.
by Erik Zygmont