The Roosevelt Recreation Center on Aug. 23 looked like a voting precinct on Election Day.
Although the Democratic and Republican primaries aren't until Sept. 13 and Roosevelt isn't a voting place, it was the center of attention — and campaign signs — for candidates running for mayor, City Council president and council seats in the 7th, 12th and 14th Districts, which represent parts of Hampden, Remington and Charles Village.
Libertarian and Green parties, descended on the rec center at the corner of Falls Road and 36th Street for the Hampden Community Council's annual "Candidates' Night Out" forum.
Twelve other Democratic and Republican candidates in those races were absent — including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard"Jack" Young.
Young and Rawlings-Blake were often painted as villains during the lively, two-hour forum, with many challengers criticizing them for not acting to stem the city's dwindling population, high property taxes, persistent crime and lack of educational and recreational opportunities for youths, or money to build even one new school in the past 35 years.
In a sign of how intense the political season is becoming, controversial blogger Adam Meister held a sign outside the center that supported Nick Mosby over incumbent Belinda Conaway in the 7th District City Council race.
"Belinda Conaway sued me for $11 million," the sign said. This must end. Vote Mosby."
Conaway did sue Meister earlier this year after he accused her in a blog of not living in the district, as required by law. She has since dropped the suit, Meister said.
Inside the center, Conaway in her opening remarks tried to read a three-page, handwritten list of her accomplishments and initiatives as a councilwoman, including extending the hours of operation for rec centers, opening city schools on weekends and working with state legislators to get $50,000 for summer jobs for youths.
"I didn't even get halfway through my list," Conaway told the audience of more than 100 people, after her allotted 2 minutes for an introduction expired.
On stage with Conaway were her challengers, Allen Hicks, former president of the Hampden Community Council and Friends of Roosevelt Park; and Mosby of Reservoir Hill, an electrical engineer. Absent were Democrats Henry Brim Jr. and Timothy Mercer, and Republican Michael Bradley.
In the 12th District, City Councilman Carl Stokes, who was appointed to Young's council seat after Young moved up to became president last year, shared the stage with four of his challengers: Jason Curtis, of Mount Vernon, manager of the downtown hotel SpringHill Suites by Marriott; Jermaine Jones, of east Baltimore, a community organizer for the Laborers' International Union of North America; Odette Ramos, of Charles Village, president and CEO of Strategic Management Consulting; and Frank Richardson, a security officer for Johns Hopkins University. Not attending the forum were Democrats Devon Brown and Ertha Harris, and Republican Kent Boles.
In the 14th District, incumbent Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Douglas Armstrong, the Green Party candidate who leads the Remington Neighborhood Alliance with his wife, Joan Floyd, were both on hand.
Mayoral candidates at the forum were Clerk of the Circuit Court Frank Conaway (Councilwoman Conaway's father); Jody Landers III, of Lauraville, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors; former Baltimore planning director Otis Rolley III; and State Sen. Catherine Pugh. Absent were Rawlings-Blake and Democrat Wilton Wilson as well as Republicans Alfred Griffin III and Vicki Ann Harding.
The forum featured six of the council president candidates, most Democrats — Leon Hector, a former Loyola College maintenance supervisor; Tom Kiefaber, former owner of the Senator Theatre, retired U.S. Postal Service manager Renold Smith; retired Army officer Charles Ulysses Smith; Libertarian candidate Lorenzo Gaztanaga; and Republican candidate Armand Girard, a retired math teacher in public schools in the city. Not there were Young and Republican David Wiggins.
For many candidates considered long shots, the stakes at such forums are high. When each City Council president candidate was asked what he thought would be the one problem in the city that he might not be able to solve, Kiefaber quipped, "Getting elected."
But the candidates were generally bullish on being able to solve the city's problems, even as some alleged corruption and a lack of leadership in City Hall.
"I don't think there's a problem we can't solve as long as we keep running with the wind at our backs," said Hector, who bemoaned the city's inability to fix aging school buildings.
The crowd in the rec center multipurpose room grew to as many as 200 people at one point — including candidates, campaign workers and cheering sections.
All eyes were on the mayoral candidates as they made their cases.
"This city needs major surgery," said Frank Conaway.
"We just don't have smart government here," said Landers, citing 44,000 vacant housing units in the city, 25 percent of them owned by the city.
"It's about growing your budget," said Pugh, who rattled off statistics suggesting Baltimore is one of the nation's dirtiest and most crime-ridden cities.
"It's about visionary, smart leadership," Pugh said.
Rolley said high property taxes are forcing families to live outside the city.
"It has to be a place where families want to live," he said, citing cities such as Newark, N.J., which are building new schools and recreation centers.
No one came away empty-handed at the end of the night, as a Curtis for Council volunteer gave everyone in the crowd a free key chains with lights.