Cambridge mayor hopefuls share views at forum

By Debra R. Messick
Special to Dorchester Banner

CAMBRIDGE – In advance of the Aug. 23 special mayoral election, five of six declared candidates discussed the city’s promise and problems Tuesday, Aug. 9. The forum was held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Chesapeake Grove Intergenerational Center, presented by the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, WHCP Community Radio, Spy Newspapers, The League of Women Voters and the Mid Shore Board of Realtors.

About 100 people attended in person, while others tuned in remotely via WHCP’s live stream broadcast. The recording, including a transcript, is available for viewing at Moderator Chris Wheedleton of the Partnership for Learning and Moving Cambridge Forward encouraged people to actively share the link to help inform as many voters as possible.

The candidate panel featured Laurel E. Atkiss, Adelaide C. Eckardt, Robert S. Larimer, La-Shon Banks Foster and Stephen W. Rideout. A health issue prevented the sixth candidate, Lee “Sonny” Travers, from participating.

Foster and Rideout have previously served on the City Council, while Eckardt has represented the district, including Cambridge, in the state legislature.

Of the two lifelong residents running, Foster brings a lengthy professional background in social work while Larimer has been a longstanding member of the Sheriff’s Department and the Rescue Fire Company.

Eckardt, who has continued her career as a psych nurse concurrently with legislative service, has lived in Cambridge since 1970, raising her family here and currently living downtown.

Rideout, a retired judge, began a part-time Cambridge residence before settling here full time 10 years ago. He founded Moving Cambridge Forward, and helped write the city charter and the proposed county charter amendments.

Atkiss, with a background in community service, fundraising and event organization, recalled how her adopted city of Cambridge reminded her of tiny historic Lewisburg, West Virginia, where she grew up. During high school, she witnessed the slow demise of its downtown, decimated by businesses leaving. But dedicated community efforts eventually propelled it forward so successfully it’s favorably cited by Southern Living Magazine, Trip Advisor and other influential publishing and travel entities.

Between their two-minute opening and closing statements, the candidates addressed the following topics and questions:

– The role of mayor

– Three top economic drivers in Cambridge and how best to support them

–Two strategies to help existing businesses expand and key assets to attracting businesses here

–Three key issues they’d use bully pulpit as mayor to advance

–Vision of waterfront development, from fishing pier to creek

–How to improve the substandard state of housing, disinvestment by landlords and the need for affordable workforce housing

–The role of mayor to address crime and drugs in the city

–What should the city and county be doing collectively to benefit the entire community

–How to promote Cambridge’s rich African American history while protecting against gentrification.

Each responded with thoughtful, detailed answers on every point, at times agreeing with another speaker’s comment, highlighting how their own relevant professional and life experience had informed their views. While critiques and challenges were repeatedly raised, numerous innovative solutions were also presented.

Larimer spoke to the immediate need to address public safety as his primary reason in running for mayor.

“Once public safety is addressed, other things will fall into place,” he stated.

Adding more police officers and increasing salaries would help logistically and improve force morale, he added.

The idea of increasing police presence was voiced by several candidates. Atkiss proposed bringing back beat and bicycle cops along with community engagement. Foster favored  increasing the annual Night Out event per year, expanded to each of the city’s five yards. Rideout suggested supplementing officers with a team of community liaisons, working to help develop trust and build relationships at the neighborhood level. On his website, he also proposed salary and other incentives to attract and maintain more officers.

Eckardt recommended having police as well as other government departments begin apprenticeship programs for young people, similar to the Rescue Fire Company cadet program Latimer had described being a part of, which helped him stay out of “mischief” and put him on the path to employment and service.

In her opening statement, Eckardt cited her longstanding concern about the need for decent, safe housing for all in the city, noting that it was an issue she and past council member Octavene Saunders had worked on together.

Foster heralded the city’s historical status as a hub of the Eastern Shore, and envisioned it recapturing that reputation. She applauded city, county and state police effectively working together, serving as a model for other partnerships.

The idea of prospective city/county partnerships in education, economic development and tourism, as well as law enforcement, found favor with virtually all the candidates.

Concerns about the vital need for a skilled work force for local and prospective businesses and possible solutions were also shared.

The significant impact of tourism, especially surrounding Harriet Tubman’s local roots and legacy, was another noteworthy factor frequently cited. Additionally, the idea that Poplar Street and Pine Street could beneficially be umbrellaed and promoted together as “downtown” was also echoed by several candidates.

One audience member, impressed with the candidates’ wide-ranging and thoughtful positions, commented that she came away “wishing I could somehow put them all into a blender and combine them,” instead of having to select just one.

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