State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon are locked in a virtual tie in the Democratic race to become Baltimore's next mayor, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore shows.
Pugh, whose support has surged in recent weeks, is now favored by 26 percent of likely voters in the Democratic primary. That's two points higher than the 24 percent who back Dixon, who has led the field for months. Businessman David L. Warnock, who has spent more than $650,000 on television ads, is in third place with 10 percent.
"It's a tight race between the two leaders," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. "Sheila Dixon has been matched and potentially overtaken by Catherine Pugh. People who decided recently are going toward Pugh."
City Councilman Nick J. Mosby was in fourth with 6 percent, followed by lawyer Elizabeth Embry with 5 percent and Councilman Carl Stokes with 3 percent. All other candidates in the crowded field of 13 Democrats — including prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and engineer Calvin Young III — garnered less than 1 percent.
With seven weeks to go until the April 26 primary, there is time for the race to change. A quarter of Democrats said they are undecided. And even among those who back a candidate, nearly half said they are open to switching to someone else.
For decades, the primary contest among the city's Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Baltimore by nearly 10-1, has decided who becomes mayor.
"The race is still fluid," Raabe said. "You have two strong leaders, but you can see the impact of TV advertising in a race like this. There's still time for a candidate who is well funded to make a move, and there's still room for a front-runner to make a mistake that costs them."
Dixon, Mosby and Stokes have not run television ads to date. Pugh has spent more than $55,000 on local television ads and Embry more than $90,000, while Warnock — who gave his campaign a nearly $1 million loan — is outspending the field.
Amid the differing opinions, the poll found Baltimoreans largely agree that the city is on the wrong path. Fifty-two percent hold that view, while just 35 percent say the city is headed in the right direction. The concern about the city's future is shared across races, genders and ages.
The poll of 407 likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters was conducted March 4 to 7. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs, said Pugh's momentum in the race is "significant." She was 11 points behind Dixon when The Sun last polled in November. Hartley noted that Pugh had raised about twice as much money as Dixon as of the last campaign report in January.
Pugh's rise comes as the candidates have participated in more than two dozen forums around the city in recent weeks.
"There has started to be significant campaigning, fundraising, the opening of campaign offices and many, many candidates forums," Hartley said. "It's allowed Senator Pugh to push out her message."
Her supporters include Gregg Davis, 57, a government contractor from Mount Vernon, who said he's backing Pugh because she has shown "solid leadership" in the legislature, and he believes she has a vision for Baltimore that includes an appreciation for the arts.
Aaron Wilkes, 48, of East Baltimore's Darley Park said he likes how Pugh helped start the Baltimore Design School, a city middle and high school she touts in her ads. But he's inclined to support her more out of a disdain for Dixon, whom he still blames for the arrest of 7-year-old Gerard Mungo back in 2007 when Dixon was mayor. The arrest of Mungo, who was picked up for sitting on a dirt bike, sparked widespread outrage.
"I didn't like how she handled that," he said. "To me, she was a failed mayor. I wasn't happy with Sheila Dixon even before the scandal."
Dixon was convicted of misdemeanor embezzlement of gift cards and resigned from office in 2010. She has apologized for not disclosing gifts from developers and asked Baltimoreans for a "second chance."
Dixon's support — which has been in place for months — is the firmest in the field, the poll shows. Only 33 percent of her supporters said they are open to other candidates, while more than half of Pugh's supporters, who have joined on in recent weeks, are amenable to considering other options.
Many Dixon backers point to personal experiences in their lives where Dixon helped them or someone they know.
Avalon Green-Lee, 80, of Northwest Baltimore said she remembers when Dixon as mayor walked up and down North Avenue, stopping to talk to residents and helping solve their problems. Green-Lee said she asked Dixon for advice dealing with a problem landlord, and Dixon gave her the information she needed to take her landlord to rent court.
"She was a good mayor when she was in office," Green-Lee said. "She was concerned about the people and the people's needs."
By contrast, Green-Lee said, Pugh lost her support when years ago she came into a funeral home, where Green-Lee worked, and disregarded the staff, never saying hello while looking only for the owner.
"I pray to God she does win," Green-Lee said of Dixon. "Sure, she made a mistake. She's human and everyone is entitled to a second chance."
George Wilkinson, 67, of East Baltimore said he trusts Dixon will do a good job if she returns to office. Dixon presided over crime declines, instituted a new recycling program and launched the Charm City Circulator. "She did a lot of positive things for the city when she was in office," Wilkinson said. "We know what she's capable of. She's been there."
The poll also highlights the qualities Baltimore voters view as most important in their next mayor. More than 20 percent said the ability to fight crime was the most pressing issue, followed by ethics, improving schools and economic development.
Voters who see crime as the city's most important issue were most likely to back Dixon, while those who cited ethics as the most important quality in a mayor tilted to Pugh. Warnock polled best among those who believe jobs and economic growth are the most important issues for a mayor to address.
Angelo Sfondiles, 69, of Northeast Baltimore said he's backing Warnock because he's impressed by his business success. "Very simply, he is not a politician," Sfondiles said. "Everybody else, whether you're talking about Pugh or Stokes or Dixon or the other 20 that follow — they're all politicians. He is not."
A college education is another dividing line among voters, the poll shows. Those with a college degree were more likely to support Pugh, while those with high school education or less were more likely to back Dixon.
"Dixon has been in the neighborhoods for a long time," Hartley said of the former mayor's appeal among working-class voters. "She has identified with a broader group of people, while Catherine Pugh's work in the state legislature is appealing to a different part of part of the voter base."
Mosby, who polled fourth, has the support of Mia Dixon, 26, of West Baltimore. She says he cares about his city, his family and his wife, Baltimore's chief prosecutor Marilyn J. Mosby. "I met him personally when his wife was running," Dixon said. "He's very supportive of her and he's family-oriented. He has a passion that a lot of people are lacking."
But John Hargrave, 73, of Druid Heights said he is choosing Pugh over Mosby in part because his wife is the state's attorney. "I see a conflict of interest there," Hargrave said. "Otherwise, he's a good candidate. I like Pugh's track record. She's sponsored good bills down in Annapolis. And during the riots, she was on the scene, very active."
Raabe said the poll shows Baltimore voters are inclined to back candidates who have "paid their dues." Newcomers to the race — such as Mckesson, who has more than 300,000 Twitter followers and filed to run at the Feb. 3 deadline — face an uphill challenge against politicians who have bonded with city voters for years.
"DeRay Mckesson is completely unknown to voters," Raabe said. "They want somebody who understands Baltimore, has paid their dues and been around. That's not to say he can't introduce himself, but right now, he's a complete unknown."