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Catherine Pugh campaign's recruiting efforts questioned during Baltimore early voting

Catherine Pugh’s mayoral campaign has launched a recruiting effort to hire campaign workers across Baltimore. After rival campaigns in the Baltimore mayor's race questioned and complained about the recruits, the campaign is re-evaluating the perks offered the job candidates. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

Dozens of men and women lined up outside state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh's campaign office Friday looking for jobs. They filled out applications and got free meals: chicken wings, french fries, ice cream sandwiches and soda.

Buses covered in Pugh campaign signs took those who wanted to vote to early polling sites across Baltimore. Snack bags with potato chips, cheese curls and candy bars were on the seats.

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Pugh's campaign has launched an effort to recruit campaign workers across Baltimore, said Anthony McCarthy, a Pugh spokesman. The campaign provides food because the screening and training process takes two hours, he said, and transportation to polls because the workers may be assigned far from their designated precincts on the day of the primary.

But amid questions from rival campaigns and complaints from some of those who were recruited, McCarthy said late Friday that the campaign is re-evaluating the perks offered to the job candidates.

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"Now that this has been brought to our attention, we're having conversations to make sure that none of the practices ... are unintentionally being perceived in a negative way," McCarthy said.

"I am not sure if providing people with snacks and food would reach the level of any influence," he added. "That is certainly not a practice Catherine Pugh would approve of."

Pugh is leading in the polls, followed closely by former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Lawyer Elizabeth Embry polls at a distant third. Early voting started Thursday; the Democratic primary is April 26.

Several people who applied for a job at Pugh's campaign office said they were grateful for the possibility of work but that it wouldn't influence who would get their vote. Some said they voted for Dixon after getting a ride from Pugh.

According to campaign finance reports filed Friday, the top seven Democrats running for mayor have spent more than $5.4 million during the campaign.

Maurice Coleman, a 38-year-old man from East Baltimore, arrived at Pugh's campaign office on Friday wearing a tan suit, crisp oxford shirt and dress shoes, hoping to get work. He said he didn't believe the campaign had any "false pretenses."

"I would work for Donald Trump, if he would pay me," said Coleman, an ex-offender who said he has had trouble finding a job.

Others said the recruitment tactics bothered them. Roskey Johnson said he felt pressured to vote for Pugh after visiting the office Thursday in search of work and getting a ride to the polls. He said he felt the job interview was a ruse.

"Why would we have to vote that same day?" Johnson said. "I'm going there, telling my lady friend I'm going for a job interview. All of that is bogus."

Johnson complained to a Dixon campaign worker. Martha McKenna, a spokeswoman for Dixon, said they have heard similar complaints from others seeking work with the Pugh campaign.

McKenna said she believes Pugh's campaign is violating state law, calling it a "vote-buying scheme."

"It is necessary for prosecutors to takeswift andappropriate action to halt this illegal activity and hold the campaign accountable," McKenna said in a statement.

State law prohibits the use of "force, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward or offer of reward" to influence voters.

Colin Byrd, a University of Maryland senior, filed a complaint against the Pugh campaign Saturday for the recruitment actions with the Maryland State Board of Elections. He cited the state law that bars the influence of voters with the promise of reward, use of force or bribe.

In his letter, Byrd outlined the actions, and said, "Individuals were then given something of value -- snack bags on bus seats -- in exchange for their agreeing to vote, as the buses were specifically and narrowly tasked to transport those who would vote early."

As of Friday, the state board did not disclose any recent complaints regarding the Pugh campaign's recruitment effort.

Byrd, a sociology major from Prince George's County, led an effort last year to have the University of Maryland Board of Regents rename the Harry C. "Curley" Byrd Stadium the Maryland Stadium. Colin Byrd is no relation to the former university president, who some believe was a segregationist.

McCarthy denied any wrongdoing. He said almost all of the people who applied for jobs boarded the buses to the polling sites. "It was explained to everyone that was voluntary," he said.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Pugh supporter and Baltimore City Democrat, said the Dixon campaign is complaining because Dixon is behind in the polls.

"It smacks of desperation and an attempt to hang onto an office that she thinks she's going to lose," Carter said. "It's dirty politics, and people are tired of it."

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel of the watchdog group Common Cause said the Pugh campaign potentially put people in "very uncomfortable situations." She praised the Pugh campaign for re-evaluating their get-out-the-vote efforts.

"It raises red flags, because we had an history in early America with shenanigans to buy people's votes," she said. "This just seems to be somewhat deceptive and bordering on a bad practice."

Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert and political science professor from the University of California, Irvine, said that the recruitment effort "sounds like a murky situation." He said he would need more information to make a judgment about Pugh's efforts.

Leading Baltimore mayoral candidates are periodically releasing their platforms on various campaign issues, including education, crime, housing and economic development in the city. As those plans are released in the weeks leaning up to the April 26 primary election, The Baltimore Sun will post the full documents here.

"The question is whether they were given something of value in exchange for their agreeing to vote," he said in an email. "If the job interviews were a ruse to get them to vote, then that's potentially different from a situation where there were jobs to be had."

McCarthy said the jobs would pay $12 an hour, or $100 for a day's work. The campaign is seeking to hire workers to hold campaign signs and talk to voters on the day of the primary at more than 200 polling places in the city.

That requires a significant amount of training, McCarthy said. He said the campaign provided lunch to those it recruited for the two-hour screening process. They were given information on election rules, including the distance they must stand from a polling entrance, and on how to approach potential voters.

"We were providing lunch for the training and offered to take them by bus to one of the early-voting sites," McCarthy said. "We did not want them to think they could not take advantage of early voting, and we knew they were going to be busy on primary day."

No one will be paid until April 26, he said.

"It would not be Catherine Pugh's intent that anyone be pressured or mislead on the opportunities available to them," he said.

Charlene Johnson, 56, of West Baltimore said she was eager for a chance to work for Pugh — and vote for her. She didn't have her identification with her on Friday, so she couldn't apply for a job. But she planned to return — and ride the bus to an early-voting center.

Johnson said she was impressed with the recruitment effort.

"I feel like some people don't have the transportation," she said.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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