Steve Raabe, President of OpinionWorks, talks about the findings in the Sun Poll that show Sheila Dixon with a commanding lead among Democratic candidates running for Baltimore City mayor. (Baltimore Sun)
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon is the clear early front-runner in a crowded field to become Baltimore's next mayor, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore shows.
Dixon, who was favored by nearly a quarter of the respondents, leads the Democratic primary race by 11 points over her closest rival, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.
City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick J. Mosby are close behind in third and fourth place, trailed by lawyer Elizabeth Embry and businessman David L. Warnock.
"Sheila Dixon has almost a 2-to-1 lead, and not only that, but her support is the firmest by far," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. Dixon has a wide lead among older voters and African-Americans, the poll shows.
But many Democrats have not made up their minds about how to vote in the April 26 primary, the poll shows, with more than a quarter of respondents undecided. For decades, the contest among the city's Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by a 10-1 margin, has decided the mayor's race.
The field has grown since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced in September that she would not seek re-election. The poll indicates that she would have faced a daunting battle had she stayed in the race. Asked whether they would have voted for her, more than 70 percent of respondents said no. Her support is weakest among black voters, the poll found.
"What undergirds this whole race right now is that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has really lost the African-American community in Baltimore," Raabe said. "Sheila Dixon is benefiting from the contrast in style that she draws with Rawlings-Blake."
The poll of 398 likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters was conducted Nov. 13 to Nov. 17. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
"It's Sheila's race today, but there's still a long way to go," Raabe said.
While Dixon has loyal supporters, the poll found that nearly half the Democrats are less likely to vote for her because of the embezzlement conviction that forced her from City Hall five years ago. White voters are the most reluctant to back Dixon, preferring Embry and Pugh in particular.
"People don't want two spouses in these leading roles," Raabe said. "It's very damaging in a crowded field."
Dixon, 61, spent 22 years in city government as a councilwoman, City Council president and eventually mayor. She was forced to resign in 2010 when she was convicted of embezzling gift cards meant for needy families.
Interviews with some voters polled show that many still consider her an effective administrator whose positives outweigh her negatives.
James Elliott, 72, who lives in Curtis Bay and backs Dixon, said he always considered her to be strong on police issues. The former mayor presided over a reduction of crime while in office.
"Frankly, I think she was doing a very good job until she screwed up," Elliott said. "She's pro-law and order."
Several recalled instances when Dixon helped them personally with a problem.
Robert Abrams of Northwest Baltimore counts himself as a firm Dixon supporter. Abrams, 66, recalled when Dixon as council president helped him retrieve property seized by the police.
"I was at my wits' end when I called Sheila Dixon's office," he said. "Within 30 minutes, she straightened everything out. When you're the little guy and government works for you, you don't forget that. She's done far more good things as mayor than the one bad thing she did."
Audrey Ford is among the 47 percent of respondents who said they are less likely to vote for Dixon because of her conviction. Ford, 85, of Howard Park, said she is backing Mosby and would never consider voting for Dixon.
"It will not be Sheila Dixon, I can tell you that," she said. "What she did is still too fresh. If I was she, I wouldn't be running again."
But in a crowded field — counting lesser-known candidates, 13 Democrats are running — Raabe said Dixon's strong base of supporters offers a path to victory.
"The embezzlement conviction does detract from her support," Raabe said. "There's clearly a factor there for Sheila Dixon that may limit her vote. But she clearly benefits from the many candidates in the field."
The poll shows that Dixon is backed by nearly a third of black voters, but just 10 percent of whites, whose support is split among the leading candidates. Embry is favored by 16 percent of white voters and Pugh by 15 percent.
Some voters say they are impressed by Pugh's experience. The 65-year-old businesswoman has worked in banking, higher education, publishing, public relations, journalism and politics. She ran against Rawlings-Blake in the 2011 mayoral race and finished second.
"She has experience at both the City Council and state Senate, and she understands city government," said Lance Brown, 62, of Ashburton. "She's competent and that's what makes her stand out in the field. I don't think a lot of the other people are competent."
Stokes, 65, who has managed businesses and co-founded two public charter schools, is known on the council for his outspoken criticism of tax subsidies for luxury development projects. He ran for mayor in 1999 but finished second to future Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Daniel Booker of East Baltimore finds Stokes to be a straight-shooter.
"He's always been honest. He's been upfront," said Booker, 62. "I just like him, and I think he would be a great mayor. I like Sheila Dixon too, but because of her little incident a couple years back, I don't think I would vote for her."
Mosby, 36, a first-time councilman, is a former Verizon engineer and senior project manager for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Audrey Ford likes his "community activism," including his Enough is Enough anti-violence walks.
Embry, 38, a former director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, is the daughter of Robert C. Embry Jr., the former city housing commissioner who now runs the Abell Foundation. James Crockett, 90, of Ashburton, considers Elizabeth Embry's family ties a plus.
"I think she would be the best mayor the city has had in the last 20 years because of the experience of her father," Crockett said. "When he was housing commissioner, he came up with the 'dollar homes.' Take a look at Otterbein. ... She's going to replicate the vast ideas her father implemented."
The election comes at a time when many Baltimoreans believe the city is headed in the wrong direction. About 58 percent of city primary voters said the city is "on the wrong track." Forty-one percent said they approve of Rawlings-Blake's performance in office, while 51 percent disapprove.
Raabe said Rawlings-Blake's negative ratings have increased since the death in April of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody sparked weeks of protests and a night of rioting.
"Some of this in the poll would suggest she's taking a beating because of the Freddie Gray situation," Raabe said. "People are grading her whole tenure based on that one very important event. That was the time when all eyes were on her, and everybody was hungering for leadership."