With Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announcing that she won't seek re-election in 2016, Baltimore voters can expect a wide-open race — and a growing slate of candidates, political analysts said Friday.
Three prominent Democrats have already launched mayoral campaigns, and more are likely to enter the race now that the well-financed incumbent has stepped aside.
The mayor's decision changes the race dramatically, said Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Without an incumbent, it "can be a free-for-all."
"I suspect we will see more candidates get into this," said Todd Eberly, an political science associate professor at St. Mary's College. "Does it create a situation where one rises above — or one where there's a whole host of candidates and each one gets no more than a quarter of the vote? Multiple candidates can produce surprising results."
Two veteran Baltimore lawmakers — state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and City Councilman Carl Stokes — said earlier this week that they would challenge Rawlings-Blake in the April 26 Democratic primary.
The entry of two political leaders with money, proven constituent bases and legislative records significantly expanded the field of Democratic challengers, which had included former Mayor Sheila Dixon and several little-known candidates.
When Rawlings-Blake, Dixon, Pugh and Stokes were the main contenders, Norris said, someone could win the primary with 30 percent of the vote. "Now, the more in, the smaller amount one needs to win," he said.
Nina Therese Kasniunas, an associate professor if political science at Goucher College, said it would have been difficult for Rawlings-Blake to overcome blowback from the $6.4 million Gray family settlement announced this week and the coming trials for the six police officers charged in his arrest and death.
"I don't know how you could look at that and manage a campaign and a lot of upset voters," she said.
Kasniunas said the announcement by the mayor, who made more than $165,000 in the last fiscal year, opens the race for someone "fresh" to come in.
"That's reflective not just of Baltimore politics, but also nationwide sentiment with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders," she said. "People seem to be yearning for something new in politics."
Four other Democrats have officially entered the race: Richard Black, an accountant; Mack Clifton, a minister and author; Mike Maraziti, a businessman; and Calvin Allen Young III, an engineer.
Other potential contenders include City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, author Wes Moore and Del. Jill P. Carter.
Mosby, whose wife is Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, said he is "seriously interested" but hasn't made a decision about running for mayor. City Councilman Brandon Scott, who has been a close ally of Rawlings-Blake, said he will decide within the next month and a half about running for mayor.
Heart surgery kept Janice Rhodes, a 70-year-old West Baltimore resident, from voting in the last mayoral contest, but she's eager to cast a ballot next year. Without Rawlings-Blake on the ballot, she doesn't know how she'll vote.
"She's been pretty good," Rhodes said. "She did the best she could."
Sharon Johnson, Rhodes' neighbor, hadn't planned to vote for Rawlings-Blake because she was displeased with how the mayor handled the riots. She said she has been impressed by Pugh.
"She was up there every day," Johnson said of Pugh, who spent several nights at the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues urging protesters to obey the citywide curfew imposed after the riots. "[Rawlings-Blake] isn't in the community."
Pugh said the mayor's decision doesn't affect her campaign. "I wasn't running against any single person. I am running because I had a vision and am interested in working with other city leaders to help shape that vision."
Stokes planned to meet with his campaign staff over the weekend to determine whether to make any adjustments in his bid for the party's nomination. "We have a game plan that we think is going to lead us to victory anyway," he said.
Pugh and Stokes have run for mayor before. In 2011, when Rawlings-Blake defeated five candidates by capturing 52 percent of the Democratic primary vote, Pugh came in second. In 1999, Stokes ran in a primary field of 16 candidates and finished second behind Martin O'Malley.
Rawlings-Blake's withdrawal will ultimately mean a more difficult campaign for Dixon, political observers said. "Now that Dixon is running against Pugh and Stokes, there will be more of a focus on Dixon's ethical issues," Norris said.
Dixon, who resigned as mayor in 2010, was convicted of stealing gift cards intended for the poor. She received probation and agreed to perform 500 hours of community service and give $45,000 to charity.
Dixon said she entered the race after polls showed solid support among Baltimore voters.
When the race was just between Dixon and Rawlings-Blake, Norris said, voters had to pick between one candidate with prior ethical issues and another who was seen as a poor leader.
"It will be interesting to see how Dixon defines her race going forward," added Kasniunas, who said the former mayor had based her campaign in part on criticizing Rawlings-Blake. Now she'll be running against those with well-defined legislative experience.
Rawlings-Blake's exit could lead to a welcome change of political discourse, Kasniunas said. The topic of discussion will shift from criticism of the mayor to "what [candidates] can do for the city."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he knew of at least two polls that showed Rawlings-Blake with low approval ratings.
Still, Rawlings-Blake had significant financing for a re-election bid. She reported in January that her campaign had more than $365,000 in the bank.
State campaign finance records show that in January, Pugh's campaign account had a balance of $114,234, Stokes' balance stood at $106,642 and Dixon's total was about $80,000.
Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger, Jessica Anderson, Scott Dance and Doug Donovan contributed to this article.