Two veteran Baltimore lawmakers — state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and City Councilman Carl Stokes — say they will challenge Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in next spring's Democratic primary.
The entry of two well-known political leaders with money, proven constituent bases and legislative records marks a significant expansion of the field of Democratic challengers, which has so far included only former Mayor Sheila Dixon and four little-known candidates. More are expected to announce before the Feb. 3 filing deadline for the April 26 Democratic primary, which for decades has determined Baltimore's mayor.
Normally a crowded roster of candidates bodes well for a sitting mayor like Rawlings-Blake as challengers divvy up any anti-incumbent sentiment. But political experts said that the mayor's image has been tarnished by unprecedented challenges: her management of the city during and after the riots that followed Freddie Gray's death in April, turmoil in the Police Department and a spiking homicide rate.
"She's seen her political fortunes damaged," said Todd Eberly, an associate political science professor at St. Mary's College. "She doesn't have the advantages that she otherwise would have had as an incumbent. Now she's going to be just another member of this group of highly credible candidates."
Other well-known contenders could include City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, who has said he is "seriously considering" entering the mayoral race. Author and Army veteran Wes Moore and state Del. Jill P. Carter also haven't ruled out running.
Pugh and Stokes discussed their intentions in separate interviews with The Baltimore Sun. Both have run for mayor before in fairly congested campaigns.
In 2011, Rawlings-Blake defeated five candidates by capturing a commanding 52 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Pugh came in second with a quarter of the ballots cast in a year that saw record-low turnout.
In 1999, Stokes ran in a field of 16 candidates and finished second behind Martin O'Malley, whose victory with 53 percent of the vote sparked his political ascendancy in Maryland.
DonaldF.Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Eberly both said it is conceivable that a candidate this year could win with just 30 percent of the vote. Typically, that winner would be the incumbent.
"This time is different because of the perception of [Rawlings-Blake's] performance before and after the Freddie Gray incident," Norris said. "If that has hurt her badly, it is possible that one of the additional candidates will be able to succeed where no one was able to do so four years ago."
He said voters he has heard from have been discouraged by a field of Dixon and Rawlings-Blake because of the former mayor's ethical baggage and the current mayor's struggles. They have been waiting for a viable alternative, he said.
Voters were willing in 2011 to elect Rawlings-Blake to a full term after she assumed the office when Dixon was forced to resign in 2010 to settle a public corruption conviction. The timing of Baltimore's municipal elections has since been changed to coincide with presidential elections, so Rawlings-Blake is serving a five-year term. It has given challengers much more to target than they had in 2011.
"It depends on how badly Rawlings-Blake was hurt by the perception of her lack of management during the Freddie Gray incident and whether she can recover from that," said Norris. "The election isn't until April."
Eberly said Dixon's momentum since declaring her candidacy likely showed other candidates that Rawlings-Blake was vulnerable. "Dixon was really the toe in the water," Eberly said. "Dixon proved that they have no reason to sit around and wait."
Pugh, 65, was careful not to criticize Rawlings-Blake when discussing her reasons for running.
"I don't run against people, I'm running for the city," Pugh said. "I'm not criticizing what anybody else has done. I just know what the city needs. It needs leadership. It needs vision. It needs someone who can pull everything together."
Pugh is still building her campaign team and website. But she said she has $176,000 in her campaign account and has been encouraged to run by people all across the city, including business leaders and neighborhood activists. State campaign finance records show that in January her campaign account had a balance of $114,234.
Stokes' campaign balance in January stood at $106,642, but he said he now has $250,000. He said he has commitments to raise another $250,000 at an upcoming fundraiser.
Dixon's total is about $80,000, according to the most recent filings.
Rawlings-Blake reported in January that she had more than $365,000 in the bank for her re-election campaign.
Stokes, 65, has assembled part of his team, including a top fundraising consultant, Stephanie Mellinger. He is interviewing campaign managers.
Stokes, too, declined to criticize Rawlings-Blake, but said the city needs "honest leadership" that will take a new approach to addressing long-standing problems, such as "too few jobs, too much crime, high taxes, and far too many underperforming schools."
"When I visit the neighborhoods, I hear people bemoaning what's going on in their city, the city that they love," Stokes said. "The city is not working on so many levels for so many people."
Nina Therese Kasniunas, an political science associate professor at Goucher College, said both Pugh and Stokes have strong name recognition — and enough money to "get them in the game."
"It's not a surprise that either or both of them are entering into the race," she said.
"Councilman Stokes because he is a vocal member of the City Council, speaking for people who often don't have a voice at City Hall. Catherine Pugh because of her leadership at the State House and because of her showing in the last mayoral election."
Kasniunas said Pugh, Stokes and any other contender must build a strong organization to compete with Rawlings-Blake, who has had "paid staff on the ground for much of the summer."
"With her as the incumbent, it's still her race to lose," Kasniunas said.
When asked Tuesday about the additional candidates for mayor, Rawlings-Blake, 45, said, "I think Baltimore deserves to have an opportunity to have healthy debate. We're in a campaign, and I always say the more the merrier."
A spokeswoman for Dixon, 61, declined to comment.
Pugh vowed as mayor to unify leaders from all corners of the city — communities, churches, businesses, universities, hospitals, addiction treatment centers and government agencies — to marshal resources to fix Baltimore's problems, including crime, substance abuse, job opportunities for ex-offenders, schools and economic development.
"I offer a vision for a future of hope and change in Baltimore that requires a leader who is committed to hearing every part of the city — whether it is the business community or the person who has lived in the community for 40 years or the person hurting from drug addiction or the drug dealer who stands on the corner because he hasn't figured out how to change his life," Pugh said.
Born in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pa., Pugh moved to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University. The college cheerleader earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA.
She has worked in various industries: banking, higher education, publishing, public relations, journalism and politics. She was closely aligned with former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She helped found the Baltimore Design School, a public middle-high school in East Baltimore.
An avid runner and golf player, Pugh was elected to City Council from East Baltimore in 1999. Four years later, she challenged Dixon for council president and lost. When Del. Tony E. Fulton died, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. picked Pugh to replace him. She was elected to the state Senate in 2007 and was appointed Senate majority leader last year.
Stokes said he will release more specific plans for the issues facing Baltimore in coming weeks. But to start, he said, he wants to extend the school day for as many children as possible, beginning with fourth- to eighth-graders. During the extra hours, the children should be given access to robotics, debate, chess, band, ballet and organized sports — "things they will do and enjoy, and without realizing it, they will learn," he said.
He called himself an "average citizen" who has worked to bring to City Hall the ideas and reactions of people he meets out in the neighborhoods, at church and at community meetings. He said wants to lower property taxes and work with unions to expand apprenticeships, among other plans.
A self-described product of the city, Stokes grew up in an East Baltimore public housing complex, Latrobe Homes, and raised his two daughters here.
Stokes considered running for mayor in 2011 but said he wanted to give Rawlings-Blake a chance at the helm. He had polled strongly during the 1999 mayoral race but stumbled over controversies, including driving after his license was suspended and false claims on his campaign literature of a Loyola College degree. Stokes, who was first elected to the council in 1987, opened a sickle cell clinic, opened and managed various businesses and co-founded two public charter schools. He served on the council until 1995 and returned again in 2010.
He works as the unpaid director of the Benjamin Banneker Eubie Blake Academy of Arts & Science, a school he helped found this year. He helped establish the Bluford Drew Jemison Math Science Technology Academy on the city's east side.
Four other Democrats also have officially entered the mayoral race: Richard Black, an accountant; Mack Clifton, a minister and author; Mike Maraziti, a businessman; and Calvin Allen Young III, an engineer.