Outside of Baltimore, people are often surprised when restaurateur Tony Foreman tells them where he’s from. And not in a good way.
The city’s dangerous image, Foreman thinks, has kept diners away from the five restaurants he co-owns in the city, even as pandemic restrictions have lifted. And for that, Foreman blames, in part, the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby.
“Of course it’s a safety question, it’s a quality of life question,” he said of the upcoming election for Baltimore City state’s attorney. “I think it’s business suicide not to try to make a change,” said Foreman, CEO of Foreman Wolf.
Some powerful restaurant owners in Baltimore say they’re fed up with both the reality and the perception of crime in the city — and the resulting consequences to their bottom lines. They’re banking on the outcome of the state’s attorney’s race to change things by hosting fundraisers and donating to candidates.
But there’s no consensus on just exactly who is best for business as a top prosecutor. For some, it’s simply anyone but the incumbent.
“I’d be happy with either of the ... leading candidates that are not” Mosby, said Foreman, who made headlines in The Brew and Fox 45 after confronting the current state’s attorney at a community meeting this spring.
Progressive prosecutors like Mosby, who stopped prosecuting lower-level, nonviolent crimes in 2020 to focus on more serious issues, are experiencing backlash across the country. Residents and business owners are upset by the level of lawlessness in their areas, including in San Francisco, where the district attorney was ousted from his position last month in a recall election.
Whether Mosby can weather this trend is further complicated by the fact that she’s facing federal charges of perjury and mortgage fraud in connection with the purchase of two Florida homes. She has denied wrongdoing and contends she’s being targeted because of her policies and her race (Mosby is Black). Her trial is set for Sept. 19 — two months after the Democratic primary, which typically chooses the winner of the State’s Attorney’s Office, given how blue Baltimore votes.
Challenging Mosby in the Democratic primary are private defense attorney Ivan J. Bates and Thiru Vignarajah, a lawyer and CEO of community development financial firm, Capital Plus Financial. Both men previously attempted to unseat Mosby in 2018 and failed. In the general election, attorney Roya M. Hanna is running as an independent candidate.
Last month, Johnny’s, a Foreman Wolf restaurant based in Roland Park, held a fundraiser for Bates. Meanwhile, Faidley Seafood owner Damye Hahn has raised funds for Vignarajah and posted his campaign signs at her Lexington Market eatery. “We are big Thiru fans,” Hahn said. “He’s always been there for us, and he has great ideas for the city.”
A Baltimore Sun investigation this week highlighted concerns from subordinates who alleged Vignarajah was an abusive boss while serving as Maryland’s deputy attorney general and reports that he was asked to resign over his conduct toward female subordinates.
Hahn, who originally spoke with The Sun prior to the recent report on Vignarajah’s past behavior, said in a text Friday: “Bottom line is that I still support Thiru. My experience with him has always been positive and uncompromisingly professional.”
To be sure, there are restaurant owners in Baltimore who support Mosby, as spokeswoman Robyn Murphy noted when asked to comment for this article. Blk Swan in Harbor East hosted a fundraiser for the incumbent last week, while nearby Bar One held one in mid-June. Spokespeople for Blk Swan and Bar One did not respond to an interview request.
Terence Dickson, owner of Terra Cafe in Charles Village, said he hasn’t yet decided whom to support in the election, but he sees the federal charges against Mosby as “pretty minuscule” stuff. “It’s her [expletive] money,” he said of accusations that she wrongly withdrew funds from her retirement account to purchase the Florida properties.
“Marilyn made some stupid decisions, but she made some great ones, too,” he said, referring to her refusal to prosecute certain misdemeanor crimes, including prostitution and drug possession. The policy was designed to free up city police to pursue violent criminals, as well as to reduce unjust arrests in poor and mostly Black communities, where Dickson said one arrest for a minor crime can derail a young person’s entire life.
The only thing Bates and Vignarajah know “is locking people up,” Dickson said. “Their vision of a better Baltimore is ‘Let’s get a bigger stick.’”
Through a spokesman, Bates said his policies are about holding people accountable, but with compassion. People with illegal guns will be incarcerated, he said, “If you have an illegal gun, you will go to jail, but you will learn to read, to write, to get your GED, to get a job — so you don’t need to fall back into the cycle.”
Vignarajah wrote in an email that he takes “a common sense approach to fighting crime.” He added: “Zero tolerance was a terrible mistake, but zero policing and zero prosecution is a big mistake too.”
But while Mosby’s progressive approach to crime has been a source of praise among her defenders, it’s a point of attack for her critics, who say the strategy has contributed to an overall atmosphere of anarchy in restaurant- and bar-heavy neighborhoods like Fells Point.
“There’s such an anything-goes attitude,” said Ron Furman, owner of Max’s Taphouse on South Broadway, pointing to widespread drinking in public that happens on Fells Point’s square and gatherings of dirt bikers, which he says drives away paying customers.
“I’m fed up with what’s going on in this city,” Furman said. “We’ve seen business decline, we’ve seen crime go up, we’ve seen quality-of-life issues that keep getting worse. It’s the definition of insanity, you keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
While many business owners have complained of increasing crime, a 14-month study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, released last year, found that Mosby’s reduced prosecution policies have not caused an uptick in either complaints or criminal activity. Yet many feel things are worsening. And some violent crime has certainly risen during her tenure, with homicides remaining at record levels since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, shortly after Mosby took office.
While Mosby has argued that a state’s attorney should not be held responsible for violence in the city, she herself campaigned in 2014 on a platform that criticized her predecessor for not doing enough to stem violence.
Vignarajah has spent the past few years courting the support of local restaurateurs. During the pandemic, he lobbied to loosen pandemic restrictions for restaurants and advocated for more federal restaurant relief. He fought attempts to impose an early curfew at The Block, the city’s red-light district, and led Furman and around 30 other Fells Point restaurant and business owners, who threatened to withhold taxes until the city did more to address crime.
“I’m 100% behind Thiru,” Furman said.
Vignarajah’s candidacy has not been without controversy. Even prior to the most recent allegations, in 2015, far-right activist group Project Veritas recorded him acting unprofessionally while a state deputy attorney general. And in 2019, as a mayoral candidate, he was pulled over by police late at night and asked an officer to turn off a body-worn camera. The two incidents have raised questions about his judgment.
Following The Sun’s investigative report this week, Furman said he still supports the candidate. “Everybody grows and changes. He was probably a tough guy to work for. ... We want somebody who’s going to be tough.”
Vignarajah has surpassed both Bates and Mosby in fundraising. While Bates reported raising $449,328 from January through June of this year, Vignarajah claimed $600,784. In contrast, Mosby raised just $38,738 during the same period, according to a campaign finance report. The next round of reports were due by midnight Friday.
Among Vignarajah’s top donors are Alex Smith, of the Atlas Restaurant Group, who, along with his wife, Christina Ghani, contributed $6,000 apiece to his campaign. Smith says his first choice to replace Mosby is actually Bates, whom he held a fundraiser for at his Bygone restaurant, but he’ll help Vignarajah if it means Mosby is removed from office.
“The office needs fresh blood,” said Smith, who, like Foreman, believes violence in the city stands in the way of Baltimore becoming a regional tourist destination.
“I am for change in that office, is the best way to put it,” he said.
Without a clear pick between Bates and Vignarajah, however, some expect the 2022 primary to be a replay of 2018, in which Bates and Vignarajah divided the opposition to Mosby, who cruised to victory with nearly half the vote.
Said Foreman: “I think the terrible reality is that it’s going to be split.”