State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh gives a victory speech at the Harbor Hotel after winning the Democratic primary in the Baltimore's mayor's race. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh narrowly defeated former Mayor Sheila Dixon in the crowded Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor — a race many called the most important in a generation with the city still recovering from the rioting of last April.
Pugh, who had twice been a runner-up in citywide races, raised her profile during the unrest that engulfed Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. She spent days and nights at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where looting and arson broke out, trying to calm the tensions between protesters and police.
"Nobody gave this campaign a chance," Pugh said to a cheering crowd at the Harbor Hotel in downtown Baltimore. "We couldn't even get a campaign manager until February 1."
Dixon conceded the race soon after Pugh claimed victory.
"We've got to build on what this campaign stood for," Dixon said. "It stood for love of the people of this city."
Voters, by a narrow margin, preferred Pugh to Dixon, the former mayor who is beloved in large swaths of West and East Baltimore for her performance in office but dogged by a scandal that forced her from office.
"We are seeing change come to our city," said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who endorsed Pugh. "We've been through a lot. We are now in the process of transformation."
The two front-runners finished well ahead of their 10 other opponents in the Democratic primary. With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Pugh, with 37 percent of the vote, led by roughly 3,000 votes over Dixon, who had 34 percent of the vote. Lawyer Elizabeth Embry was a distant third, with 12 percent.
All other Democratic candidates, including businessman David L. Warnock (8 percent), City Councilman Carl Stokes (3 percent), and prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson (2 percent), registered single-digit vote percentages.
Pugh still must run in the November general election for mayor. But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, the primary has for decades decided the race for Baltimore mayor.
The 30,000 early voters — who cast ballots from April 14 to April 21 — proved a deciding factor in the race. Pugh and Dixon were essentially tied among Election Day voters, but Pugh's lead in early voting gave her the edge.
On the Republican side, Alan Walden, a former WBAL radio anchor, defeated four lesser-known opponents. He had 41 percent of the GOP vote.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, both Democrats, had comfortable leads in their primary races.
Pugh ran for mayor on the promise she would move Baltimore "forward, not backward" by uniting neighborhoods and infusing a sense of hope in the city.
Dixon was seeking a chance at redemption after she was driven from office six years ago amid a misconduct scandal that centered on her embezzlement of gift cards intended for needy children.
"I think we need change," Logan said. "I feel Sheila Dixon had her chance. It's time for someone else to have a turn."
Dixon supporters argued the former mayor did much good during her tenure and deserved a second chance.
In the first city election since Gray died of injuries suffered in police custody last year, voters took memories of last spring's unrest to the polls.
At Cross Country Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, Democratic voter Marisha Howell, 44, called the unrest "heartbreaking."
"But it's also a time for us to take a stand, it's time for us to become unified, it's time for us to be the voice for our children," said Howell, an appeals specialist for a health insurance company. "This mayoral election is a start. I just want to see peace."
She said the best person to lead the city was Dixon.
"I think the beauty of Sheila Dixon is no matter how you fall, it's how you get back up, and you continue to fight," Howell said. "Sheila Dixon always had a heart for Baltimore. She wasn't a yes person. She stood her ground."
Dixon was gracious despite the loss, working the room as a crowd followed her around. She didn't rule out running for office again.
A supporter, Lenwood Johnson, said he was disappointed in the loss, but would now back Pugh.
"I believe what Sheila said, the people have spoken," Johnson said. "I have to accept that."
Money spent on this year's mayoral race in Baltimore easily surpassed previous election-year totals. The top seven Democrats running for mayor spent more than $5.6 million during the campaign, as of the most recent campaign finance filings. Four political action committees also invested heavily in the primary politicking — pushing the total past $6.4 million.
Kenneth Davis, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran, said he voted for Embry over Pugh and Dixon because City Hall needed an "outsider" to restore confidence in city government. "That would be healthy for the city," Davis said. "I don't want anyone who has been in the arena, especially not Dixon. I can't trust her."
Brian Schneider, a 29-year-old Patterson Park resident, said Warnock was his choice to shake things up in City Hall. Schneider said he was impressed by Warnock's philanthropy and that he founded a city charter school.
The next mayor will take over in December for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who did not seek re-election. Pugh is expected to vacate her seat in the Senate, which she was first elected to in 2007.
The job pays $171,000.
Pugh, who moved to Baltimore in the 1970s to attend Morgan State University, has an extensive resume that includes banker, journalist, and dean and director of Strayer's Business College, as Strayer University was then known. She co-owns 2 Chic Boutique in Pigtown.
Pugh served on the City Council from 1999 to 2004 and the House of Delegates from 2005 to 2007. She came in second to Rawlings-Blake in the last mayoral race.
Single with no children, Pugh regularly tells people she is "married to the city."
She racked up significant endorsements, including popular Cummings, prominent attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant and former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous. Councilman Nick Mosby backed Pugh when he dropped out of the race two weeks ago.
Pugh said the unrest allowed her to frame the campaign around the issues important to city residents, and raised awareness for the neglected neighborhoods, such as Sandtown-Winchester, Cherry Hill and Park Heights.
She said the Democratic State Central Committee will select her replacement in the state Senate.
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs, said the close race between Pugh and Dixon — leaving other less experienced challengers in the background — showed that voters were looking for a candidate with experience to lead change in Baltimore.
"Voters wanted competence and they wanted somebody who had served," Hartley said. "That was clear by the neck-and-neck race with Dixon and Pugh. There were outsiders, like Embry and Warnock, but voters want to take the city in the a new direction, and they want someone experienced to help move the city past what happened with the unrest. They were not willing to take chance on a newcomer."
Hartley said Pugh was able to draw on a broader base of support, including both African-American, white and highly educated voters. Others, he said, voted against Dixon.
Embry held a party inside a small ballroom in the Belvedere Hotel, saying she called Pugh to congratulate her and pledge her help.
"I look forward to helping the next mayor," Embry said.
Warnock spoke to supporters at his watch party at Verde in Southeast Baltimore, pledging to "keep working" for the city and pushing for "great schools, great jobs."
Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie, Scott Dance, Michael Dresser, Doug Donovan, Andrea McDaniels, Alison Knezevich, Natalie Sherman, Jessica Anderson, Meredith Cohn, Colin Campbell, Abby Mergenmeier and Hannah Klarner contributed to this article.