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Sheila Dixon questions legitimacy of Baltimore primary election, launches write-in bid for mayor

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon registered as a write-in candidate for mayor Tuesday, setting up an unconventional general election rematch with her Democratic primary opponent, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon registered as a write-in candidate for mayor Tuesday, setting up an unconventional general election rematch with her Democratic primary opponent, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.

Flanked by supporters, Dixon told more than a dozen reporters gathered at the Baltimore Board of Elections that it wasn't clear she actually lost April's hard-fought primary to Pugh. Dixon and supporters cited irregularities during the primary election. They included 1,650 ballots that state officials found were handled improperly and eight data files that were missing for about a day after the election.

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"The question is, 'Did I really lose the primary?'" Dixon asked.

"No!" her supporters shouted, before chanting: "Baltimore wants their mayor back!"

Dixon's entry into the field is expected to invigorate what had been a "rather sleepy" general election race for mayor of Baltimore, said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University.

Pugh has been running against Republican Alan Walden and Green Party candidate Joshua Harris. In Baltimore, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 10-1. Democrats outnumber Greens about 300-1.

"It might be a good idea to introduce more competition into the general election," Crenson said. "But the chances that Sheila Dixon will win with a write-in campaign are very small. She started too late and she doesn't have enough money."

Dixon — Baltimore's first female mayor — acknowledged Tuesday that she faces an "uphill battle" in attempting to win a write-in campaign. Several Democrats who supported her during the primary have joined Pugh's "unity ticket" for the general election.

"Will I be able to raise money? I don't know," said Dixon, adding that she planned to embark on an aggressive campaign that includes fundraising. "This is not going to be a traditional campaign. ... I have a short window. I am intending to raise money. Eighty percent of the funds that I raised [during the primary] were grassroots."

Dixon argued that the city is in a dire situation with a record-high homicide rate last year and that she has the experience to bring down murders — pointing to a crime reduction during her tenure as mayor.

"The acceptance of 300 or more homicides a year is unacceptable," Dixon said. "I can fix City Hall. Day One I will get it moving in the right direction."

Farajii Muhammad, co-host of "The Larry Young Morning Show" on WOLB radio, said he thinks Dixon's write-in campaign shows grit. He argued that Dixon's grassroots support remains strong.

"Sheila Dixon is the X-Factor in this city," Muhammad said. "If there was a clean fight in terms of how the primary ended up, then OK. But there were so many questions surrounding that. ... With former mayor Dixon, her support is more grassroots, more organic. Senator Pugh is now seen as more of an establishment candidate."

Scherod Barnes, chairman of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee, said the party is firmly behind Pugh because she won that primary election.

But, he added, the organization recognizes Dixon's right to run a write-in campaign.

"We don't have a problem with it if that's what she wants to do," Barnes said. "The Central Committee is supporting Catherine Pugh because we support the nominee of the Democratic Party."

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Some Pugh supporters said Dixon should accept the fact she lost in the primary and move on.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, who backs Pugh, argued that Dixon should be working with Pugh now instead of against her.

"I'm disappointed that former Mayor Dixon is taking this approach instead of working with Senator Pugh to bring our city together and solve the deep challenges ahead of us," Ferguson said. "While I understand former Mayor Dixon is likely disappointed with the primary results, this is the wrong approach. Now is the time for unlikely allies to join together to build a new future together."

In materials distributed to reporters Tuesday, Dixon's campaign noted a write-in campaign in Washington as evidence that such efforts can be successful. "I have never been the status quo," Dixon said.

During April's Democratic primary, Dixon finished second out of 13 candidates, receiving votes from 46,301 Baltimoreans. Pugh won with 48,709 votes.

But state election officials took the unusual step of ordering the results of Baltimore's primary election decertified — amid complaints of irregularities — and launched a precinct-level review. The State Board of Elections concluded that 1,188 provisional ballots were inappropriately scanned into the vote tally on Election Day without judges verifying that the voters were eligible — and 465 other provisional ballots were not considered.

Other problems included some polling precincts opening late, and 34 released felons — eligible to vote under a new law — receiving a city Board of Elections letter before the primary erroneously telling them they might not be able to vote.

State officials ultimately concluded the problems weren't enough to change the outcomes of any race, and recertified the results.

Dixon, who was mayor from 2007 to 2010, resigned after entering an Alford plea to a charge of perjury. The plea allowed her to maintain innocence while acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of failing to disclose gifts from her then-boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who benefited from city tax breaks and contracts. In a related case, a Baltimore jury found Dixon guilty of embezzling $500 worth of retail gift cards intended for the needy.

Dixon has apologized but argued that her violations were more about paperwork issues than a moral failing.

Dixon argues that her successes in office — including lowering homicides, instituting a new recycling program and creating the Charm City Circulator — should outshine her criminal cases.

After spending more than $1.2 million in the primary campaign, Dixon has less than $5,000 left in her campaign account less than a month before the Nov. 8 general election.

Pugh spent more than $2.4 million during the primary election. She has about $300,000 in her campaign account.

Walden has more than $6,000 in campaign cash. Harris reported less than $1,000.

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