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Catherine Pugh bested 28 other candidates to win Baltimore mayor’s race

Catherine Pugh emerged from a crowded, controversial election as Baltimore's next mayor.

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced in 2015 that she would not seek re-election this year, a field of 29 candidates battled to lead Baltimore and tackle its many challenges.

There was a wealthy businessman who pledged to create jobs, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist who promised dramatic change and a disgraced former mayor looking for redemption.

Together, the leading Democratic candidates and several political action committees pumped more than $9 million into the race — triple the money spent on the last mayoral election in 2011.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh emerged as the victor of April's Democratic primary, the election that generally determines who will be mayor of deep-blue Baltimore. But Pugh had to withstand a spirited write-in challenge in November from former Mayor Sheila Dixon, a popular but controversial politician who left office after being convicted of stealing gift cards.

Despite economic progress in parts of Baltimore, the city's high crime and joblessness were key issues in the campaign, which began just months after protests and riots broke out over Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

During the primary, candidates debated policy fixes at dozens of forums throughout the city. Then polls showed that most voters were choosing between Pugh and Dixon. Praised for her constituent service, the former mayor ran on her record of driving down the crime rate while in office. She asked supporters to help her "reclaim, revive and rebuild Baltimore."

Pugh had a simple, straightforward message that seemed designed to counter the idea of giving Dixon that second chance. "I'm going to move this city forward, not backward," she said.

Pugh won the primary with a plurality of the vote: 36.6 percent. Finishing second was Dixon with 34.8 percent. In third was lawyer Elizabeth Embry with 11.7 percent. Businessman David L. Warnock finished fourth.

Warnock spent more than $2.7 million on the race, and Pugh spent more than $2.5 million. Dixon spent more than $1.2 million, while Embry spent $650,000; City Councilman Nick J. Mosby spent nearly $400,000, and City Councilman Carl Stokes and activist DeRay Mckesson each spent more than $300,000.

The primary win was not without a dispute. State officials ordered the city's Board of Elections to decertify the results amid complaints about voting irregularities — including allegations that the Pugh campaign bought votes by promising jobs and food to some city residents. Pugh denied the allegations.

A state review found 1,650 ballots were mishandled by election officials, but the problems weren't large enough to change the outcome of the race.

For the general election, Pugh ran on a platform of continuing the fiscal improvement in the city that occurred under Rawlings-Blake, such as earning a higher bond rating, but pledged to change other areas of city governance.

Pugh vowed to assume mayoral control of the city's struggling public schools to make clear who is responsible; break up the city's housing operations into two agencies, one of which would focus on tearing down vacant properties; put civilians on trial boards that recommend how to discipline police officers accused of misconduct; and ensure that Baltimore's majority-black population is getting its fair share of city contracts.

Pugh, 66, moved to Baltimore in the 1970s to attend Morgan State University. She has a long and varied resume that includes work as a banker, journalist, and dean and director of Strayer Business College. 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 until 2007, when she was elected to the state Senate.

She finished second to Rawlings-Blake in the 2011 mayoral race.

Republican Alan Walden and Green Party nominee Joshua Harris challenged Pugh in the general election. And with three weeks to go before Election Day in November, Dixon re-entered the race as a write-in candidate.

Pugh ran a low-key but busy campaign. Her schedule was often packed with events, including visiting schools in some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods and giving keynote addresses at conventions for business executives.

She assembled an executive team that included former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, Del. Pete Hammen and former city schools CEO Tisha Edwards.

The general election campaign proved less heated than the primary.

Harris ran on what he deemed "progressive" policy plans for Baltimore. He proposed creating a public bank that would hold all taxpayer money, attracting "clean energy" manufacturing jobs and refusing to grant corporate subsidies for businesses that don't benefit the poor.

Walden stressed ideas to build a light rail line on North Avenue, rehab houses and immediately cut taxes.

Dixon emphasized plans to create a "land bank" to streamline the revitalization of vacant properties, target gun offenders to reduce crime, and improve city services.

Dixon had won 170 of 200 predominantly black precincts during the primary election, but a write-in campaign proved too difficult for her to pull off.

More than 50,000 people wrote in Dixon's name, but Pugh carried 57.6 percent of the vote. Walden and Harris finished third and fourth, respectively, each with about 10 percent of the vote.

On election night, Pugh stood victorious on a stage at the Radisson Hotel downtown. She called for unity. Weeks later, she would invite Dixon to sit on the dais with other former mayors at her inauguration.

"We're one city," Pugh said. "We can bring everyone together. The tent is big enough for everyone."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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