Sheila Dixon easily fended off a challenge from a City Council colleague to win the Democratic nomination for council president last night, as Baltimore voters overwhelmingly gave the incumbent the chance at a second term in the city's second-highest elective office.
"Despite our differences and despite the criticism that I have received, [the election] made me stronger." said Dixon, who defeated first-term Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh and two other Democrats, James Hugh Jones II and Carl Stokes.
Citywide support for Dixon translated into a good day for most fellow incumbent Democrats running in the first primary since the council was re structured earlier this year. A former council president, Mary Pat Clarke, absent from the political scene since 1995, won in the 14th District with one of the largest margins of any council candidate.
In most of the new 14 districts, incumbent Democrats won their party's nod to face off against Republican candidates in a general election that does not take place until Nov. 2, 2004, because of a quirk in election law.
Political party primaries in the council's new 14 districts attracted a total of 72 Democratic candidates, while only 11 Republicans battled for their party's nomination in just five of those districts.
No incumbents lost to new challengers but in the three races where council colleagues were pitted against one another, three incumbents were bound to lose their seats. The losers were Lois A. Garey, Melvin L. Stukes and Pamela V. Carter.
In a predominantly Democratic city, winning the Democratic Party's primary virtually assures victory in what is frequently a perfunctory general election.
With no declared Republican council president candidate, Dixon's nomination yesterday practically guarantees her re-election next year and positions her to possibly become the city's first African-American female mayor if Martin O'Malley runs for higher office and wins in 2006.
"If God chooses me and I'm blessed to do that, I believe I would do an extremely good job at being mayor." Dixon said during her victory party aboard the Lady Baltimore cruise ship at the Inner Harbor.
Council presidents ascend to the city's highest office without a vote if mayors exit before the end of their terms, which O'Malley almost did last year to run for governor.
The nomination of a large number of incumbents yesterday helped to counter the anti-incumbency fervor stoked by Dixon's challengers.
Throughout the campaign, Dixon enjoyed the advantages usually afforded to incumbent candidates - greater name recognition and more money. Plus, she had the backing of a popular mayor, Martin O'Malley, who easily won the Democratic nomination over school principal Andrey Bundley.
Dixon ran on a record that echoed O'Malley's campaign themes: attracting economic development and jobs, reducing violent crime and improving drug treatment.
Pugh, who had to forgo a re-election bid to her district seat in order to run for president, ran on a platform that she would open the council to more community input and forge an independent agenda. Critics said Pugh's message of 'independence' proved confusing to voters because although she criticized Dixon's record, Pugh refused to aim any of that criticism directly at O'Malley.
"I want everybody to know that I think our cause was right and I would do it again." Pugh said last night, blinking back tears in a 10:30 p.m. concession speech at her North Avenue headquarters. "We challenge those who are in leadership in this city to understand that they have a responsibility to everyone in this city."
This year's primary is the first under the council's smaller configuration. A voter-approved referendum last year shrank the council from 19 to 15 members. Under the new setup, 14 single-member districts replace six districts that are represented by three council members each. The council president is elected citywide. The newly configured 14-member council does not go into effect until December 2004, setting the stage for 15-month lame-duck tenures for incumbents who lost.
The referendum was backed by community and labor groups interested in, among other things, ousting incumbents and making it possible for less-established candidates to get elected. The groups were led by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44 that actively campaigned against most incumbents, including Dixon and O'Malley.
But their work in passing the referendum and trying to oust incumbents yesterday did not bear the desired result, demonstrating that incumbency's benefits were able to provide the same advantages in the new, smaller districts as they did in the larger districts.
The electorate's overwhelming endorsement of incumbents would appear to have bolstered Dixon's contention that she has done a good job and that voters were not eager for change, election experts said.
"The people who turn out are the hard-core regular voters, they are the same people who elected the incumbents the first time around." said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who supported Stokes. "High turnout usually means that people are dissatisified. Low turnout means they're satisifed. Or they just don't care."
Three districts, however, were guaranteed to have fresh representation as incumbents in the 1st, 7th and 14th - John L. Cain, Pugh and Lisa Joi Stancil, respectively - decided against running for re-election.
There will be two new council members in addition to Clarke: Belinda K. Conaway, daughter of Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway, won in the 7th District and James B. Kraft, an attorney who practice criminal and family law, won in the 1st District.
Clarke, who has served two terms as a council member and two terms as council president, easily cruised to victory by blanketing her district with campaign signs and by aggressively going door-to-door promoting her council experience.
The election also saw its handful of Republican primaries in five districts. Winners last night were: Carlos Torres in the 3rd; Bruce Fleming in the 4th; Owen Hanratty in the 7th; Joe Collins in the 10th; and Roberto L. Marsili in the 1st.
On the Democratic side, one of the most intriguing story lines to the election was the races in which incumbents had to run against one another. The redistricting gave most council members the advantage of being the only incumbent living in their new districts. But in three districts, council members were forced into face-offs.
In the race for the 2nd District in Northeast Baltimore, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. defeated fellow incumbent Lois A. Garey and Cheryl Glenn, a union-backed candidate.
Incumbent Helen Holton defeated fellow council member Stukes in a close race with David Maurice Smallwood, a community liaison for a state delegate, Nathaniel T. Oaks.
In East Baltimore's 12th District, Bernard C. 'Jack' Young defeated fellow council member Pamela V. Carter.
Other incumbent council members who won yesterday were: Robert W. Curran in the 3rd District; Kenneth N. Harris Sr. in the 4th District; Rochelle 'Rikki' Spector in the 5th District; Edward Reisinger in the 10th District; Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in the 6th District; Agnes Welch in the 9th District; Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. in the 11th District; and Paula Johnson Branch in the 13th District.
Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Heather Dewar contributed to this article.