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City campaign season kicks into gear

The Baltimore Sun

Standing in the shadow of the West Baltimore elementary school where she once taught kindergarten, Mayor Sheila Dixon formally announced yesterday her intention to seek a full four-year term as mayor in this year's election, pledging to bring the city's neighborhoods and police together to fight crime.

On the same day, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - one of Dixon's leading opponents in the Democratic primary - launched the first television commercial of the campaign, which focused on city schools and his vow to take control of a system that he said is failing city students.

Both events came during what is shaping up to be a pivotal week in the election. With debate on the city budget over, several candidates are making formal announcements, revealing endorsements and rolling out policy ideas for the first time. In short, the candidates are beginning to act like candidates.

Baltimore residents are dealing with crime, under-funded schools and increased costs, Dixon said, but they also see improvement, including new residents moving into the city, higher school test scores, more police officers walking beats, and a renewed emphasis on cleaning streets and city parks.

"The time for talking has come to an end. There can be no more business as usual. It's a time for us to stand up and to be leaders and to grow upon the great legacies of Baltimore's past," said the 53-year-old city native, standing across the street from Steuart Hill Elementary School, where she taught 25 years ago. "The best days of the city are still before us."

Dixon became mayor when her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, was sworn in as governor in January and since then has been considered the Democratic front-runner. In addition to Dixon and Mitchell, Del. Jill P. Carter, schools administrator Andrey Bundley, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. and socialist A. Robert Kaufman are also running.

The Democratic primary, which for decades has decided citywide races in Baltimore, takes place Sept. 11.

Mitchell campaign officials said their early television commercial ran on all four network affiliates in Baltimore yesterday and was intended to coincide with the end of the school year Friday. In the 30-second spot, a female narrator calls the city's school system broken and laments that some students are "recruited by gangs, instead of colleges."

Given that it aired for one day only, the ad was largely symbolic, but it does highlight a noteworthy difference between the two candidates. Mitchell has called for a mayoral takeover of city schools, similar to what has occurred in Chicago and New York in recent years. In Baltimore, schools are managed by a board that is jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.

Early in her term, Dixon said she wanted to give the current system another chance. Dixon and O'Malley, as governor, named three new members and reappointed two current members to the nine-member board in January. O'Malley, as mayor, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could not agree on the board appointments last year.

"We wanted to remind people that there's a difference between the interim mayor and myself," said Mitchell, 39, also a Baltimore native. "I'm willing to risk my political future for the education of our children. The system's broken."

The three-way race for City Council president is also heating up. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., 43, who declared his candidacy in January, held a fundraiser yesterday morning to announce he had won the endorsement of city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Harris, a two-term councilman who represents a portion of Northeast Baltimore, faces Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who was elected by the council to succeed Dixon in January; and Michael Sarbanes, a community activist and son of retired U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Harris' event at Taste, a restaurant in Belvedere Square, drew more than 20 former and current elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Curtis S. Anderson. Jessamy, who did not attend because she was in Atlanta, was represented by her husband, Howard.

"I just feel that based on what's happening in city government now that we need Ken very badly," Conway said.

Rawlings-Blake has historically been aligned with O'Malley - and Jessamy and O'Malley had a stormy relationship throughout much of his time at City Hall. Rawlings-Blake said yesterday that she respects Jessamy's decision to endorse whomever she likes.

"I will still work to make sure that the state's attorney's office has the resources that it needs to be a successful partner," said Rawlings-Blake, 37, who is expected to formally announce her candidacy tomorrow.

All of the candidates for the top two citywide offices - except Conaway and Kaufman, who were not invited - met at a forum Sunday organized by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a faith-based civic group. The candidates agreed to expand recreation centers, set aside more money for affordable housing and also increase the number of summer jobs available for city youth.

At her announcement, Dixon promoted some of her accomplishments over the past five months, including a deal to advance the redevelopment of the city's old retail district - the west-side "superblock" - a project that had stalled for years under O'Malley. She also noted her involvement in passing the city's smoking ban, which led to a statewide law this year.

Political observers and Dixon's critics have noted the increase in crime this year, including homicides. There were 137 killings in Baltimore as of yesterday, compared with 118 at the same point last year. Dixon has responded by increasing the number of police walking beats and freeing up some police overtime that she had previously frozen.

"When we hear people tell the story of our city, you would think there was no reason to have hope," Dixon said. "I want to tell a different story."

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