In a move that could quickly change the tone of Baltimore's primary election, Mayor Sheila Dixon fired back at her leading opponent yesterday with a negative television commercial questioning her adversary's commitment to fighting crime.
Dixon's new television advertisement, which criticizes City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. for voting against a pay raise for police officers in 2001, is a sharp departure from the more genteel, above-the-fray approach her campaign has taken to date.
Dixon's commercial will air on all four network affiliates and comes days after Mitchell's campaign unveiled its own negative advertisement and began calling thousands of voters with a recorded message to remind them of past ethics controversies involving Dixon.
With less than three weeks to go before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, it appears both campaigns are ratcheting up negative attacks, turning up the heat on each other at a time when voters are expected to start paying greater attention to the race.
"It's important that voters see how Keiffer Mitchell has used the crime rate to try to get himself elected," said Dixon's campaign manger, Martha McKenna. "It's important to call him out on it. Mayor Dixon is tough on crime. She holds people accountable, and she's going to be tough on Keiffer Mitchell."
The ad focuses on Mitchell's decision to vote against the city budget in 2001 that gave police officers an 8 percent raise.
That year's budget, crafted by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, also called for 177 layoffs of custodial and security employees. At the time, Mitchell said he was opposed to the layoffs.
Dixon launched a radio ad yesterday focused on the same criticisms.
"The interim mayor is clearly getting nervous because Keiffer Mitchell is closing the gap," Mitchell campaign manager Jayson Williams said of the advertisement. "His message is resonating with the citizens of Baltimore, and Dixon is getting desperate."
Dixon's decision to even acknowledge - let alone criticize - a candidate who appears to be down in both polls and fundraising is something of a surprise, experts said.
In this race, she has emphasized her incumbency and - except for a brief exchange with Del. Jill P. Carter during a radio debate - has avoided the appearance of going toe-to-toe with any of her seven opponents.
This week, when asked to respond to Mitchell's negative advertisement, a Dixon aide said his attacks showed he was devoid of ideas.
A poll conducted for The Sun last month suggested that Dixon had a considerable lead, though it showed that more than a quarter of voters were undecided.
Fundraising data released last week documented that Dixon raised nearly twice as much as Mitchell this year. The mayor also had $720,000 left to spend, compared with about $163,000 for Mitchell.
"Conventional wisdom would dictate that you do not call attention to your opponent when you're that far ahead," said Carol Hirschburg, a Republican strategist who is not involved with either campaign. "My reaction might be, 'Oh, he voted against a 2002 crime-fighting budget? Oh, well, that crime-fighting spending hasn't done a lot of good, has it?'"
Five council members, including Mitchell, voted against the fiscal year 2002 budget.
The $1.7 billion budget included a $17.1 million general fund increase for the Police Department - a large portion of which went for police salaries. That budget also called for a 20 percent income tax increase and the layoffs. Dixon, who was president of the council at the time, supported the budget.
A crowd of union members - including many in the same unions that now endorse Dixon - came to a council meetings that year and responded to members who voted in favor of the budget with catcalls.
McKenna said calling Mitchell out on the six-year-old vote is fair game given that he has made a number of expensive promises - such as hiring 400 new police officers and a 15 percent across-the-board pay raise for police - with few specific ideas for how to fund them. That year, when given the choice, he chose to vote against the police pay raises, she said.
Mitchell aides said 2001 was a different year - at the time, the city was facing deficits, not surpluses - and said they believe waste can be found in the budget so that police can receive additional funding without laying off low-wage city workers.
"They've had a surplus every year," said Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city's police union, which has endorsed Mitchell. "If the homicide rate and the gang problem ... does not get under control soon what kind of city are we going to have?"
Also yesterday, Blair's union called on Dixon's campaign to pull a previous television advertisement dealing with crime.
In a one-page statement, the city's Fraternal Order of Police said Dixon "makes claims about what she has done to retain officers that are misleading at best and wholly untrue at worst."
The ad says the mayor is retaining the city's best police officers and recruiting hundreds of new ones.
Dixon's campaign said it would not pull the ad.