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No holiday off for candidates

The Baltimore Sun

It was a day to celebrate workers, but for the candidates running in next Tuesday's Democratic primary election, yesterday was simply a day to work - the crowds, the backyard picnics and the porches along Baltimore's streets.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - considered the front-runners in this year's mayoral election - both took advantage of a day when virtually everyone was home from work. They knocked on doors, swung through events and tried to sell their message directly to city voters.

With a week to go until the election, many speculate that Labor Day is a turning point in the campaign season - the beginning of a short period in which a large number of voters begin paying attention to a race. A recent poll conducted for The Sun found that nearly 30 percent of voters were still undecided last week.

Rosalind Burton, however, is not among them.

"Her proposals on crime and safety I like and also education, so those are my two main reasons for voting for Ms. Dixon," the 37-year-old Cedmont resident said minutes after the mayor had left her backyard, where the grill was about to be fired up and children were playing in an above-ground pool.

Dixon slowly talked her way through the neighborhood - in the far northeast reaches of the city - pressuring high school students to prepare for college while making her pitch on crime and education to their parents. At one point, she came around a corner with a plateful of chicken wings straight off of Michael Willis' grill.

"Beef'll be done real soon," the 49-year-old called out as Dixon moved on to the next house on her campaign's list.

Mitchell started off in rocky territory as he walked through the Berea neighborhood in East Baltimore. Many residents weren't home or wouldn't come to the door at first. But then he found luck after being invited into a house near East Oliver Street. The people inside instantly recognized him.

"You seem kind of angry," someone called out, referring to a series of television advertisements he has run that are critical of Dixon. "You need to smile more."

Mitchell, handing over an orange card outlining his platform, offered a big grin. "I'm a happy man," he said. "I'm not an angry man."

As he turned to walk back toward the sidewalk it seemed he may have won over some members of the household: "You look better in person than you do on TV," a woman called out.

A few streets over, Grace Watson, 66, said she is solidly behind Mitchell. Watson said she believes drugs and schools are two of the most important issues facing the city.

"I'm going to vote for that young man," she said, as Mitchell moved on to the next house. "He's young and energetic, and we need young people. He's got a lot going for him. We need change."

A poll released this past weekend by The Sun showed that Dixon had a strong lead, 46 percent to Mitchell's 19 percent. Schools administrator Andrey Bundley had 4 percent, while Del. Jill P. Carter received 2 percent. The poll, conducted by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

Like a picnic without potato salad, a day of politics would not have been complete without a little sniping between campaigns.

Mitchell's campaign raised an e-mail that Dixon's chief of staff, Otis Rolley III, sent to city department heads last month under the subject line "time to brag." The e-mail called on the agency heads to submit a list of the "top seven accomplishments of your agency, which were accomplished or initiated between January 17, 2007 and August 17, 2007."

Mitchell's campaign argued it was no coincidence that the "time to brag" comes suspiciously close to Election Day. The campaign pointed out that Rolley used his city e-mail account to make the request.

"You have had city employees give fundraisers for you, attend campaign events for you, and now we see that you want them to do the work that your campaign should be doing," Mitchell's campaign wrote in an e-mail to Dixon yesterday. "Unfortunately, once again you have seen fit to spend our valuable city resources on political maneuvering."

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Dixon, said in a statement that Rolley was asking department heads to report on their performance - something he said the mayor should be doing. The e-mail does not directly mention the campaign or the election.

"I certainly hope that Mr. Mitchell is not going to waste the time of voters chasing windmills in the form of staff memos," McCarthy said. "The mayor and her chief of staff want to ensure [that] our agency heads and the staff in the mayor's office are focused on results and are meeting the goals established for them."

Candidates for City Council president - including the incumbent, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, and community activist Michael Sarbanes - spoke at a prayer breakfast at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Federal Hill for the United Workers Association, which is pushing for better wages and conditions for workers at Camden Yards and M&T; Bank Stadium.

"It is not enough to make the minimum wage. It is not our job to meet the lowest common denominator," Rawlings-Blake told the crowd at that event. "We need to raise it."

The two also appeared at an event organized by a group called Sisters Saving the City. Hundreds of residents, mostly women, stood on corners and prayed, sang and reclaimed, if only for a while, corners that have long been held by drug dealers.

While most city residents were still enjoying an opportunity to sleep in, Sarbanes started shaking hands in Cherry Hill before 8 a.m. He has been walking large swaths of the city in recent days - at a pace that is consistently twice as fast as his entourage - shaking hands as they come his way.

"In a couple of days you can walk the whole city, so we are really bound together. This is not a city where we can be divided one neighborhood against each other," Sarbanes said. "I think people are excited about what can happen in this city."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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