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'A lot more choices that are really viable': Pugh's exit clears way for big Baltimore mayoral field in 2020

Catherine Pugh’s resignation has reset next year’s race for Baltimore’s mayor, taking an incumbent with a million-dollar campaign fund out of play.

Now, a race in which a handful of challengers might have sought to chip away at Pugh’s vulnerabilities is likely to become a free-for-all in which voters will be asked what kind of leader they want for their beleaguered city.

On Friday three potential candidates indicated that they are beginning to gather advisers who could form the beginning of a campaign team if they do decide to run.

An adviser to Ben Jealous, last year’s Democratic nominee for governor, said he has a group of about seven people mapping out what a run for mayor would look like. City Councilman Brandon Scott said he also has the beginnings of a campaign team in place. And former Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith says he’s been consulting with advisers.

Political observers and potential candidates said in interviews Friday that they expect a broad field of candidates offering competing visions and personalities. And in a city that has seen two of its past three mayors resign in the face of criminal investigations, the candidates’ reputations for accountability, transparency and honest leadership are expected to carry significant weight.

Mileah Kromer, a pollster at Goucher College, said the candidate who ultimately rises to the top when Democratic primary voters go to the polls April 28 might be “the person that voters trust the most.”

A handful of candidates have already said they’ll run — including former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah — but several other people, including outsiders and established politicians, say they’re considering a run. Others will say only that they’re being encouraged to run by one group or another and that they’re keeping the door open.

One big unknown is whether new Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young changes his stated plan of seeking to return to his old job of city council president. Young became acting mayor when Pugh announced a leave of absence April 1, but now that she has resigned, he is officially mayor until the end of her term in December 2020. Friends and allies say they hope Young will consider running for mayor in next year’s election if his tenure continues to go smoothly.

State Sen. Jill Carter, who puts herself in the “thinking about it” category, said she could foresee supporting Young for mayor if he chose to run.

“I hope he will [run] given the choice of candidates we’re currently aware of,” Carter said. “It looks like things are going pretty well for him. He’s capable of running the city.”

Young could be a formidable candidate. He has a head start on fundraising — $600,000 in the bank as of January — and has successfully run for citywide office before. He will have been on the job as mayor for a year by the time the primary election arrives.

For now, though, Young insists he won’t run, leaving the field wide open.

Baltimore elections for state and local offices in 2014, 2016 and 2018 have seen a new generation of politicians take office in the Maryland General Assembly and City Council.

But the 2016 mayoral election quickly boiled down to a race between two political veterans — former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Pugh, who was an established figure in the state Senate.

Pugh pitched herself as an ethical alternative to Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after being convicted of embezzling gift cards and also pleaded guilty to perjury. Pugh on Thursday acceded to calls for her resignation amid the uproar over her sales of self-published “Healthy Holly” books to prominent city businesses and organizations and as she came under state and federal investigation.

So, three years later, younger candidates and outsiders say they see their opportunity.

WEAA-FM talk show host Farajii Muhammad said he expects to see a “game changing” election in which voters look for something new.

“Right now folks are at a fatigue point, we’re tired of seeing the same old same old,” he said. “It’s important that whoever decides to run understands the sentiment that you cannot go into this election with the same thoughts as previous candidates.”

Muhammad said he thinks successful candidates will need to build relationships with average voters and community organizations and understand that their ties to the business community will be carefully examined.

“Those relationships are going to be highly scrutinized and justifiably so,” he said.

Asked what his appeal would be, Smith said, “Not being a politician.”

“Not being within the current network of political officials,” added Smith, a former Anne Arundel County police officer who is now a spokesman for the Baltimore County executive. “Being authentic and trustworthy and being kind of a known commodity.”

Smith has also seen the city’s persistent violence up close, losing a brother to a shooting in 2017.

“This crime stuff is personal for me,” he said. “It was personal for me before the passing of my brother, but it’s a different perspective when you actually deal with it.”

Vignarajah, a former federal and state prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully for state’s attorney last year, launched his campaign soon after Pugh began her leave of absence, as she battled pneumonia and questions over the book sales mounted. He said his campaign will emphasize the need for the city to battle corruption and crime.

“These are obstacles that have held Baltimore back for years,” Vignarajah said. “I think the people of Baltimore are hungry for change. It’s not just a fresh perspective from someone who's not a career politician, it’s also a coherent vision of what Baltimore could be and how we get there.

“We haven’t raised expectations or had a plan to get there in a generation here in Baltimore.”

Jealous was unavailable for comment Friday, but Kevin Harris, one of his advisers, said the businessman and former NAACP leader is thinking through what it would mean to run.

Harris said Jealous would build on a strong showing in Baltimore in the gubernatorial primary — he beat Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker by some 19,000 votes — and an established fundraising network that would let him eschew corporate dollars.

Jealous won a reputation for reinvigorating the NAACP as its president from 2008 to 2013. He has also worked as a venture capitalist, a form of investing that involves turning a profit by improving struggling businesses. Harris said Jealous’ experience is suited to Baltimore’s current moment.

“He is someone who has a track record of running organizations well, turning organizations around,” Harris said.

Scott, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, is the most established politician to be seriously considering a run for mayor. But at 35 he also represents a younger generation of council members.

Scott said the said he has found people encouraging him to run wherever he goes in the city.

“I don’t take that lightly,” said Scott, who ran for lieutenant governor last year on attorney Jim Shea’s gubernatorial ticket. “I am deeply humbled. I am encouraged by their support. We know that Baltimore needs transformational leadership that is ready, prepared and able to move Baltimore in the direction it needs to be.”

Meanwhile, the renewed focus on ethics could pose a problem for Dixon, despite her strong run in 2016. She has said she was considering a run but declined to comment Friday on her plans.

Hassan Giordano, a political operative close to Dixon, said she is still thinking of running but recognizes the scrutiny she would face. Giordano said a rematch between Pugh and Dixon would have been a chance for Dixon to compare her tenure with Pugh’s, but that Pugh’s departure makes it less likely that she will run.

Full coverage of former Baltimore Mayor Pugh's scandal over 'Healthy Holly' books »

“Now it’s no longer about the records, it’s about past convictions and really about the integrity of the next candidate,” he said. “She could be the very best candidate in the race, and they’re going to say ‘Yeah, but we're tired of people and these indiscretions.’ That’s going to weigh in anybody’s mind.”

Kromer said the lack of public opinion polling makes it difficult to know how the race might ultimately shape up.

But while the 2016 race soon boiled down to a pair of leading contenders, Kromer said she expects a different pattern next year: “A lot more choice and a lot more choices that are really viable.

“I don’t think it's going to be a two-person race,” she said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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