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For better or worse, TV is going to play a bigger role down the homestretch in Baltimore mayor’s race |COMMENTARY

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon answers a question during a candidates' forum at Morgan State University on January 25. Dixon launched her first TV ad in the 2020 mayor's race on Tuesday, April 28.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon answers a question during a candidates' forum at Morgan State University on January 25. Dixon launched her first TV ad in the 2020 mayor's race on Tuesday, April 28. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

Sheila Dixon has arrived, and Mary Miller and Thiru Vignarajah are stepping up their TV games. Expect to see a lot more of our mayoral candidates on TV in coming days and weeks.

It might seem like Ms. Miller has largely had Baltimore’s TV airwaves to herself recently. But that’s changing as mail-in ballots are being sent and the race enters its last full month before the June primary with little or no hope for in-person campaigning as a result of COVID-19 concerns and restrictions.

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On Tuesday, Ms. Dixon launched her first TV ad with a message that looked to be squarely aimed at her core supporters.

Mr. Vignarajah said he is also debuting more TV ads this week. One of them titled “Do It Now” appears intended to evoke the memory of William Donald Schaefer.

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Meanwhile, Ms. Miller added yet another TV ad Tuesday, which offers her strongest on-screen performance yet. It will air through Election Day, according to an email announcing the ad. That’s a long buy.

Candidates and campaign operatives tied the timing of the push to the mailing of ballots.

With those ballots arriving in mailboxes, “It’s important to be on peoples’ minds,” Mr. Vignarajah said in a telephone interview.

“Yes, in the mayor’s race, it’s game time,” Martha McKenna, who created the ad for Ms. Dixon, wrote in an email response to The Sun.

Mr. Vignarajah also pointed to what he characterized as a widening in voter and media interests after more than a month of near-total immersion in COVID-19 matters.

“After the wall-to-wall coverage, it seems like there is starting to be an appetite for other issues as well," Mr. Vignarajah said.

I recently wrote of my concerns about an election in which so much of what we know about a candidate comes from what we see on a screen. One reason for my worry is that what we see by definition is artificially framed and constructed, especially in ads. The production is staged and edited to only show the best side of the product. And the product in a political ad is the candidate.

But watching the new ads appearing this week, I am starting to think some voters who are paying attention might actually gain some clarity about the candidates as a result of the politicians having to use TV to make their cases in this unusual race. With only 30 or 60 seconds at considerable cost for a TV ad, candidates are forced to distill their messages. And so, the voter can often see who the candidate thinks her or his core supporters are and how she or he wants to be perceived in the closing days of the campaign.

One of the things that struck me about Ms. Dixon’s ad is that it included only people of color.

“Sheila has always been known for her deep support in the community — it’s one of her strengths. So we decided to give voice to that community support in this particular ad,” Ms. McKenna said when I asked her about the ad only including people of color. " … We’ll be hearing from loads of Dixon supporters between now and June 2, voters will see the campaign as a whole."

There were more women than men in the ad as well. This looks like Ms. Dixon talking to her core Baltimore supporters, and firming up the base is never a bad strategy. Ask Donald Trump.

Mr. Vignarajah, meanwhile, has broadened his campaign message beyond its early focus on crime. The ad replays several concrete accomplishments by the candidate, like picking up trash and finding jobs for two squeegee workers. Those moments fit nicely with his larger theme of promised change, but between now and the Democratic primary, I think Mr. Vignarajah is going to have to deal on-screen with being seen by some as the candidate of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group.

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Ms. Miller hits a note in her ad that seems most in sync with the moment of crisis that Baltimore residents find themselves, both from COVID-19 and our ongoing civic woes.

In the ad titled “Know-How,” she focuses on how President Obama tapped her for a key post in Treasury when the nation seemed to be on the verge of an economic collapse in 2008. The message: I was called in a similar moment of crisis. I served President Obama. We prevailed. America came back. I can do the same for Baltimore as mayor.

Tight focus. Strong message. This is what a closing argument sounds like in 30 seconds of television.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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