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Mary Miller media campaign: a test case for the role of TV in local elections | COMMENTARY

Mary Miller, one of the Baltimore City mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary, is blitzing the TV airwaves with ads.
Mary Miller, one of the Baltimore City mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary, is blitzing the TV airwaves with ads.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Another week, another new TV ad from Democratic mayoral candidate Mary Miller. And with Baltimore voters starting to receive ballots for the June 2 Democratic primary in their mailboxes, this is one of the most important times in all the months of campaigning to be on TV in a big way.

Last week, Ms. Miller, the former T. Rowe Price executive and Treasury Department official in the Barack Obama administration, debuted an ad titled “Know How.” Monday, she dropped one titled “Path." One thing Baltimore viewers can count on in these highly uncertain times is that they will be seeing a lot of Ms. Miller on their TV screens straight to the primary.

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As of Monday, she had already spent $914,000 on TV ads, according to a campaign spokeswoman. Overall, she has put $1.5 million of her own money into the campaign.

“I was a political unknown on Jan. 7, had no name recognition. And we had a very big hill to climb, and television was one way to get me out there en masse,” Ms. Miller said in an interview Friday.

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“And so, that’s what we started doing in February," she added. “Then, we brought it down a bit in recent weeks. And now we’re scaling up again, because we think people are focused on the election now. People are thinking about it, and this is a good time to be out there and to be consistent and sustained in message."

There is not nearly enough trustworthy polling data to say whether anyone among six front-running candidates is clearly in the lead as we head down the home stretch of the campaign. Add in the fact that the primary has been moved back and set up as a mostly mail-in election because of the cosmic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the variables involved make any kind of prognostication a fool’s game. (Indicative of the impact on the election: Ballots arriving in mailboxes show an incorrect date, April 28, which was the original date before COVID-19 forced the change to June 2. Instructions are included with the ballots that point that the April 28 date is incorrect.)

But the fact that Ms. Miller is in that group of six says her ads have already had an impact. (The other five are Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Council President Brandon Scott, former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah, former mayor Sheila Dixon, and former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith.)

Ms. Miller’s campaign could come to serve as a test case on the role of TV in local politics in this digital age when the smart money is supposed to be spent on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Should she actually win the election, Ms. Miller’s use of TV will be a national media story. Trust me.

On March 6, in the wake of a poll sponsored by The Sun that showed Ms. Miller coming in fifth ahead of Mr. Young, I myself suggested we should not get too excited about the name recognition she gained at that point with half a million dollars in media money. Citing the cases of businessman David Warnock in the 2016 Baltimore mayor’s election and Michael Bloomberg in this year’s presidential primaries, I said I thought there was a ceiling on what TV ad money could do.

But that was before COVID-19 changed the rules of virtually everything in American life including the end of almost every form of retail campaigning.

The battle to be Baltimore’s next mayor is definitely heating up. A nonprofit advocacy group that endorsed Mr. Scott filed an ethics complaint Monday against a super PAC that is backing Ms. Miller. The complaint by Progressive Maryland alleges a campaign finance violation connected to a poll commissioned before paperwork for the PAC was filed with the state.

Ms. Miller’s campaign issued a statement saying, since campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with PACs, it does not have enough information to say what the PAC did or didn’t do.

Tuesday, Ms. Miller’s campaign issued a list of more than 25 former Obama administration officials endorsing her, including Jack Lew, former Treasury secretary.

Ms. Miller’s connection to alums of Mr. Obama’s campaigns and administration appears to run deep. MVAR Media, a consulting firm in Virginia, is producing her ads. One of its partners, Mike Reilly, helped produce TV and radio ads for candidate Obama in 2008.

Ms. Miller is counting heavily on those ads.

“You know, people are at home. They’re watching more television," she said. "We also have a radio ad. People tell me, well, don’t do radio, nobody’s driving anywhere now. But we’re doing a radio ad as well. We’re just trying to reach out across every medium and see if we can get the message out.”

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

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