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Zurawik: Media campaigns will matter in Baltimore mayor’s election; let’s not allow them to matter too much

Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, front, in October calling for action on aerial surveillance to help fight crime. He was joined, from left, by Victory Swift, whose son was murdered in 2017, former Councilwoman Rikki Spector, and community leaders Archie Williams and Marvin "Doc" Cheatham.
Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, front, in October calling for action on aerial surveillance to help fight crime. He was joined, from left, by Victory Swift, whose son was murdered in 2017, former Councilwoman Rikki Spector, and community leaders Archie Williams and Marvin "Doc" Cheatham. (Amy Davis)

Near the top of my list of New Year’s resolutions is being all over the role of media in the elections we have coming up in 2020. That means even more all over them than I was in Baltimore’s 2016 mayor’s race and 2018 gubernatorial campaigns.

Both of those elections were won by candidates with highly skilled media campaigns designed and executed by consultants who work at the highest level of presidential and congressional elections. While I praised the campaigns of Catherine Pugh and Larry Hogan, I also wondered where the money was coming from and worried about local elections becoming more about having the money to buy the best media architects than having the best skills and values to lead the city and state.

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We now have a better idea as to how Ms. Pugh might have gotten some of the money for her slick campaign.

According to The Sun, federal prosecutors wrote in charging documents that a month before the 2016 mayoral primary election, Ms. Pugh approached Columbia financier J.P. Grant with a request for $50,000 for her Healthy Holly books, telling him she needed financial help for her campaign. Mr. Grant wrote a $50,000 check.

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"Grant understood that Pugh would use the money to produce and distribute the Healthy Holly books, with the balance of the money going toward her mayoral campaign,” prosecutors wrote in a stipulation of facts to which Ms. Pugh has agreed.

As I wrote in 2016, Ms. Pugh spent more than $100,000 in launching a TV ad campaign and then surged from 2 points behind former Mayor Sheila Dixon to 9 points ahead in a two-week period, according to a Baltimore Sun poll done at the time. She never trailed again.

Yeah, money matters, and in aiming for a more holistic examination of the campaigns, I will contextualize all my analyses of the ads, fliers, yard signs, social media posts, videos, images, digital billboards and stump performance styles within whatever I can find out about the money behind them ― crooked, dark, reported or righteous.

I say that as prelude to this column, because it’s a first look at Thiru Vignarajah, whose media effort stands out in a crowded field at this early point in the race. He announced a $100,000 media buy last month that has him on local TV, radio and social media.

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Furthermore, part of Mr. Vignarajah’s campaign involves making an issue of money, saying that, like Ms. Pugh, some of his opponents have also received money from Mr. Grant, whose Grant Capital Management, finances deals for the city.

Mr. Vignarajah, meanwhile, has received $20,000 from a wealthy Texas couple that is underwriting the recently announced relaunch of the controversial surveillance planes that will fly over Baltimore starting in May. (This is not to suggest there is anything illegal or even unreported about this money.)

I will go into deeper into detail in coming columns, but here are three quick takeaways on his media effort.

“The Criminals are Winning” ad ― This is a solid, skillfully-produced 30-second ad airing on TV on social media aimed at introducing the candidate and staking out his main campaign theme: reduction of crime. It does its job well.

Main criticism: It lacks imagination. It is a boilerplate political ad opening with urgent piano music that shifts with every major visual and verbal change during the 30 seconds. The template has been overused on everything from American Express small business ads to university recruitment videos the last 10 years.

The web of campaign corruption graphic ― The lines between J.P. Grant and members of his family to various mayoral candidates are a little confusing to me even after a second and third look. But the imagery is meant to suggest a web of corruption at city hall ― hitting it visually for an Instagram sensibility not an accountant’s balance sheet. Mr. Vignarajah said in a text response to me that the figures in the graphic come from the website campaignfinance.maryland.gov. )

Thiru 2020 campaign page (https://www.thiru2020.com/)― This is a winner in display, navigation and engagement. It’s as good as any I have seen anywhere in the country at this level. Each of the first few segments expands on information about Mr. Vignarajah’s personal story briefly mentioned in the 30-second TV. And it’s all made visual engaging.

Notice how the candidate is wrapped in the words and imagery of The Sun with a quote from columnist Dan Rodricks at the top of the page and a Justin Fenton byline in the upper left of the page where your eye goes as you start to scroll. It lends credibility to the candidate, who’s trading on The Sun’s name.

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

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