Former mayor Sheila Dixon got into the race to recapture her old job with a message that she is a more capable leader than the incumbent, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Even before this spring's unrest that cast Ms. Rawlings-Blake into an unflattering light, a substantial number of people around town appeared to agree with that proposition, Ms. Dixon's conviction for embezzling gift cards meant for poor children at Christmas notwithstanding. The Sun/University of Baltimore poll shows just how large and committed that bloc of voters is: about a quarter of city Democratic primary voters, nearly double her nearest competitor. Those voters' support has been tested by scandal, and we expect that if they've stuck with Ms. Dixon thus far, they aren't going to be easy for any other candidate to dislodge.
Ms. Dixon's base, formidable though it is, probably won't be enough to carry the election, even with so many candidates. She faces some difficulties in expanding the number of her supporters in that nearly half of the electorate says her conviction makes them less likely to vote for her, but that still leaves her with enough room to reach the 35 percent or 40 percent threshold that would likely suffice for victory in a field that is as divided as this one. Her past ethics breaches do not evidently disqualify her from contention.
The question, though, is whether Ms. Dixon's theory of the election as a referendum on Ms. Rawlings-Blake holds true now that the incumbent has vowed not to run for re-election. Among those who disapprove of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's job performance, Ms. Dixon dominates the field with 30 percent support. The job for the other candidates is to make this race about something else.
She faces competition from at least five candidates who have either won elective office before, have demonstrated an ability to mount a city-wide campaign, have prominent political backers, have served in high civic or government positions, or all of the above. Two of them, Sen. Catherine Pugh and City Councilman Carl Stokes, have run for mayor before. One, City Councilman Nick Mosby, helped engineer the victory of his wife, Marilyn Mosby, against a heavily favored incumbent state's attorney last year. And outsiders David Warnock and Elizabeth Embry stand out for the support they have been able to demonstrate thus far. (Among the other candidates, Calvin Young, an engineer and MBA who is new to city politics, also warrants mention for running an energetic and well organized campaign.)
Ultimately, it will not and should not be enough for Ms. Dixon to compare her leadership with Ms. Rawlings-Blake's. Baltimore's deep seated social problems may not have been as readily visible for the world to see when Ms. Dixon was mayor, but they existed, just below the surface, waiting for an event like Freddie Gray's death to bubble over. City voters put creating jobs, reducing crime and improving schools squarely at the top of their priority list for the city's next leader, and we hope and expect that voters will demand that Ms. Dixon and the rest of the candidates demonstrate not just an understanding of those problems but also fresh ideas to address them.
We need someone who can break through the frustration, anger and malaise that have left so many city residents disconnected from their government and cynical about their leaders. When Ms. Rawlings-Blake won election in 2011, turnout in the city primary was beyond pathetic. Fewer than 75,000 people cast a ballot in the mayor's race, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake won with fewer than 39,000 votes — the lowest total for the winner of a city Democratic primary since 1911. Since then, city elections have been moved to presidential election cycle on the theory that turnout will be higher, which has been true in some exceptional years, like 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the ballot. But with the likelihood that Ms. Clinton may have the nomination sewn up by the time Maryland's primary rolls around in April, victory in the mayor's race could turn on whether someone can expand the electorate.
That's what happened when state Sen. Bill Ferguson beat long-time incumbent George Della in 2010, and it's what happened when Ms. Mosby beat incumbent Gregg Bernstein in 2014. There are plenty of people out there who have little or no historical connection to city politics and are eager for new solutions to Baltimore's problems. A familiar name may be leading now, but come election day, this race could be within the grasp of anyone with a message that can inspire the ample pool of potential voters and the organizational muscle to get them to the polls.