With $1 million war chest, Baltimore Mayor Pugh sends show of strength to would-be rivals

Over just four days this month, a torrent of money flowed into Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s campaign fund. The result: a balance of almost $1 million that serves as a show of strength to would-be challengers.

Steve Sibel, a developer who is the mayor’s campaign chairman, said the numbers “speak for themselves and demonstrate that the people of Baltimore believe in her vision and are willing to put their money behind her.”

Nonetheless, two high-profile city politicians told The Baltimore Sun that they are considering mounting a challenge to the mayor, who has struggled to come to grips with a violent crime rate that began to rise before her election and has remained stubbornly high.

No other city politician has anything close to Pugh’s fundraising tally, and her posting such a large figure in a campaign finance report Jan. 16, more than a year before the 2020 Democratic primary, could be enough to spook some potential challengers out of running.

But Pugh drew criticism during the long search for a police commissioner, and violence on the streets is set to remain at the top of Baltimore’s political agenda. Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said that could give challengers an opening.

“If things were going well in Baltimore City, if there was some indication people were optimistic and felt positive about the city, I think that cash reserve would be insurmountable,” Eberly said. “If things sort of continue the way they are, quite a few folks will conclude she is beatable.”

A prominent voice on criminal justice issues, City Councilman Brandon Scott, said he is “assessing whether my candidacy is best for our city.”

“Baltimore is at a crossroads and is in need of strong transformational leadership,” said Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “Violence and death does not have to be the norm.”

And former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was forced from office in 2010 after being found guilty of perjury and embezzlement and finished second to Pugh in 2016, said she is considering whether to run again. Dixon said city residents regularly ask her to mount a campaign.

“It takes a lot to run a city, and I think part of the challenge is you can have a vision, you can have an idea, but you have to know the mechanics of how to run a city government,” Dixon said. “I think that’s missing.”

Pugh told WBAL-TV recently that she is “absolutely” running for re-election; she declined to comment for this article.

By the time the primary arrives on April 28, 2020, what currently look like vulnerabilities for Pugh could have faded. Pugh plans to nominate Michael Harrison, a respected former New Orleans police chief, as police commissioner. A neighborhood investment fund Pugh created is about to start making loans to spur projects in poor parts of the city. Early in her term, the mayor vetoed a local increase in the minimum wage, but the General Assembly could act on the issue.

And the recent fundraising figures disclosed show that Pugh has pull among wealthy Baltimore residents and business figures who can cut checks at or close to the legal contribution limit of $6,000.

Contractor Jeffrey Hargrave has given her $5,500 and his firm gave $6,000. Partners at the downtown law firm of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, White have given a total of $13,000. The owners of a McDonald’s franchise and their company chipped in $18,000. The chief executive of e-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc. in San Francisco and his wife gave $12,000.

A group of Korean businessmen, many of them liquor store owners, has given a total of more than $50,000. A $20,000 dinner Pugh attended was followed by a golfing fundraiser with some of the group during the week of Thanksgiving, netting an additional $27,000. A Baltimore police detective who is the group’s spokesman gave $6,000 this month.

Perhaps Pugh’s biggest financial backer is Columbia financier J.P. Grant, who has given in the past to Pugh and to former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. With contributions from Grant, his wife, his son, a company controlled by another son, and an executive at his company, Pugh raised $29,000. Grant said he has asked others to donate, but he declined to disclose their names.

Grant said Pugh has served the city well through her ability to build relationships with downtown business leaders and to form partnerships with outside organizations such as the bank Goldman Sachs and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The bank has pursued an initiative to foster entrepreneurship in Baltimore, while Bloomberg has funded a team of analysts at City Hall.

“People are attracted to her; she brings a certain gravitas to the position,” Grant said. “Michael Bloomberg doesn’t just attach himself to anyone.”

Some of those top donors have a stake in the city’s business. Grant is seeking to renew a contract with the city under which he fronts it money to buy things such as police cars. The Korean businessmen are seeking relief from a zoning law that will put some liquor stores out of business. And the donation from the Juul boss comes as the City Council considers restrictions on electronic cigarettes.

Dixon and Scott would have a long way to go to catch up to Pugh’s dollars. Dixon hasn’t run for office since 2016 and has just $10,500 in campaign funds on hand.

Scott ran as a lieutenant governor candidate with Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea in 2018, and that campaign’s slate account returned $60,000 to Scott’s campaign account. In all, he has $145,000, according to his Jan. 16 report.

Money buys polling, strategic advice and ads, and can pay campaign staff. But it’s not guaranteed to make a campaign successful.

Eberly said it could be hard for a challenger to out-raise Pugh, but Dixon could trade on her name recognition and Scott could to tap into voters who elected a new generation of politicians in the city’s General Assembly delegation in 2014 and again in 2018.

"There are times when it doesn’t matter what your funding advantage is; other dynamics ultimately determine the outcome of the race,” Eberly said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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