Mayor could face tough race for re-election, analysts predict

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could face a tough race against at least one challenger in next year's election, political analysts say.

A few months ago, many pundits considered the mayor practically unbeatable. The city's crime and unemployment rates were down. She had substantial money in her campaign account. She even flirted with a run for U.S. Senate.


Then rioting broke out — followed by a dramatic spike in homicides.

Now, with the Democratic primary less than a year away, many are speculating whether Rawlings-Blake could survive a formidable challenge, though no opponent has officially emerged.


"The word on the street, as they say, is the mayor's performance during and immediately after the riot in the city has really hurt her and that she is vulnerable should a credible candidate come forward," said Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Norris said he thinks the mayor could rebound if her administration is able to curtail the recent outpouring of violence. "If she's unable to do it, then somebody opposing her on the basis of getting the crime rate down has a really good chance of winning," he said.

Many expect former Mayor Sheila Dixon to enter the race. Dixon, who was forced out of office in January 2010 for taking about $500 in gift cards intended for needy families, has said for more than two years that she's considering a run for mayor.

Dixon said last week she will announce a decision "soon."


Others who have not ruled out a run in April's Democratic primary include state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Councilmen Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes, and state Del. Jill P. Carter.

With Baltimore in need of rebuilding, Rawlings-Blake says she is no longer considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara A. Mikulski. The mayor says she's gearing up for a months-long campaign to stay in the office she has held for nearly six years.

"I'm doing everything necessary to prepare for an organized and efficient campaign," Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm not taking anything for granted."

No contender has committed to run against her. At least two people who have drawn speculation — author Wes Moore and city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — say they won't run.

"I've tried to be very clear: I'm not running for mayor," Moore said. "I'm not running for anything."

The primary is scheduled for April 26, 2016 — months later than once planned. Baltimore voters approved a charter amendment in 2012 to move city elections to the same years the nation chooses a president. In doing so, voters effectively granted the mayor and City Council — elected in 2011 — five-year terms.

One of the arguments for the change was that Baltimore voters historically vote in higher numbers in presidential elections than in city-only elections. Democrats in Baltimore outnumber Republicans by almost 10-1, and for decades, winning the Democratic primary has been tantamount to election.

Mayor since 2010, when she succeeded Dixon, Rawlings-Blake said she plans to highlight the successes of her administration during the campaign. They include, she said, a growing economy, lower taxes and more students graduating from city schools. Unemployment in Baltimore has decreased from 12.1 percent to 8.1 percent during her tenure, while the city has added about 12,000 jobs.

She has more than $365,000 in her campaign account, having raised more than $300,000 of that in the past year.

Months ago, Rawlings-Blake's campaign conducted a poll asking residents their opinion of her and a slew of potential challengers, including Young, City Councilman James B. Kraft, teacher Michael Sarbanes — who challenged Rawlings-Blake seven years ago for City Council president — Dixon, Pratt, Moore and businessman David L. Warnock.

The mayor declined to provide the results.

Rawlings-Blake, who won a five-candidate race in 2011, says she's focused on her campaign, not potential challengers. But she nonetheless contrasts herself with Dixon — whom she refers to as "the previous mayor."

"I'm excited to tell the story of how Baltimore turned the corner under my administration," Rawlings-Blake said. "People tend to forget that when I took office, it was under not ideal circumstances.

"The previous mayor left in disgrace. Not only was she disgraced, she also left me with a huge budget deficit — the largest in recent history. I had to fix the pension crisis she left me as well. Now we're on the right path."

Dixon, who once ran as a team with Rawlings-Blake, has kept criticism of the mayor to a minimum. But Dixon has repeated two points in recent weeks that speak to criticism of the mayor's response to the rioting. Some argued Rawlings-Blake spent too little time in tense neighborhoods and questioned whether her police department was ready for unrest.

"When you're running a city of such a diverse population, you have to go and be engaged," Dixon said in an interview. "You've also got to be prepared."

Rawlings-Blake and Dixon both attended the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man whose death from injuries suffered in police custody sparked the rioting. Rawlings-Blake was met with warm applause at the service, but Dixon received multiple rounds of cheers — including a standing ovation from the crowd.

Dixon, Baltimore's first female mayor, was convicted of misdemeanor embezzlement in the gift card case.

But Dixon also presided over a reduction in crime, as well as implementing the popular Charm City Circulator bus service and an easy-to-use recycling program. She says residents frequently approach her and ask her to run again for mayor. She has $128,000 in her campaign account.

"I'm doing some homework," Dixon said of a potential campaign. She was banned from seeking public office while on probation but is now free to run.

Nina Therese Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College, said she believes the rioting — and strained relations between the mayor's office, police union, protesters and some residents — make it likely that fewer candidates will run.

"You almost get the feeling that the landscape has shifted to make this job a lot less appealing," she said. "I think everyone realizes how difficult the present situation is. It's not going to be easy to navigate these broken relationships."

If the race comes down to Rawlings-Blake and Dixon, Kasniunas says Dixon would be at a disadvantage because of the change in the election cycle. The presidential election likely will turn out more voters who may be most interested in federal races — and not as interested in Baltimore politics as when city offices were the only thing on the ballot.

"You're going to get a different electorate that's participating," Kasniunas said. "That name recognition will do everything for Rawlings-Blake. The people voting in the presidential primaries are just going to remember Dixon's scandal with the gift cards."

Kasniunas also said that if Rawlings-Blake and Dixon divide African-American votes, it could create an opportunity for a white candidate to gain momentum.


"If you split the black vote, the white candidate stands to win," she said, citing Martin O'Malley's come-from-behind victory for mayor in 1999. "I would be surprised if there wasn't a white candidate that stepped in."


Dixon and Young would be wise to take into account the other's plans, Kasniunas said. If both run, she said, "they'd be in a scenario where neither one could unseat Rawlings-Blake. It would be to their collective benefit if only one of them ran."

Young would begin with $428,000 in his campaign account. The City Council president has sometimes staked out positions that were different from the mayor's, such as questioning the wisdom of hosting the Grand Prix IndyCar race and arguing to more quickly equip police with body cameras.

In an interview, Young would not say what office he is targeting next year.

"I haven't even thought about the next election," he said. "All I want to do is get things done."

Warnock, a partner with the private equity firm Camden Partners, hosts a weekly radio spot on WYPR called "Baltimore's Future." He bought a home in the city — a $1.7 million condominium at the Ritz-Carlton — in December. He also owns a house in Cockeysville.

He recently was named chairman of the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an influential city business group.

In an email, Warnock said he is not presently planning a run for office, though he didn't categorically rule it out.

"I'm flattered that people would include me in their poll and consider me as a candidate, but I have no plans to run at the current time," he said.

State Senator Pugh — who finished second to Rawlings-Blake in the 2011 race for mayor — had said before the rioting that she believed the mayor was moving the city in the right direction and did not plan to run against her. Last week, Pugh declined to say what her intentions are. She did say she would "definitely consider" running for Congress should Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore enter the race for U.S. Senate.

Pratt said she intends to seek another term as Baltimore's comptroller. Kraft has announced that he's not running again for his City Council seat and plans to run for something — but has not said what.

Sarbanes did not respond to requests for comment.

Others talked about as potential candidates — Mosby and Stokes, the city councilmen, and Carter, the state delegate — said they were undecided about their future plans.

UMBC's Norris said any potential opponents of Rawlings-Blake need to begin raising a substantial amount of money quickly if they want to have a chance at winning.

"They need to start building war chests. They need to start getting a campaign apparatus," Norris said. "The less prepared and the less well-funded they are, they have less of a chance."

In 2011, Rawlings-Blake spent more than $2 million in her successful race for mayor. Second-place finisher Pugh spent more than $700,000. Third-place finisher Otis Rolley spent more than $400,000, and fourth-place finisher Joseph T. "Jody" Landers spent nearly $200,000.

Before the rioting, Norris said he believed that Dixon would only "embarrass herself" by running for office again. Now, he said, he believes she has a better shot.

"The business of her being convicted of a crime will certainly come up, but she apparently has a fair amount of support," Norris said.

Veteran political analyst Barry Rascovar said Rawlings-Blake has been a "very, very good fiscal steward," citing issues such as her overhaul of city pensions. But he thinks she is much weaker politically since the rioting.

Her methodical nature came across as indecisiveness in a time of crisis, Rascovar said.

"The mayor came across as remote, aloof and too unemotional," he said. "This could hurt her in the upcoming campaign. The unrest called for more prompt, firmer and more forceful leadership."

He said "many others" besides Dixon are now looking at the race. "They all sense a vulnerability that could make the mayor very weak on Election Day."

Even so, Rascovar said, "There are many people in the community who still admire Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her father. If she puts together an energetic campaign, she could still be the winner."

Rawlings-Blake's father, Howard "Pete" Rawlings, was an influential state delegate who died in 2003.

It's been nearly 50 years since Baltimore had a Republican mayor, but Kent Boles Jr., chairman of the city's Republican Central Committee, said several members of the GOP are thinking about a run. He declined to name them.

"Of the folks I know, there are serious folks considering it," Boles said of potential Republican candidates for mayor. Baltimore's last Republican mayor was Theodore R. McKeldin, who served from 1963 to 1967.

The job pays $163,000.



The 2016 Democratic primary for mayor

The Democratic primary election for mayor and other city offices is April 26, 2016. The Baltimore Sun asked some potential candidates whether they're running.

Who's in?

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, 45, mayor

Who's out?

Joan Pratt, 63, comptroller, will seek re-election

Wes Moore, 36, author, businessman

Who's a maybe?

Sheila Dixon, 61, former mayor

Bernard C. "Jack" Young, 60, City Council president

Catherine E. Pugh, 65, state senator

Nick Mosby, 36, city councilman

Jill P. Carter, 50, state delegate

Carl Stokes, 65, city councilman

James B. Kraft, 65, city councilman

David L. Warnock, 57, partner in private equity firm

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