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These potential Baltimore mayoral candidates are sizing up their chances behind the scenes

The former Democratic nominee for governor has a detailed road map for making a decision on whether to run for mayor of Baltimore by Labor Day. The City Council president is flirting with the idea and his political team held a meeting with labor leaders Tuesday. And a state senator is mulling polling numbers that he says show the race will be fought in a city deeply divided by age and race.

None of them will say whether they’re in or out.

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With the filing deadline for the primary just under six months away, the race to lead a city shaken by the spring’s political scandal over former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books is largely taking place out of public view. There is activity, though. Potential candidates are talking privately with allies, gathering data and starting to pull together their teams.

The challenges of the job are vast. The next mayor will be called on to restore confidence in a political system rattled by the resignation of Pugh, the second mayor in a decade to quit amid questions about financial improprieties. The officeholder is expected to inherit the city’s chronic problems: homicide rates that persistently see more than 300 people killed each year, thousands of blighted and abandoned homes, and a still-raging epidemic of opioid overdose deaths.

At the start of this year, it looked like an incumbent who was a fundraising juggernaut would dominate the race. That changed when Pugh quit May 2. Now, at least half a dozen aspirants are sizing up their chances in the April 28 Democratic primary. In a city in which there are 10 registered Democrats for every Republican, that primary all but determines who will take office.

Mileah Kromer, a pollster at Goucher College, said the prospective candidates are in a “summer of maybe.”

“You can safely just think about it over the summer,” Kromer said.

That will quickly change.

“Once you get into the fall, you have to put up that campaign infrastructure in earnest or you’re not going to have it built in time to go the distance in the spring," Kromer said.

In 2016, the amount spent on the election by all candidates was about $9 million. Pugh plowed $2.5 million into her bid and had $1 million on hand for her reelection campaign.

The first campaign finance reporting deadline in the current cycle is in mid-January and will be a key early test of strength. Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume said that means campaigns can solicit campaign checks quietly from donors without immediately disclosing who’s supporting who.

“We’re definitely in that stage now," he said.

Jack Young

Democratic Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young assumed Pugh’s job as mayor, and while he initially said he would not run for the job in 2020, he has now said he’s considering it.

Young has gained the increase in public stature that comes with the office of mayor and he had about $600,000 in his campaign fund as of January, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Young told reporters at City Hall this month that he has faced significant adversity since becoming mayor — including a debilitating ransomware attack on the city’s computers and the loss of water service to a public housing complex — but rated his team’s response highly.

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“Everything that could have happened when I became mayor has happened, and I’m getting it done," Young said. “Me and my staff have navigated and have workarounds for just about everything that has happened in the city. I think personally I have a right to keep my options open."

Democrat Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and friend of Young’s, said he’s talked to Young about his thoughts on next year. Stokes declined to describe a private conversation but said he’s encouraged Young to run for mayor in his own right.

“It’s a small group of people he’s talking to, as best I can tell,” Stokes said.

Brandon Scott

Democrat Brandon Scott, the current council president, has long said he is considering running for mayor.

He achieved prominence on the council as the chairman of its public safety committee. After Pugh’s resignation, he outmaneuvered Democratic Council Vice President Sharon Middleton to fill the spot vacated by Young — a victory that Young said led him to reassess his own plans for 2020.

Colleen Martin-Lauer, a political fundraiser and consultant to Scott, confirmed he invited labor leaders to this week’s meeting “all about what he will do as City Council president.”

Jermaine Jones, the president of the Metro Baltimore AFL-CIO, said that topic is tied, however, to whether Scott will seek to become mayor.

“If he does run for mayor, it creates an interesting dynamic," Jones said. “How do you work with the current leadership that you’re going to run against?”

But in an interview after the meeting, Jones said the topic of Scott’s political ambitions did not come up.

Scott has said his decision won’t be affected by whoever else chooses to run, but he declined to say when he might make up his mind.

“My decision about what I’m doing with my political career will come at the right time, based on what Baltimore wants,” Scott said Tuesday in a meeting with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board. “I have to have discussions with my family. Running for any office — not deciding to go off making a bunch of money doing something — running for any office has to be in your heart first.”

In January, Scott disclosed he had $143,000 in his campaign account.

Ben Jealous

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Last year’s defeated Democratic nominee for governor, Ben Jealous, is working with a team to conduct a detailed analysis of the race and has set a deadline of Labor Day to make a decision, said Kevin Harris, an adviser to Jealous.

“He’d enter this race a front-runner, unlike the race for governor, where he was the underdog who had to claw his way up from the bottom of the polls,” Harris said of Jealous, who now lives in the city.

The team’s process involves assessing how many of Jealous’ supporters from the gubernatorial campaign might vote for him as mayor. In 2018′s gubernatorial contest, Jealous secured the votes of almost 34,000 people in Baltimore’s primary, winning the city in a crowded Democratic field. Pugh topped 48,000 votes in the 2016 mayoral primary, in a year with a presidential election; such years typically have higher turnout. (Scott ran as a candidate last year for lieutenant governor on a ticket with attorney Jim Shea; they received 15,000 votes in the primary in Baltimore.)

Jealous’ advisers are even considering how the presidential election could affect his chances. Democratic U.S. senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker supported Jealous’ gubernatorial campaign, but they’re now running for president and might not be available to lend a hand once more.

In January, Jealous’ campaign reported having $48,400 in the bank.

Bill Ferguson

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who represents a district in South and Southeast Baltimore, said he continues to evaluate his prospects, but a recent poll he conducted showed he needs to keep having discussions.

Ferguson said he commissioned the poll a few weeks ago and that the results confirmed city residents are frustrated and “hungry for solutions.” Crime topped the list of concerns among all demographic groups. But, Ferguson said, the results showed divisions among racial groups and across generations on how to address it: Some saw overhauling a corrupt political system as a necessary first step, while others wanted a focus on expanding economic and educational opportunities.

“I’ve always believed that the answer is likely somewhere in between, despite polling suggesting a more polarized public sentiment,” Ferguson said.

He had $74,600 in his campaign account as of January.

Sitting members of the state legislature cannot raise money to campaign for state office during the legislative session, but they are free to solicit donations to a campaign for mayor. Pugh brought in almost $600,000 during the 2016 session, when she was a state senator.

Thiru Vignarajah

Democrat Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy Maryland attorney general, has already declared his candidacy.

He’s setting out policy ideas, including a series of steps he said would help people facing steep water bills.

Vignarajah said he’s also opened a campaign office on Greenmount Avenue, lined up volunteer interns and hired three full-time staff members. They include deputy campaign manager Wil Hughes, who worked as field director on the successful campaign of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a 14-candidate primary.

Like Vignarajah, Lightfoot is a former prosecutor who ran on battling crime and corruption. Vignarajah said he thinks that message will cut across different neighborhoods — something he said polling he conducted when he ran unsuccessfully last year for state’s attorney showed.

He also noted that as someone who immigrated from Sri Lanka as a toddler, said he doesn’t fall into either of the city’s two biggest racial groups.

“I’m not white and I’m not black,” he said. “I think that as an outsider, we appeal to all neighborhoods.”

Vignarajah ended his run for state’s attorney with less than $2,000 in his campaign account as of January, but said he’s assembling a fundraising committee for the mayor’s race.

Sheila Dixon

Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after pleading guilty to a perjury charge at the end of a long-running corruption investigation, said she continues to weigh a run and that she’s thinking of conducting a poll soon.

She also said she’s set herself a deadline for when she needs to make a decision but declined to say when it is or characterize her thought process.

“I have a number of parameters that I’ve set," said Dixon, who finished second to Pugh in 2016.

Dixon reported $10,600 in her campaign account as of January.

Who else?

Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady, an activist with a sizable social media following has filed to run in the Democratic primary, as have seven other candidates.

Del. Nick Mosby, a Democrat who represents a district in West Baltimore, said he is considering running again for mayor. He sought the Democratic nomination in 2016 before dropping out and endorsing Pugh.

Former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith followed through over the winter on his plan to move from Baltimore County to the city, where he grew up, and has said he’s been consulting with advisers about running. He has been press secretary to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski since January.

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