In Baltimore’s mayoral race, there’s a waiting game underway.
Is Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young running? He won’t say. Is City Council President Brandon Scott? No firm answer. How about former Mayor Sheila Dixon? She, too, is waiting to see.
Like party-goers hesitant to step on an empty dance floor, the biggest names considering runs in Baltimore’s consequential mayoral contest are still sitting it out, each waiting for others to make the first move.
At stake is the future of Maryland’s largest city, which is trying to regroup after its former mayor resigned in scandal but endures relentless violent crime.
In particular, many are watching Young.
“People are waiting to find out what the incumbent is going to do,” says Mark McLaurin, political director of an influential local branch of the Service Employees International Union. “As long as Jack keeps fiddling, it really impacts people’s analysis of the race.”
After previously swearing off a run for the city’s top job, Young said in July he’s now considering running. But he won’t say when he will make a decision.
“I’m more focused on running the city of Baltimore, keeping things moving and making sure agencies are responding to citizens,” Young said in an interview last week. “When the time comes to make a decision, everybody will know. I don’t have a deadline.”
With the all-important Democratic primary quickly approaching in April, the Baltimore mayor’s race traditionally heats up after Labor Day. Four years ago, both City Councilman Carl Stokes and state Sen. Catherine Pugh, the eventual winner, joined the field in early September against Dixon.
But Young can potentially wait longer than other candidates to declare.
Since becoming mayor in May after Pugh resigned amid scandal, Young has the power of incumbency on his side. It helps him raise money and provides constant media attention.
“It’s a Jack-centered waiting game right now,” says Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. “The longer he solidifies himself as mayor without the blur of a campaign, the better it is for him. It’s good for Jack there’s not currently another declared candidate that’s held public office before.”
If he jumps in, state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a former mayoral candidate herself, thinks Young is the man to beat.
"Should Jack declare, he will be the front-runner and everyone else will be vying for second place,” Carter said.
Several other formidable candidates ― including Dixon and Scott ― also said last week they remain undecided.
“It’s probably going to get a little more crowded after Labor Day, but I’m not ready to decide," Dixon said.
Asked what she thought about other potential candidates, Dixon said: “I commend anyone who wants to serve. But just because you want to do something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the city.”
Scott said he’s been “greatly enjoying my time as City Council president and my role in trying to professionalize city government.”
But, he said, “no matter where I go, citizens are asking me to run for mayor and I don’t take that decision lightly.”
Scott said he would make a decision about his future “in a timely fashion, but not in an irresponsible fashion.”
Kromer noted that Scott is 35 years old, and his youth could appeal to young voters. He’s already been on a gubernatorial campaign ticket as a lieutenant governor candidate.
“There could be a generational dynamic at play," Kromer said. “Brandon is good on TV. He’s good at creating a media moment. He’d be a formidable candidate.”
Eleven candidates have formally filed to run for mayor of Baltimore, including three Republicans: political strategist Catalina Byrd; Shannon Wright, a nonprofit executive and former pastor, and William G. Herd.
Democrats who have said they are running include former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, Baltimore activist Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady, and the unofficial “mayor of Hampden” Lou Catelli (real name Will Bauer). The others are little known: Lynn Sherwood Harris, Ralph E. Johnson II, James Hughes Jones II, Dante C. Swinton, Rikki Vaughn and Frederick Ware-Newsome.
In addition to Young, Scott and Dixon, prominent Democrats considering a run include former Baltimore police spokesman TJ Smith, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, state Sen. Bill Ferguson, state Del. Nick J. Mosby, and state Sen. Mary Washington.
A spokesman for Jealous said Friday that the former gubernatorial candidate is still “mulling” his options and “will make an announcement soon.”
Smith said he is consulting a “diverse team of thinkers and problem solvers" while he gives “serious thought” to running.
“I am honored to be in the conversation and I am closing in on a final decision,” he said.
Progressives have been encouraging Washington, who would be among the more liberal candidates in the field, to run.
“We think there’s room in the race for an unabashed progressive, because in our estimation Baltimore has never had an unabashed progressive mayor and we think progressive ideas here could make a difference,” McLaurin says. “We’ve never really tried someone with a vision for the city that’s rooted in progressivism.”
McLaurin also said he believes Washington could appeal to Baltimore voters across racial lines, much as Pugh did when she finished either first or second in every precinct in the city during her successful campaign.
“If you really look at winning the mayor’s race, you need a truly multi-racial coalition,” McLaurin said. “If you finish second or third in black precincts and first among white voters, you’re mayor.”
In an interview, Washington said she had previously ruled out running, but was newly open to it.
“It’s absolutely an honor so many people are putting my name in,” Washington said. “It’s not off the table. I’m willing to consider it."
Candidates will need to have strong ideas about how to bring down crime, said former state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV, who hosts the “C4” show on WBAL-AM.
The city is on pace for its fifth year in a row of more than 300 homicides. There have been more than 700 shootings so far this year ― a 23 percent increase from this time last year -― including multiple attacks on police officers.
“I guarantee you after Monday you’re going to hear names announced,” Mitchell said. “Whoever is going to jump in, the first thing they have to deal with is crime. It will be a central issue of the campaign.”
Mitchell said he believes one reason some candidates have been reluctant to enter the race is how daunting the task is: “How do you answer the question of this five-year cycle of violence? I’m not sure people have answers,” he said.
Lenneal J. Henderson, emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Baltimore, said he believes some candidates are waiting to declare to avoid months of the tough public scrutiny a campaign brings.
But, Henderson said, sitting on the sidelines can be risky. It could leave an opportunity for an outsider candidate to jump in the race first and gain support with voters.
“The thing they risk is a darkhorse candidate from the outside,” Henderson said.
Of the potential field, Henderson said he believes Dixon could afford to enter the race later than others given her widespread name recognition.
With Dixon, the issue will be whether voters are willing to overlook her conviction in a corruption case that forced her from office in favor of her success at driving down crime while mayor from 2007-2010, Henderson said.
Four years ago, Dixon narrowly lost the mayor’s race to Pugh. Dixon had broad appeal in predominantly African American areas of the city, but fared poorly in white neighborhoods.
“She wasn’t a bad mayor,” Henderson said. “What Baltimore needs now is a scrappy, intelligent, tenacious veteran. If I’m Sheila Dixon right now, I’m putting together a team that will help me in those white precincts.”
Vignarajah, who announced his mayoral campaign in April, said he welcomes more candidates to the field. He said he believes his head start will give him an advantage.
“We have been to dozens of community events, church basements and coffee talks in every part of the city,” Vignarajah said. “We have knocked on countless doors.”
He said voters are hungry for change, and he expects to announce detailed policy plans soon.
“The city is in crisis. All over the city I hear people say, ‘Enough is enough,’" Vignarajah said. “This mayor’s race is shaping up to be a referendum on the failures of City Hall.”
The Democratic and Republican primary elections are April 28. The filing deadline is Jan. 24.