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Politics

‘This it not a typical campaign:’ What does the indictment of Baltimore’s state’s attorney mean for the political race ahead?

When Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby mounted her first bid for reelection in 2018, she faced two serious challengers in defense attorney Ivan Bates and former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah.

The pair attacked the then first-term incumbent on the city’s homicide rate and her effectiveness in office, but Mosby still took the race by a landslide margin.

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Now, as Mosby enters her third campaign season, she again faces two Democratic opponents. But this time, the city’s top prosecutor confronts a very different landscape: one shaped by a federal criminal indictment brought against her earlier this month on charges of perjury and making false statements.

Local political observers are divided on what the charges may mean for the state’s attorney’s chances at another four years in office. Conventional wisdom suggests criminal charges for the woman responsible for prosecuting the crimes of others opens the door for a challenger. But some argue the indictment actually could work in the state’s attorney’s favor — rallying her base at an opportune time.

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One thing is clear: There have been few, if any, races like the one that’s shaping up in Baltimore.

“There’s a lot of noise here. This is not a typical campaign,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “She’s campaigning, defending herself and trying to run one of the most important offices in our city at a time when crime is a number one issue.”

Hartley is among the observers who sees an opportunity for a challenger. But for Democrats Ivan Bates or Roya Hanna, the two candidates who have entered the race so far, to overtake Mosby, it’s going to require some strong fundraising and work to build name recognition, Hartley said.

Hartley pointed to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina showing incumbent prosecutors win 50% of the time. That’s a lower success rate than incumbents in better known “up ballot” races like governors or senators — who typically win reelection better than 90% of the time. But not all prosecutors have Mosby’s level of name recognition.

“People are less likely to know who their prosecutor is and that gives even more power to name recognition and the incumbent,” he said.

Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead, a Loyola University Maryland professor and host of a local radio show, said she expects the indictment to make Mosby stronger, not weaker. The state’s attorney already has a strong support base, and the charges will only motivate them, Whitehead said.

“Some stations are hammering it home every day,” she said of local television and radio coverage of Mosby’s indictment. “If you’re a Marilyn Mosby supporter or someone who understands what it’s like to be an underdog, it is going to rile you up.”

The charges against Mosby, include allegations that she lied to prematurely withdraw thousands of dollars from her city retirement account without a tax penalty, then used the funds to purchase two vacation homes in Florida. Prosecutors said she claimed she had faced financial hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic to complete the withdrawal, when in fact she had received a raise during that time period, and she failed to disclose a federal tax lien as required in mortgage documents.

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Whitehead said Mosby should continue to deliver the messaging her attorney A. Scott Bolden has used thus far in her public defense: that the state’s attorney is being unfairly prosecuted for personal, political and racial reasons.

Mosby’s record, too, resonates with voters, Whitehead said. Her decision to prosecute six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray has not been forgotten, she said, even if those officers were ultimately not convicted. Whitehead also sees Mosby’s policy against prosecuting low-level crime, introduced in March 2020, resonating with the Black community, in which many have lost family members to the corrections system.

“For Baltimore residents in the struggle, that matters,” Whitehead said.

Anthony McCarthy, a longtime political operative who worked for several Baltimore mayors, also felt Mosby’s indictment had strengthened her position in the race. Callers to a radio show McCarthy hosts have been overwhelmingly supportive of the state’s attorney, he said.

“They don’t talk about specifics of perjury,” McCarthy said of his callers. “They don’t talk about loan applications. What they talk about is she has changed the conversation when it comes to marijuana convictions and she has gotten Black men out of prison who were wrongly convicted.”

McCarthy said Mosby’s public statements in the wake of the indictment pledging to fight have resonated with Black women in particular, a powerful faction of Baltimore’s voting population.

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“They want safety, and crime-fighting is a top priority,” McCarthy said. “But that can be trumped if they see a Black woman being unfairly targeted.”

To win, Bates and Hanna will need to draw distinctions in how they would prosecute differently than Mosby, McCarthy said. And they also must make the case that she cannot prosecute while under indictment, he said.

“They’ve got to give people a reason, and it can’t be I’m not Marilyn Mosby,” he said. “Proclaiming that you’re not Marilyn Mosby won’t get you elected.”

Mosby’s challengers have been reluctant so far to address the charges against the state’s attorney.

“Ms. Mosby’s issue, that’s her issue,” Bates said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “I’m totally focused on the campaign and talking about the crime that’s happening in the city.”

“I was always running based on the issues as it relates to the state’s attorney’s office, as it relates to crime, homicides in the city,” Hanna said. “That hasn’t changed.”

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Bates has spoken with his war chest, however. The two-time challenger in the race raised $361,707 in the last year toward his bid for office — topping Mosby by more than $43,000 once a personal loan he made to the campaign was discounted.

Mosby is in the unique position of raising money for two separate funds this election season — another anomaly of an election held in the midst of an indictment. In addition to her traditional campaign account, a legal-defense fund has been established for Mosby’s benefit and has been accepting donations since last summer.

Hartley questioned whether the parallel funds would dilute the money Mosby is able to raise for campaign purposes. Ethics filings, due this spring from officeholders including Mosby, may offer the only glimpse at who has donated to the legal defense fund.

Vignarajah, who challenged Mosby in 2015, questioned whether Mosby may be able to use the controversy to increase her campaign’s financial position.

“This could be a boon for fundraising,” he said. “She wouldn’t be the first candidate to use adversity as a lightning rod.”

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Vignarajah said the indictment is certainly a “material change” in the landscape of the race. He and Hartley questioned whether other candidates will be enticed to join the contest due to Mosby’s perceived vulnerability. The filing deadline is still one month away. A wider field, like Baltimore saw in its last mayoral race, would mean the winning candidate could prevail with a smaller margin of votes.

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“You’ve got to believe some folks are at least going to entertain the possibility,” said Vignarajah, adding that he has no plans to enter the race himself.

Still another peculiarity of an election in the midst of an indictment may be the importance of endorsements. While coveted and touted by politicians, endorsements in most races are largely irrelevant to voters. But now that Mosby has found herself under a legal cloud, those who stand behind her publicly will be telling, observers said.

Just as important, Whitehead said, will be those that don’t.

“Dr. King said ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,’” Whitehead said. “Baltimore is that kind of place.”

“Marilyn Mosby’s friends are not being silent,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.


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