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How last-minute voters pushed Brandon Scott to the top over Sheila Dixon in Baltimore race for mayor

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott takes part in a Peoples Power Assembly and Ujima Peoples Progress Party march on June 1, 2020.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott takes part in a Peoples Power Assembly and Ujima Peoples Progress Party march on June 1, 2020. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

People said Brandon Scott’s campaign manager must be delusional or, perhaps, in denial.

The day after the June 2 election, he blasted out a statement saying he was confident Scott would win Baltimore’s Democratic primary for mayor — never mind that early returns showed former Mayor Sheila Dixon comfortably ahead in her bid to reclaim her old job.

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Shouldn’t Scott be thinking about conceding, some asked, rather than projecting a victory?

But almost a week later, Scott’s campaign would be vindicated. The switch to mostly mail-in voting meant about half of all ballots were not tallied as of primary night. Scott’s support swelled with each additional data dump, signaling his popularity among those who, for whatever reason, waited until late in the race to cast their ballot.

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Scott, the 36-year-old City Council president, was banking on his support among younger, even first-time voters. He says he was aware they would likely cast their ballots late in the voting process — officials in other vote-by-mail states had told him to expect it.

"They said the younger people are going to vote at the end,” Scott said last week, joking he was probably the only millennial who turned his ballot in early.

Scott wound up capturing 29.6% of the vote, edging out a win over Dixon, who got 27.5%.

Throughout his campaign, Scott had referred to his youth among the candidate field as an asset, saying it was time for a changing of the guard at City Hall.

Campaign manager Marvin James said the team’s game plan included turning out first-time voters, and others who’d become disengaged from voting, by exciting them with a progressive vision and introducing them to a young, black man who understands the city.

Polling suggests Scott also appealed to a broad coalition that, in an often-segregated city, spanned racial lines.

“The big thing was his ability to draw support from across a lot of different demographics, white and black, young and older,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

Despite significant problems with Maryland’s first attempt at a mail-in election, voters showed up in record numbers, including many who don’t typically participate in local elections.

A huge number of residents voted for the first time — or the first time in a while — in this primary.

More than 153,000 Baltimore Democrats returned a ballot the election, roughly half of all eligible voters. Scott appears to have benefited from the higher-than-anticipated turnout.

The initial returns — based on about 75,000 of the first ballots to be mailed back — showed him trailing Dixon by more than 4,000 votes. As of Friday, he was ahead of her by more than 3,100 votes. The results must still be certified.

Maryland Democratic Party data shows that nearly 32% of the people who returned a ballot had not voted in the last three primaries. So-called “super voters" — who cast ballots in all three of the most recent primaries — made up a quarter of the vote.

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State Democratic Party Director Eva Lewis offered several possible reasons for the large number of infrequent voters. While the rollout of the vote-by-mail election was plagued with problems, sending ballots directly to voters made it easier for people to opt in, she said.

Lewis believes the national atmosphere — "George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the protests, the president gassing peaceful protesters to do a photo op the night before our primary” — galvanized people, too.

Several people who waited in long lines to vote in person on June 2 said they were doing so because, amid protests and a pandemic, they felt compelled to make their voices heard. Many referred to this mayor’s race as the most critical in a generation, as Baltimore wrestles with the impact of the coronavirus, unrelenting violence and a disenchantment with local government after recent political scandals.

Polls indicated that a couple weeks before primary day, much of the electorate was undecided on who to vote for. The Democratic field for mayor was fractured among six major candidates.

When it came time for late-deciders to cast their ballot, it appears Scott was the one most likely to win their vote.

While Bernadette Tanzymore, 62, was unsure who to vote for as of last month, she ultimately went with Scott “for a change in leadership.”

“With the state of the city, we needed a fresh perspective on everything — education, crime,” the retired steelworker from West Baltimore said.

Mayoral candidate, Sheila Dixon, discusses the time it is taking to count the votes as well as her future plans.

Polls positioned Scott as one of two leading alternatives to Dixon, a polarizing figure in Baltimore politics. The former mayor has a solid base of supporters, particularly black residents, who are fiercely loyal. They remember her as a competent city manager who drove down crime during her tenure from 2007 to 2010, and who has continued to fight for their communities. Still, many other residents are unwilling to overlook the public corruption scandal that drove her from office.

The other strong contender was former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, who polls indicated was the most popular candidate among Baltimore’s white voters.

She was in a statistical dead heat with Dixon and Scott about two weeks out from primary day. But her campaign appeared to wilt in the final days, and she captured less than 16% of the vote.

Christine Layton was one of those who was undecided as primary day crept closer. After she got her ballot in the mail, the 54-year-old public health adviser easily marked her choice in most races. When it came to mayor, though, she was torn: Miller or Scott?

Miller’s background in finance was appealing to Layton, especially in light of the economic turmoil triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. As she considered her decision, the national climate was changing. The killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police set off protests against racism and police brutality across the country, including in Baltimore, which still grapples with the death of Freddie Gray.

“That might have been what pushed me over,” Layton said. “As good as Mary Miller may be in terms of the financial end of things, Brandon Scott would be a better representative of the city.”

Layton, like Miller, is white. The resident of Oakenshawe in North Baltimore thinks of Scott, a black man born and raised here, as a son of Baltimore.

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It helped, too, that Layton’s 18-year-old daughter Elizabeth Sacktor was pushing Scott, sending her mother articles and arguing over dinners that he was the better candidate. Elizabeth, a 2020 graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, was voting in her first mayoral election.

She and her friends see Scott as a champion for the issues they care about, particularly education and the environment. Sacktor feels like he listens to youth voices, and can relate.

Kaye Whitehead, who hosts a daily show on WEAA-FM and teaches at Loyola University Maryland, said the recent protests served to remind people that Scott had also been a presence during Baltimore’s 2015 unrest, both as a city councilman and a co-founder of the anti-violence group 300 Man March.

She noted Scott was on the streets with the protesters this time, too, trying to keep the peace.

Young men like Whitehead’s 18-year-old son view Scott as “one of us,“ she said.

"They’ve watched him grow up with them, like a big brother,” Whitehead said. “Brandon Scott is deeply rooted in Baltimore City. A lot of issues young people have struggled with, he is intimately familiar with.”

Scott must still run in the November general election, where he will face a Republican nominee and two unaffiliated candidates, including wealthy businessman Bob Wallace. In a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, the primary has for decades determined who will be Baltimore’s mayor.

Acknowledging that he was nominated with less than a third of the vote, Scott has pledged to be a mayor for all of Baltimore.

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