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In Baltimore mayor’s race final stretch, Vignarajah has most cash, plus super PAC funded by plane backer

With little more than a month to go, former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah has the most cash on hand in the crowded, competitive race to become Baltimore’s next mayor.
With little more than a month to go, former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah has the most cash on hand in the crowded, competitive race to become Baltimore’s next mayor.(Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

With little more than a month to go, former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah has the most cash on hand in the crowded, competitive race to become Baltimore’s next mayor ― plus the support of a super PAC funded by backers of an airplane surveillance program that will record city neighborhoods.

Vignarajah, a former deputy Maryland attorney general, on Wednesday reported more than $700,000 in cash in his campaign account. That’s hundreds of thousands more than his rivals in an election upended by the coronavirus pandemic in ways that give the ability to run TV and radio ads new importance.

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The latest campaign filings also show Vignarajah has the support of a super political action committee called “A Safer, Stronger Baltimore PAC.” The committee received a $100,000 contribution from Texas billionaire John Arnold, who is funding a controversial plan to fly surveillance planes over Baltimore seeking to record evidence of crimes. Vignarajah is also a former city and federal prosecutor.

Although Vignarajah has the most money, he’s likely to be outspent in the June 2 Democratic primary by former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, who is pumping some of her wealth into the race.

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Miller on Tuesday reported spending more than $2 million, funding a robust advertising effort that her rivals will struggle to match.

In her first campaign finance report, Miller said she had raised $2.3 million ― including a $1.5 million contribution from herself ― and had more than $150,000 left on hand as candidates enter the final five weeks of the campaign. She said she will purchase television ads to run through the remainder of the race.

“We have a broad base of support working to make Baltimore the city we know it can be,” Miller said.

Nearly 50 supporters gave her the maximum $6,000 donations allowable under Maryland law.

The deadline to file the latest reports was midnight Tuesday. Two candidates reported problems uploading their forms to the elections board site; a state official said that was due to issues with a file format and a help desk resolved the problem Wednesday morning.

Money matters in elections, but it doesn’t guarantee victory. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon led in last month’s poll for The Baltimore Sun, University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM despite having less campaign cash.

Dixon reported having roughly $300,000 on hand Tuesday.

Since the last finance deadline in January, Dixon has raised more than $330,000. The former mayor began running TV ads this week.

City Council President Brandon Scott reported roughly $415,000 to spend, after raising more than $190,000 in the last filing period. He’s been endorsed by several unions, which have thrown financial support behind him.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young reported spending $974,000 since January. Young raised $217,000, and had $202,000 left on hand.

While the city is responding to the coronavirus pandemic, Young has essentially stopped fundraising efforts to handle the health crisis, his campaign spokesman has said. Still, his report shows he’s spent aggressively on television advertising and consultants.

“I haven’t spoken to donors, I haven’t made fundraising calls,” Young said Wednesday. “What’s going on in this city with this pandemic is more important to me than anything. … Those who want to continue to use this pandemic for politicking, shame on you.”

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Former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith reported raising about $103,000 with $22,000 in the bank.

Under normal circumstances, voters would have cast ballots Tuesday for Democratic nominees for mayor. To reduce the spread of the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan last month pushed the election to June and shifted it to an almost entirely mail-in ballot system.

Candidates’ typical methods of persuading undecided voters — knocking on doors, speaking at forums and debating on television — have largely been taken off the table as the pandemic forces people to stay home. It’s also made fundraising more difficult, as unemployment rates skyrocket and people brace for a severe economic downturn.

Three super PACs formed to support Dixon, Vignarajah and Young, respectively. Of those, only Vignarajah’s supporters reported cash on hand.

Miller, a former T. Rowe Price Group executive, wasn’t required to file a finance report in January, so Tuesday’s document provided the clearest picture to date of how she’s paying for her campaign. She entered the race late, and didn’t have a campaign committee established 10 days prior to the Jan. 15 finance report deadline.

The state Board of Elections is reviewing a complaint that a Baltimore real estate agent filed with the board in late April about Miller’s campaign. She alleged Miller bought signs, hired staff and otherwise incurred “significant” campaign expenses before officially declaring her candidacy Jan. 21 with the state.

A Miller campaign spokeswoman said the allegations in the complaint are addressed in the candidate’s Tuesday filing. The report states Miller paid Feb. 13 for her Jan. 7 launch party venue, food and other expenses.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the election board’s candidacy and campaign finance division, said the board would review the complaint, as it does all that are received, to determine whether it requires action.

Miller’s filing this week showed her campaign bringing in large donations from across the country. Donors contributed more than $725,000 since January.

That’s funded a vigorous media strategy that’s kept her on voters’ screens. She’s spent more than $1.2 million on media, according to her campaign finance report.

Two dozen candidates are running in the primary. There are seven people running in the Republican primary, as well as one unaffiliated candidate for the office.

For decades, the primary contest among the city’s Democrats, who outnumber Republican voters in the city by nearly 10-1, has decided who leads Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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