Sun/UB/WYPR poll on what voters are seeking from the mayoral candidates, presented by Steve Raabe, President, OpinionWorks.
One is a former cop, another a former prosecutor. One led the Baltimore City Council’s public safety committee, another led the city through a drop in the homicide rate.
In Baltimore’s crowded race for mayor, the candidates are playing to their strengths as they argue why they’re best equipped to pull the city out of a devastating cycle of violence.
Half of respondents in a recent Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore/WYPR poll said addressing crime is the most important thing the next mayor must do. The person who makes the case they can deal with crime most effectively could be best positioned to win the crowded and competitive April 28 Democratic primary.
“Crime is an overpowering factor in this race,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll.
Voters were remarkably consistent when responding to an open-ended question about what they want from the next mayor. Their comments included:
“Stop all the murders.”
“Get a handle on the crime.”
“Work on making the city safe again.”
“Someone with the drive to carry out a vision for reducing crime.”
“Get the murdering under control.”
Baltimore has suffered through more than 300 homicides annually for five consecutive years. The city’s desperation prompted bold promises from some candidates: Former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah says he’ll get the homicide count below 200 or won’t seek re-election; City Council President Brandon Scott says he’ll aim to reduce homicides 15% each year.
Several candidates have something in common with some of the residents they seek to represent: They, too, have lost loved ones in a city plagued by flying bullets.
In many ways, the Democratic candidates for mayor agree with the Baltimore Police Department on its goals. They want to get repeat, violent offenders off the streets and to increase the number of patrol officers. And they want officers to rebuild trust with residents after a federal investigation found the police department routinely violated poor, black people’s civil rights, forcing the city to enter into a 2017 consent decree.
But the candidates represent different approaches to getting there.
State Sen. Mary Washington and Scott are viewed by analysts as proponents of taking a public health approach to fighting crime. Of the major candidates, they are the only two who have spoken out against the police department’s plan to use an aerial surveillance plane.
That’s in contrast to Vignarajah, who supports the plane and counts its backers among his major donors. After losing the 2018 primary for Baltimore state’s attorney, he argues that a prosecutor who has successfully put violent criminals away is the right choice for mayor. He hits current officeholders on the crime rate at every chance.
T.J. Smith, a former Baltimore Police spokesman, strikes a similar tone. His message resonates with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who singled out Smith for praise after watching a recent mayoral forum. Hogan said he believed other candidates “sort of gave BS answers,” but Smith hammered down on getting “these violent shooters off the streets and behind bars where they belong.”
Dixon is quick to point to her record. The annual number of homicides, the overall violent crime rate and the number of arrests fell when she was mayor from 2007 to 2010. She says her success stemmed from putting the right people in the right positions, like her pick for commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who championed community-oriented policing over the controversial zero-tolerance strategy of his predecessors.
“Every time I turn on the TV, we’re hearing about a killing,” Dixon supporter Audrey Mack, 58, said in an interview after participating in the poll. If the former mayor is reelected, “you know what she’s going to give us when she gets in there. Things will get better. She’s done it before.”
Analysts say this reputation could bolster her campaign; Dixon had a slight lead in the poll, though Raabe said other candidates, such as Scott, Smith and Vignarajah, could be poised to jump ahead as an alternative.
“If a candidate in this race can begin to crystallize and articulate what the path forward might be," he said, “that candidate could catch fire."
Roughly three-quarters of likely Democratic primary voters polled said the city is on the wrong track. This sentiment, coupled with residents’ exasperation with crime, could create problems for the current officials in the race.
“Those who are in office, on the issue of crime, could be fairly or unfairly being questioned: ‘How could you not solve this problem while you have been in office?’” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, seeking a full four-year term, says he is focused every day on tackling violence and supports Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s approach, which the two officials unveiled side-by-side last summer.
The strategy set performance goals and pledges to use “intelligence-led policing” in deployment decisions. It called for federal prosecutors to work alongside city prosecutors to identify cases involving “repeat violent gun offenders” and to re-institute “call-ins,” in which law enforcement officers make contact with people on probation and parole.
Former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller also wants to stick with Harrison’s plan. However, she has accused Young of not providing enough support to the department, in terms of vision and resources. “We don’t need more plans to fight crime,” she says in one of her first television commercials. “We need somebody to be accountable — and I will.”
While Harrison enjoys support from several candidates, neither Dixon nor Scott have committed to retaining him if elected. Vignarajah said he would end an era of mayors scapegoating commissioners. Smith said it’s premature to speak about any department head’s potential job status. Washington said she would evaluate all agency heads, but added it would be “reckless” not to acknowledge the impact of fragmented leadership in the police department; Baltimore has cycled through five commissioners since 2015.
If he’s fired without cause, Harrison, who is paid $275,000 a year, would get the balance of his five-year contract in bi-weekly installments. It ends in 2024.
What the candidates propose
Scott has been vocal about how Baltimore needs a “comprehensive” strategy to fight crime. His 26-page public safety plan reflects that. Alongside pledges to target gun traffickers, there are proposals to fund a year-round version of the summer YouthWorks program, pilot safe consumption sites for drug users and better manage vacant lots. That approach could appeal to some of the voters polled, who said they wanted to see crime reduced in part by the city creating jobs and programs for young people.
“Every agency will know that when I wake up in the morning, I’m going to call them and ask them: What have they done to reduce violence in Baltimore City?" said Scott, former chair of the public safety committee, “and before I go to sleep at night, I will do the same thing.”
Dixon, too, includes the need to stabilize communities as part of her crime plan. Her proposal is defined by nitty-gritty ideas to improve the police department, reflecting the experience she gained in City Hall before she was forced out of office in 2010 on charges that she stole gift cards intended for poor families. As part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge, she resigned as mayor.
Dixon says the police department must increase its patrol presence, even as it’s short hundreds of officers. She is proposing the department disband its plainclothes units and redirect those officers to patrol duties until minimum staffing requirements are met.
“When people see officers in the community," she said, “they feel safer.”
Smith, a former Anne Arundel County Police Department lieutenant, also emphasizes recruitment, offering up ideas he thinks could draw more officers: expanding a “take home car” program and offering signing bonuses. When he was a Baltimore Police spokesman, he was a frequent presence at crime scenes, and supporters say they appreciated his frankness and passion when addressing the cameras.
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Vignarajah is leaning on his work as a prosecutor, outlining a plan some analysts call substantive and extensive. He put forward ideas that would require strong partnerships with federal, state and local agencies; for example, he wants a dozen simultaneous wiretap investigations in each of the city’s 12 deadliest neighborhoods leading up to summer’s violent months and a system for tracking juvenile cases and maintaining a private list of young people who repeatedly commit violent crimes.
“A billion-dollar drug industry is driving a murder every day,” Vignarajah says in one of several TV ads devoted to his vision for fighting crime. “I’m going to cut it in half without mass incarceration.”
Washington, the state senator, is pushing an idea only possible through the General Assembly: establishing local control of the city’s police force, which is technically a state agency, to boost accountability. At the heart of her plan is a call for community feedback. She hosted meetings to solicit residents’ ideas on how to make Baltimore safer and released a public safety plan based on their input.
Amid this debate, residents are frustrated by a perceived lack of urgency and politicking while people die, said radio host Karsonya Wise Whitehead.
“If you have amazing plans that can change the city," she said, “do it now.”