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Baltimore mayoral debate on Fox 45 becomes forum for just one candidate, Thiru Vignarajah, after others decline invitation

What was originally billed by Fox 45 as a debate among Baltimore’s Democratic mayoral candidates instead became a roughly hourlong conversation with only one contender — former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah — after three others declined the Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned station’s invitation to Thursday night’s event.

Former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller’s campaign manager wrote a Sinclair executive Wednesday to officially decline the invitation for WBFF-TV′s virtual debate. She said the campaign is concerned that the station’s coverage of the election is biased in favor of Vignarajah, in part because Sinclair executives have made large contributions to his campaign.

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Former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s spokeswoman, Martha McKenna, said the former mayor declined to participate in Thursday’s event due to short notice from organizers. City Council President Brandon Scott’s campaign spokesman Marvin James said he decided not to participate after learning the original candidates he anticipated sharing the screen with were no longer attending.

The station hosted a more than hourlong online “conversation” with Vignarajah alone Thursday night, with anchor Mary Bubala noting at the beginning of the livestreamed program that they had hoped to be joined by Miller, Dixon and Scott. The station did not invite former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young because they require candidates to release five years of tax returns to qualify for these debates.

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“I was looking forward to a debate,” said Vignarajah, pitching himself as the candidate who will push for greater transparency in local government.

In her letter to the station, Miller’s campaign manager, Ann Beegle, noted that several people affiliated with Sinclair, a conservative-leaning Hunt Valley-based company, have made large financial contributions to Vignarajah’s mayoral campaign.

“We had hoped that Fox 45’s news coverage would not be influenced by Sinclair with regards to this election," she wrote.

Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s news vice president, denied any bias in an email to The Baltimore Sun, adding that Miller and other top candidates have been invited to appear on the station.

“I don’t have any idea of what anyone associated with Sinclair does with their money,” he wrote. “Our focus has been on what’s in the best interest of the people of Baltimore.”

Sinclair Chairman David D. Smith’s children and their spouses donated a combined $30,000 to Vignarajah, each contributing the maximum $6,000 allowed under Maryland law, according to campaign finance reports. An additional $6,000 was donated by J. Duncan Smith, the vice president and secretary of Sinclair, as well as a board member. Others with ties to the station have donated as well.

Smith family members have made contributions to other candidates, too. Frederick Smith, a Sinclair vice president and board member, gave Mayor Young a $4,000 contribution. His sons, Eric Smith and Alexander Smith, gave Young $6,000 after a fundraiser at one of their restaurants. Eric Smith also gave $1,000 to Scott.

The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday that Sinclair faces a record $48 million civil penalty to resolve three investigations by the agency.

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