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Super PAC supporting Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller seeks to win with white votes in majority-black city

A political action committee supporting Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller is seeking to win the Balkanized race by attracting white voters in the majority-black city, according to an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

In an email sent in recent weeks to potential donors, Martin G. Knott Jr., treasurer for the Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC, laid out the group’s strategy: Use negative campaigning to lure white voters away from two candidates regarded by some as Miller’s chief rivals for white voters, former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah and City Council President Brandon Scott.

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Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive, is the only white candidate among the leading Democratic contenders. Baltimore’s population is about 63% black and 30% white.

“We are down the road with our strategy and it’s simple, we will be targeting white voters at their mailbox and in their social media with short videos and mail pieces that we believe will erode support from those two candidates," Knott wrote of the PAC’s strategy. "For Thiru, we are simply using information from the incidents that he caused himself, and for Brandon, his biggest negative is Brandon, so we plan a straight up side by side comparison that will show voters that there really is no comparison between Mary’s skills and experience and Brandon’s.”

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When asked Wednesday why the group’s strategy wasn’t to appeal to voters of various races and backgrounds, Knott apologized. He called the email “poorly worded” and said it was sent to just a few potential donors.

“In full transparency after sending that email to five people in one day, I realized it was poorly worded and changed it in the dozens of other fundraising emails I sent, because it doesn’t reflect our strategy or my intent. I made a mistake,” Knott said in an emailed statement. “Our messaging is focused on every voter in Baltimore City, as evidenced by our recent TV buys starting last weekend on every major network and again tonight on WBAL .... Baltimore is facing an impending financial crisis. Our goal is to ensure we elect someone with strong ethics, good judgment and the experience needed to address these challenges on Day 1.”

In a statement, Miller disavowed Knott’s email and said she has no knowledge of the PAC’s activities.

“This is not who I am. Martin Knott does not speak for me, or for my campaign,” Miller said. “I disavow his statements. These are not my values, or the values of those who work with me. From day one, our campaign has been about every Baltimorean ― Black, White, Latinx and Asian. We are committed to inclusion, dismantling structural racism, and creating opportunity for everyone across our city.”

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The PAC is running negative advertisements against Vignarajah ― featuring footage from a traffic stop in which Vignarajah asked an officer to turn off his body camera ― and former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was driven from office a decade ago in a public corruption case.

The candidates targeted by the PAC condemned the actions.

"This sad, disgraceful effort to divide us has no place in our city and should be rejected immediately by everyone who wants Baltimore to move forward,” Scott said.

Vignarajah invoked Miller’s 2006 campaign donation to Republican Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and said she was seeking to win solely by appealing to voters who live in Baltimore’s so-called “White L” neighborhoods.

“Mary Miller’s “White L” strategy is divisive, disgusting, and unsurprising," Vignarajah said.

Martha McKenna, a spokeswoman for Dixon, said she would be a “leader for all of Baltimore.”

“Sheila has earned support from every neighborhood in this city, not only because she makes sure every street is cleaned and she fights crime on every single block, but because she puts together diverse teams of people to do the important work of city government,” McKenna said.

It’s the second time in recent days The Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC has come under fire.

A nonprofit advocacy group last week filed an ethics complaint with the Maryland elections board, alleging campaign finance violations by the PAC.

Progressive Maryland, which endorsed Scott in the June 2 mayoral primary, filed a complaint saying the PAC commissioned a poll before filing its legal paperwork.

The PAC is funded by several wealthy donors, including retired T. Rowe Price Chairman Brian Rogers, former Legg Mason Chairman & CEO Mark Fetting and Continental Realty Corporation Co-Chairman John Luetkemeyer.

The Rev. Al Hathaway, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, vouched for Knott’s character, but said he couldn’t back the email or the strategy. “I was surprised there was an out-and-out racial description,” Hathaway said, calling the email “off base.”

Twenty-four Democrats have filed to run for mayor, but polls show only six candidates have gained traction with the electorate: Dixon, Scott, Vignarajah, Miller, former police spokesman T.J. Smith, and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Seven Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate also have filed to run in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

In deep-blue Baltimore, the Democratic primary has traditionally determined the outcome of the mayor’s race, which this year is being conducted mostly by mail. Elections officials say they have begun mailing ballots to voters.

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