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Super PAC supporting Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller shuts down after email details strategy to attract white voters

A political action committee that supported Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller is shutting down and returning unspent money after a leaked email revealed a strategy to target white voters in a majority-black city. Miller is shown in a Jan. 6, 2020, photo.
A political action committee that supported Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller is shutting down and returning unspent money after a leaked email revealed a strategy to target white voters in a majority-black city. Miller is shown in a Jan. 6, 2020, photo.(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

A political action committee that supported Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller is shutting down and returning unspent money after a leaked email revealed a strategy to target white voters in a majority-black city.

Martin G. Knott Jr., treasurer for the Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC, announced the decision Thursday on the group’s website. He said the PAC’s intention was to promote “the candidate best positioned to turn our city around during these unprecedented times."

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“Unfortunately, our efforts have become more of a distraction than a help,” he wrote. “We are immediately ceasing operations and will return any unspent funds.”

The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday night on the email Knott sent to potential donors, in which he laid out the group’s plans for the June 2 primary. He said the PAC would use negative ads to take voters away from former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah and City Council President Brandon Scott, candidates who, like Miller, have polled well among white voters.

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“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. The email was dated April 30, the day the PAC was established, according to state elections board records.

Baltimore’s population is about 63% black and 30% white.

Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive and U.S. Treasury official, is the only white candidate among the leading Democratic candidates. Vignarajah is of South Asian descent and the other major candidates are black.

Miller agreed with the PAC’s decision. While she said she had no knowledge of the PAC’s activities, she apologized Wednesday night for what happened.

“I’m outraged that an outside group caused unnecessary divisiveness in this race, and distracted from the important issues facing voters," Miller said Thursday in a new statement. "They’ve made the right decision in ceasing operations.

“They do not reflect my values, who I am, nor the values of those who work for my campaign."

Knott also apologized. He called the email “poorly worded” and said it was sent to just a few people.

PAC organizations are allowed to spend money in support of candidates, but cannot coordinate with campaigns.

The group already reported spending thousands of dollars sending out mailers and running negative television advertisements against Vignarajah — featuring footage from a traffic stop in which Vignarajah asked an officer to turn off his body camera. Also targeted was former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was driven from office a decade ago in a public corruption case.

According to the PAC’s financial disclosure form, filed May 10 with the state election board, it raised $90,000 and spent nearly a third on ads. It also incurred roughly $88,000 in debt from costs stemming from mailers and polling.

The candidates targeted by the PAC quickly condemned the strategy. Vignarajah held a news conference Thursday morning asking for the group to shut down and calling its actions “divisive and disgusting.”

“Shame on any campaign that thinks the reality of two Baltimores is not a problem to be overcome, not a tragedy to be lamented, but a political opportunity to be exploited,” he said.

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Scott’s campaign sent out a fundraising email citing the report, contrasting it with his goal of “bringing people together to solve our toughest challenges and leaving no one behind.”

“Unfortunately, other candidates don’t see it that way, and their campaigns are going negative and using tactics that are shameful and racially divisive,” campaign manager Marvin James wrote.

Martha McKenna, a spokeswoman for Dixon, said the former mayor will work to improve every neighborhood in Baltimore.

“Only Sheila Dixon has a record of delivering positive results for every Baltimore block — that’s why outside groups and other candidates are struggling to slow the Dixon momentum," she said in a statement.

The Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC is also the subject of a complaint over campaign finance violations.

Knott, the treasurer, is the president and co-owner of Knott Mechanical, a Hunt Valley-based business that offers plumbing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and other building services.

He has described himself as a “progressive, pro-growth business leader” and proud supporter of the Democratic Party. Knott served as national finance chairman for former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s unsuccessful run in 2016 for the Democratic nomination for president.

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

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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