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Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold hosted a fundraiser that brought in $20,000 for the mayoral campaign of Thiru Vignarajah. The Arnolds have offered to help pay for a controversial surveillance plane program to monitor Baltimore crime.
Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold hosted a fundraiser that brought in $20,000 for the mayoral campaign of Thiru Vignarajah. The Arnolds have offered to help pay for a controversial surveillance plane program to monitor Baltimore crime. (Lloyd Fox/AP)

Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah said Tuesday he raised roughly $20,000 at a recent fundraiser hosted by a pair of Texas donors who have backed efforts to fly surveillance planes over the city.

Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold hosted a fundraiser for Vignarajah in Houston, part of a series of events in Baltimore and across the country aimed at boosting support for his campaign. John Arnold did not respond to a request for comment.

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The controversial aerial surveillance program — which supporters say could be an important tool in the fight against Baltimore’s unrelenting violent crime — took off in 2016 without public disclosure. The pilot program was halted amid criticism of its secrecy and condemnations from civil liberties advocates, who called the “spy plane” a violation of people’s rights.

Recently, the head of the company behind the aerial surveillance operation pitched Baltimore officials on revamping it — this time with three camera-laden planes flying above the city simultaneously, covering the areas that see the vast majority of shootings.

The Arnolds, who also funded the 2016 pilot program, have stepped forward to help fund the program should it be approved by city leaders. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has not yet taken a stance on whether to revive it.

But Vignarajah is clear: If elected mayor, he plans to get the aerial surveillance program off the ground — albeit this time, he says, coupled with public hearings and input. It’s one of the top items listed on his campaign’s recently released crime plan.

Vignarajah, a former city and federal prosecutor, is running in a crowded Democratic primary that includes Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Council President Brandon Scott, State Sen. Mary Washington, former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith and businessman Rikki Vaughn.

Vignarajah said the Arnolds’ show of support has nothing to do with his position on aerial surveillance.

“People support our campaign because of the positions we take,” he said in an interview. “We don’t take positions because of the support we get.”

Vignarajah wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed in October 2018 that the debate over aerial surveillance presents “a false choice between privacy and public safety.” He said he would work with the city to establish strict rules for when surveillance footage could be used and require police obtain a warrant if they want to see the tapes.

“Our city cannot afford to discard potentially good ideas just because they were badly presented,” he wrote. “Aerial surveillance could be a potent tool to solve violent crimes.”

Campaign finance reports will be published in January.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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