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Politics

Two years removed from Baltimore mayoral candidacy, Thiru Vignarajah announces run for state’s attorney

Thiru Vignarajah, the former city, state and federal prosecutor who has run for Baltimore state’s attorney and mayor, is running for state’s attorney again, setting the stage for a potential rematch of the last election for the city’s top prosecutor.

Unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nominations for state’s attorney in 2018 and mayor in 2020 make Vignarajah a familiar face in Baltimore. He has been a partner at the law firm DLA Piper and prosecuted a range of high-profile cases during stints as deputy Maryland attorney general, special U.S. attorney for Maryland and chief of major investigations in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office.

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Vignarajah has kept himself in the public eye with TV news appearances and by taking up causes of public interest.

He announced his candidacy in a statement released first to The Baltimore Sun, saying the city’s seven-year stretch of more than 300 annual homicides, attrition in the Baltimore Police Department and the federal criminal indictment of current State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby contributed to his decision.

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“If any American city is facing a crisis worse than ours — a record-shattering crime crisis and a crisis of confidence — I am unaware of it,” Vignarajah said. “I have devoted my life to public service, to fighting crime as a federal and city prosecutor, and I simply can’t watch this human catastrophe from the sideline when I know I can do something to stop it.”

Speculation about a run by Vignarajah swirled for the last month. His stance about a candidacy shifted following the decision by Roya Hanna to drop out of the Democratic primary and run as an independent in the November general election. In January, Vignarajah said he wasn’t considering a run. By the time of Hanna’s announcement earlier this month, he said he hadn’t ruled it out.

The implications of Vignarajah’s candidacy are not clear. Candidates have until April 15 to file for the July 19 primary, following a second postponement ordered by Maryland Court of Appeals due to legal challenges to the state’s redistricting maps.

Defense attorney Ivan Bates was the only person who had filed to run as of Monday evening in the Democratic primary, according to the State Board of Elections, although Hanna was still listed as a primary candidate.

Mosby, a two-term incumbent who was widely expected to run to retain her post, has not filed yet amid her legal battle against charges of perjury and making false statements.

Mosby maintains her innocence and her lawyers have mounted a defense that so far has targeted the U.S. attorney’s office with allegations of vindictive prosecution.

At a pair of news conferences last week, Mosby was coy about her political plans even as she touted her work. Ahead of those public appearances, a bare version of her campaign website was restored after having been offline for about a month. It had a link for donations and a message: “SOMETHING IS HAPPENING! STAY TUNED.”

In the 2018 primary, Mosby sealed a comfortable victory with about 49% of the vote. Bates and Vignarajah split the remaining ballots with 28% and 22.5%, respectively.

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Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s School of Public Affairs, said a three-way race favors Mosby because there would be a potential for votes again splitting between the challengers.

“One potential Achilles’ heel for the state’s attorney: The violent crime problem is still a major issue four years later. There may be voters looking for a change,” Hartley said. “Then the question is whether those voters will split between Bates and Vignarajah, like they did four years ago. If Mosby keeps her support from four years ago, then she’s going to be very strong.”

If it’s Bates versus Vignarajah, the latter has a slight advantage as far as name recognition, considering his run for mayor, Hartley said. However, Vignarajah will be playing catchup on campaign fundraising.

“He’s going to have to raise money fast. He’s going to have to let voters know he’s in the race,” Hartley said.

With almost $362,0000 on hand, Bates outraised Mosby and, by a wide margin, Hanna, in the year leading up to the primary. The prominent defense attorney released his taxes and a tough-on-crime prosecution plan. He has focused on reducing crime and tackling Baltimore’s gun crisis, while touting a range of endorsements from community and nonprofit leaders to retired police brass and a retired judge.

Vignarajah had a balance of $82,260 at the end of his 2020 mayoral campaign. Annual finance reports filed since show there have been no expenditures or contributions of more than $1,000. As of August 2020, Vignarajah’s campaign owed $160,000 for personal loans he made to the campaign.

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Mosby’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview Tuesday, Bates said he suspects Vignarajah will run for mayor again in two years, and described himself as a candidate who is comfortable devoting a decade to the job if he’s elected and continues to retain the office.

“I won’t be distracted because I’m looking for that next opportunity, that next office, that stepping stone. The state’s attorney’s office needs a 10-year commitment...,” Bates said. “This is not a two-year or a four-year job, you’ve got to be committed because Baltimore needs stability from a leader who’s not looking for the next step in their political career.”

Vignarajah officially entered his name in the race Tuesday morning at the Baltimore City Board of Elections, and then addressed reporters while flanked by family, supporters and victims of violence in the city. He said he always has been committed to the positions he’s held and state’s attorney would be no different if he’s elected.

“I’ve never thought about politics as a stepping stone anyway; I’ve thought about it as public service. If you look at my record over the course of my career, I stay until the job is done,” said Vignarajah, noting that he continued to handle cases he started as a city prosecutor after he became deputy attorney general. “If I have the privilege of serving, I will do that work until the work is done.”

Even after he lost the mayoral primary, Vignarajah found ways to stay involved in Baltimore and to keep his name in the news.

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In December 2020, Vignarajah arranged a news conference for restaurateurs to demand that Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott roll back coronavirus-related dining restrictions. The following January, he advocated for a group of businesses in Fells Point who threatened to withhold taxes if Baltimore leaders didn’t address crime.

More recently, he’s taken on the role of spokesperson for clubs on The Block, as they fought legislation that would curb their hours. Vignarajah also stepped in to represent victims of an arsonist and successfully argued for the man’s lenient sentence under an agreement with city prosecutors to be reconsidered. He also recently entered his appearance as a special prosecutor in a murder case in rural Dorchester County.

Anthony McCarthy, who stepped down from his role as a radio host to join Vignarajah’s campaign as political director, said the candidate’s support for Baltimore businesses demonstrates a commitment to the city.

“Elected officials vanish after elections, Thiru hasn’t. Politicians quit after a defeat, Thiru hasn’t. That means a lot to people here in Baltimore,” McCarthy said in a statement provided in a news release announcing the campaign.

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Vignarajah prosecuted some of Baltimore’s biggest street gang cases during his tenure under then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, also a Democrat.

Vignarajah is known nationally for defending Maryland from challenges that Adnan Syed raised after his conviction in the murder case made famous by the popular “Serial” podcast.

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But Vignarajah’s run for mayor was shadowed by questions over his judgment fueled by highly publicized videos from incidents in 2015 and 2019. The first, shared by Project Veritas, showed a woman prodding him for secrets gleaned from his role at the attorney general’s office. In the second, body-worn camera video from Baltimore police officers showed Vignarajah being pulled over in the middle of the night and asking an officer to turn off his camera.

In interviews with The Baltimore Sun in 2020, several attorneys who worked under him said he was a controlling and unreasonably demanding boss.

The news release from Vignarajah’s campaign touts the endorsement of former Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who described him in a statement as “the gold standard” of prosecutors and touted Vignarajah’s support among detectives who investigated violent crimes during Davis’ tenure from 2015 to 2018.

“Never have I seen a prosecutor held in such high esteem by detectives working to bring justice to victims and their families,” Davis said. “And never have I so often heard tales of a singular person orchestrating collaborative prosecutorial strategies; ones that carefully dissect sophisticated crime organizations and hold them accountable for the harm they have caused our most vulnerable communities.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.


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