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Baltimore mayor’s race: Sheila Dixon leads competitive primary but many voters still undecided, Sun/UB/WYPR poll shows

Steve Raabe, OpinionWorks president, discusses the results of polls taken in Maryland about the Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has opened up a slight lead in a crowded, competitive race to become Baltimore’s next mayor, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR shows.

Dixon is favored by 16% of the likely Democratic primary voters polled. That’s six percentage points more than her top competition: City Council President Brandon Scott and former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, who each had 10% support. Former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith was close behind in fourth place with 9%, while the incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young trailed the leaders with 6% support.

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“Sheila Dixon is in a good position," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. “She’s well known. She has a reputation for getting things done. She has a strong base of support.”

But the race remains “wide open” with about a third of those polled still undecided, Raabe said. He described Dixon’s lead as “not commanding."

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Former U.S Treasury official Mary Miller, who launched a $500,000 ad buy in February, was in fifth place with 7%, ahead of Young and progressive state Sen. Mary Washington, who had 5%.

The poll shows Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive, with the biggest surge in the race. About 67% of her supporters decided to back her in the last week, the poll found.

“There are several candidates who are very much within striking distance,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.

Two dozen candidates are running in the crowded Democratic April 28 primary. There are seven people running in the Republican primary, as well as one unaffiliated candidate for the seat. For decades, the primary contest among the city’s Democrats, who outnumber Republican voters by nearly 10-1, has decided who leads Baltimore.

With six weeks to go until early voting begins April 16, the race remains fluid. In addition to the one-third of voters who are undecided, more than half of those supporting a candidate said they are open to switching to someone else.

Scott appears in best position to gain support if voters change their minds, according to the poll. When asked for their second choice for mayor, 17% of respondents picked Scott, followed by 12% for Smith and 11% for each Dixon and Young.

The poll shows Baltimore voters are deeply frustrated about the state of the city, with three-quarters saying Baltimore is on the wrong path. That’s up from about half of voters in an OpinionWorks poll for The Sun and the university four years ago, in the wake of the unrest that consumed the city after the death of Freddie Gray,

Half of respondents said their top issue for a mayor to address is crime. That was followed by concern over honesty and integrity at 21% and improving schools at 15%.

The poll of 400 likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters was conducted Feb. 20-29. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

The sample selected for the poll, based off historic trends in the Democratic primary electorate, was 67% age 50 or older, 66% black and 65% female.

The poll shows the two main racial groups in Baltimore are divided over whom to support. Among black voters, Dixon leads with 21%, followed by Smith with 11% and Scott with 10%. Among white voters, Vignarajah is favored with 22%, followed by 15% for Miller, 13% for Washington and 11% for Scott.

Miller is white. Vignarajah is of South Asian descent. Dixon, Scott, Smith and Washington are black.

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Scott is the only candidate with double-digit support among both black and white voters.

“Looking at the African American vote and looking at the white vote separately gives you a very different picture of this race," Raabe said.

The city is more than 60% black, and 30% white, based on the 2019 census estimate.

Dixon is leading the race without having yet run a television ad, while Miller, Scott, Vignarajah and Young have been on viewers’ screens.

A significant cash infusion could affect the campaign. According to the latest fundraising reports from January, Young had nearly $960,000 cash on hand, while Vignarajah had about $840,000. Scott had nearly $430,000, while Washington had $116,000 to spend. Dixon reported $89,000, while Smith reported $22,000.

A decade after Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, she’s asked Baltimoreans to forgive her as she once again seeks the mayor’s office. As part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge, she resigned as mayor.

During Dixon’s years as mayor, from 2007 to 2010, the annual homicide count in Baltimore dropped from 282 to 238, arrests declined, and she gained a reputation as a competent city manager.

Like many who plan to vote for Dixon, Sherri Uncles’ support runs deep. Uncles remembers how Dixon helped her mother, a former City Hall employee, during a battle with breast cancer. And even before she announced her campaign, Uncles said she often saw the former mayor out volunteering in the community.

“She knows what this city needs,” said Uncles, 56, who took part in the poll.

To Uncles, Dixon’s experience leading the city is a vital asset.

“She’s been mayor before,” Uncles said. “Yes, she got caught up in some illegal stuff, but what candidate hasn’t? I think that even with the legal issues she’s had in the past, she’s still very much the best candidate in this city.”

In 2016, Dixon narrowly lost a mayoral primary to then-state Sen. Catherine Pugh. Pugh resigned last year as mayor due to her own corruption scandal involving the sale of self-published children’s books. Young, the council president, was elevated to mayor and Scott became City Council president.

During that race, Dixon led early polls until Pugh emerged as an alternative for anti-Dixon voters. On Election Day, Dixon won a majority of the city’s majority black precincts, but got few votes among white voters, and Pugh won by a narrow margin.

In the Sun/UB/WYPR poll, about two-thirds of respondents said they believe a lot of politicians do similar things to Pugh’s crimes but “just don’t get caught.”

Raabe said this sentiment could help Dixon overcome ethical concerns because “if they all do it, then it’s not going to become disqualifying.”

Still, likely voter Craig Jones said his perception of Dixon as “a crook” is not something he can overlook. Jones, 41, said he’s backing Scott because “realistically, it’s about who can beat Sheila Dixon.”'

This year, the anti-Dixon vote could rally around Scott if he becomes the leading alternative, the poll shows. That’s because of his support among both black and white voters and because he was the most popular second choice of respondents.

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But Raabe said others — including Smith and Vignarajah — also could be poised to “take on that mantle.”

Laura Grier told pollsters she’s leaning toward Washington. But in an interview this week said she was torn and considering whether to vote instead for Scott, who at 35 years old is arguing generational change is needed in city leadership. His personal story ― Scott grew up in Park Heights, graduated from the city’s public school system and worked his way up on the City Council ― appeals to her. Grier said she wants to elect someone that the city be proud of.

“He’s a sincere guy,” the 62-year-old Roland Park resident said of Scott. “It would be nice to have some young blood in that seat.”

Other voters, though, are turning to candidates viewed as political outsiders ― specifically Smith and Vignarajah. Both are drawing roughly 90% of their support from voters who believe Baltimore is heading in the wrong direction.

Vignarajah, a former state and federal prosecutor, “has a fresh outlook on Baltimore,” said 54-year-old Derrick Smith, of Sandtown. “The way it used to be done is not working. There needs to be serious accountability through city government as a whole.”

Baltimore has suffered from more than 300 homicides annually for five consecutive years. Homicides are up again to start 2020.

Veronica Bynum is leaning toward Smith, who she said understands the city’s pain after losing a brother to gun violence. Smith was a frequent presence at crime scenes when he was the police spokesman, and, Bynum said, she used to look forward to hearing his comments in TV news stories.

When he had to announce new homicide victims, “it was like he was feeling it in his soul,” said the 57-year-old Edmondson Village resident, who also is considering Scott.

As Gail Spiva watches the race unfold, she said she’s concerned about the sheer number of candidates in the field. The poll reflects a fractured electorate, with no candidate yet clearing 20% support.

Spiva, who supports Washington, says the field is "just too spread out.”

“There isn’t anybody that’s going to get a majority,” she predicted.

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