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Extra-long primary season with Baltimore mayoral voters behind closed doors sees spending on mailers, ads

Baltimore's mayoral primary has gone into extra innings, and candidates are looking to raise more money to get through the final days. Some have given themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Baltimore's mayoral primary has gone into extra innings, and candidates are looking to raise more money to get through the final days. Some have given themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Under normal circumstances, Baltimore likely would know already who its next mayor is. The deep-blue city’s Democratic primary was supposed to be a month ago. But the coronavirus pandemic delayed the election, and that left candidates seeking funding for another 35 days of expensive campaigning.

The latest campaign finance reports showed two candidates — former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller and former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah — had the means to give their campaigns a financial boost for the race’s extra lap.

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Miller has poured more than $2 million into her mayoral bid, funding an aggressive media strategy that’s made her a front-runner despite being a political unknown just a few months ago. She kicked in the last $500,000 on April 28, according to the reports filed Friday with the state elections board.

On a smaller scale, Vignarajah loaned his campaign $100,000 on April 25. He had the most cash to spend on the final days, with more than $360,000 in the bank.

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While earlier finance reports were peppered with $6,000 donations — the maximum amount a donor can directly give a candidate under state law — no candidate received more than a handful of such contributions during the most recent filing period. Miller received the most, with six, while the other candidates brought in one or two.

“If you were a low-financed candidates that was really going to be grassroots, you’re really stuck in a bad position” because of the pandemic, said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “Now you need more money because you have to be able to able to appeal on the airwaves.”

Candidates’ supporters may be less likely to make large donations now because of the economic uncertainty triggered by the pandemic, or because they already have maxed out on what they can give.

Hartley said it may be hard to convince would-be small donors to donate to political campaigns right now, given they likely are preoccupied with the coronavirus’ impact on their lives.

The Baltimore police union contributed $6,000 to each Vignarajah, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith during the period covered by Friday’s reports: April 22 to May 17.

City Council President Brandon Scott’s two new maximum contributions came from union groups. He has the support of several local labor organizations.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young received one $6,000 donation recently from a Cold Press LLC, an entity based in Columbia that shares an address with the corporate office of ezStorage. He also received a handful of donations from local liquor stores, including $2,000 each from Broadway Discount Liquor and Cherry Hill Liquor on May 11.

Smith lagged behind the other major contenders, with less than $10,000 cash on hand. The Change Annapolis PAC, which typically has been affiliated with Republican groups and candidates, gave him $2,000.

In addition to the extra campaign time created when Republican Gov. Larry Hogan postponed the primary from April 28 to June 2, restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made campaigning more expensive. Cheap or free ways of reaching voters, such as attending community forums and knocking on doors, were deemed unsafe. Instead, candidates must draw on their accounts to make TV ads, buy time to run commercials and flood voters’ mailboxes with campaign literature.

Miller spent more than $110,000 on direct mailers, with Vignarajah a distant second, spending roughly $70,000. The six top candidates combined spent roughly $230,000 on mailers from late April to mid-May.

Those six candidates, as a group, spent more than $1.2 million on media, including video commercials, radio spots and social media ads.

Throughout the elongated campaign, the leading contenders have spent more than $6 million.

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The reports also spotlighted alliances between candidates, past and present.

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker gave Young $1,500, for instance, while the mayor transferred $6,000 to Baltimore City Councilman Robert Stokes, an ally who faces a tough challenger in his reelection bid in the 12th District that includes areas of downtown, East and North Baltimore.

Two candidates Dixon is supporting in City Council races — Zac Dingle in North Baltimore’s 4th District and Dave Heilker in the 12th — transferred more than $2,000 combined to the former mayor’s campaign to return to office.

Officially, two slates have formed in the race, one headed by Young and another by Scott.

New Democratic U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore has said he doesn’t plan to endorse any mayoral candidates, and hasn’t donated to any this cycle. But he contributed $500 to the campaign of Rain Pryor, who is challenging Councilman Ryan Dorsey in District 3 in Northeast Baltimore.

This month’s filing will be the last look voters get at campaigns’ finances for awhile: the next report, covering activity from May 18 to Aug. 18, is due Aug. 25.

Another expensive race this primary is for Baltimore comptroller, where longtime incumbent Joan Pratt faces her first serious challenger in more than two decades. A recent poll showed a close race, and Pratt was spending heavily in the final days as she faces off against City Councilman Bill Henry.

Pratt began this election cycle with a hefty bank account accumulated over her time in office. She was first elected in 1995. As of Friday, she had roughly $56,000 cash on hand, after reporting raising no money in the last filing period while spending more than $200,000, mostly on media.

Henry had nearly $60,000 left to spend. He brought in roughly $28,000 in contributions in the latest cycle, and spent more than $50,000. The majority of Henry’s spending was on direct mailers, though his campaign recently launched a round of ads.

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