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Protests in Baltimore’s streets put sharp focus on police abuse in final days of mayor’s race

Baltimore’s mayoral candidates spent the weekend racing to the finish line of a bizarre primary, even with their methods for reaching out to voters limited by the coronavirus pandemic. Shown are the top contenders, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, T.J. Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Bernard C. "Jack" Young.
Baltimore’s mayoral candidates spent the weekend racing to the finish line of a bizarre primary, even with their methods for reaching out to voters limited by the coronavirus pandemic. Shown are the top contenders, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, T.J. Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Bernard C. "Jack" Young. (Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

In bright blue shirts, City Council President Brandon Scott and his campaign team crisscrossed the 32nd Street Farmers Market Saturday morning, elbow-bumping with residents and drumming up support in the consequential race to be Baltimore’s next mayor.

Former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller was there, too, with a team of volunteers eager to spread her message. At the market’s entrance, a man in a red T-shirt spun a sign encouraging people to return former Mayor Sheila Dixon to office.

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Despite the myriad ways the coronavirus pandemic upended this city and this election, Saturday was shaping up to be a more or less typical day of last-minute campaigning for Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Then, a few hours after market vendors broke down their stalls, hundreds of people flooded into downtown to protest the killing of George Floyd. He died after being pinned at the neck to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer and, for many in Baltimore, it evoked memories of the city’s pain after the death of Freddie Gray five years ago here in police custody.

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Scott spent much of Saturday night standing outside City Hall, hoping to help maintain peace during tense moments between police and protesters.

Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott watches as protestors face off with police at Baltimore City Hall Saturday night in response to the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott watches as protestors face off with police at Baltimore City Hall Saturday night in response to the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

His campaign had been expecting to use these precious last days before the election on get-out-the-vote efforts, but that focus shifted.

“It’s a very dramatic change to what you’re used to seeing two days before an election,” said campaign manager Marvin James.

Even with the potential for further unrest, mayoral campaigns are staring down the end of a difficult race. For the first time, the election is being conducted mostly by mail, although there are six in-person voting centers scattered across the city.

As of Saturday, about 66,000 of Baltimore’s roughly 300,000 registered Democratic primary voters had submitted ballots. About 133,000 people voted in the 2016 Democratic primary for mayor.

It’s expected to be a close race: A Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore/WYPR-FM poll in May showed a three-way race between Dixon, Miller and Scott, with a large degree of volatility in the crowded, competitive field. Dixon and Miller each had 18% support, while Scott was backed by 15% of the likely Democratic voters polled.

Former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah was in fourth place, with 11%. Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith had 6% support, while incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young had 5%.

The poll showed voters’ leading choice was “undecided.” Through socially distanced get-out-the-vote efforts, candidates were hoping to use the final few days energize their bases of support, convince more residents they’re the right choice to lead Baltimore in a tumultuous time, and help people understand how to vote by mail.

The protests that swept across the country — desperate cries for an end to police brutality — changed the election’s tone at the eleventh hour.

Throughout the race, Young has maintained he has no time to campaign because he’s tasked with guiding the city through its coronavirus recovery. With the new crisis, Young spent much of Saturday night at Baltimore Police headquarters to monitor largely peaceful demonstrations at City Hall and nearby.

His campaign is counting on the city supporting the incumbent’s leadership. During a Sunday briefing, Young said Baltimore was “a national example of what it looks like to engage in passionate protesting without widespread breaking of the law.”

Though the two men have been at odds recently, Scott and Young stood side-by-side during a Saturday news conference to urge people to remain peaceful.

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Loyola University Maryland professor Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, who hosts a radio show on WEAA-FM, said candidates can seize a moment of crisis if they show leadership. She noted that former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh raised her profile as a state senator by appearing frequently at protests in 2015 and helping to calm crowds.

Whitehead said she watched the joint news conference with Young and Scott and noticed different points of emphasis from the candidates.

“This is a significant moment when voters are in the process of sending back our ballots," she said. "Mayor Young is saying, ‘I will protect your right to protest. I will protect your constitutional rights.’ Brandon Scott is saying, ‘It’s tiring, it’s exhausting being a black man in America. I get your anger and your pain.’ They both had similar messages, but they resonated in very different ways.”

Following Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, Baltimore mayoral candidates also doubled down on their promises to speed up reforms to the police department.

Sheila Dixon, left, speaks with residents at the Douglass Homes along with The Rev. Annie Chambers and Emmanuel Lomax. Sheila Dixon and her campaign team handed out free meals at the Douglass Homes Saturday.
Sheila Dixon, left, speaks with residents at the Douglass Homes along with The Rev. Annie Chambers and Emmanuel Lomax. Sheila Dixon and her campaign team handed out free meals at the Douglass Homes Saturday. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

After hosting a food giveaway Saturday afternoon at Douglass Homes, Dixon went to the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues — the site of arson and looting in 2015 — to talk with voters, and saw it was business as usual, even as protests picked up elsewhere.

Dixon said Floyd’s death emphasizes the need for strong oversight of police departments. She noted the record of the officer charged in the homicide, who had numerous complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him during a 19-year career.

“That officer who did what he did should have been dealt with early on. Seventeen complaints? That’s unacceptable,” Dixon said. “What it’s done is it brings to light that much of the work that should have been done has not been done.”

Mayoral candidate Mary Miller talks with Paulo Gregory Harris at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly Saturday morning.
Mayoral candidate Mary Miller talks with Paulo Gregory Harris at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly Saturday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Miller was to participate Saturday in a virtual dance party hosted by the No Boundaries Coalition, a West Baltimore advocacy group.

When it was her turn, she acknowledged that she didn’t much feel like dancing, and dedicated the moment to “every needless life that’s been lost and in hopes we’ll have a much stronger and more unified future.” She pledged her dedication to fully implementing a federal consent decree to reform the Baltimore Police Department, which the city entered into after Gray’s death.

“I want to do that with much more urgency and much more focus,” she said. “We can’t weather times like this without putting in place the protections and restoring the trust that we need to have.”

In the home stretch, Vignarajah spent the early part of Saturday on an “undecided tour” around Baltimore, packing a mobile campaign office into a pickup truck and taking it around town to answer voters’ questions about his plans.

By Sunday morning, Vignarajah and his staff were cleaning up trash and bottles by City Hall in the aftermath of the protests. He called the demonstrations a “stark reminder of how far we have to go and how much is broken in Baltimore and around the country."

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”What we saw in the video was nothing short of a coldblooded murder," Vignarajah said of Floyd’s death.

Vignarajah hit hard in the race’s last days on the city’s unrelenting violent crime, while continuing his campaign’s pace of frequent news conferences and policy proposal rollouts.

Smith was out Sunday afternoon waving to potential voters near Morgan State University. He said the Floyd case and others like it underscored how pervasive inequality and prejudice are in America.

The former police spokesman said he believed a more restrained response from Baltimore officers this weekend — compared to skirmishes with citizens in 2015 — showed improvements in training and preparation.

Whitehead said that the prominent issues in the mayor’s race haven’t changed, and continue to disproportionately affect black people. She said candidates must be visible during such crises and show their “humanity and their love of Baltimore.”

Paulo Gregory Harris’ ballot has been sitting on his dining room table, as time runs out for him to mail it back in. He’s filled in every box but one.

In giving final consideration to the mayoral candidates, and monitoring what’s going on in his city, he said it just reinforces the need for whoever is elected to have deep relationships in the community and be willing to listen.

But, he said, “it doesn’t make it an easier decision.”


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