Sheila Dixon leads Baltimore mayor’s race in early returns

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon launched her campaign to return to office proposing something of a gambit for voters.

If they could agree to forgive her for a public corruption scandal that forced her from City Hall a decade ago, Dixon would make good on her reputation for running a competent government: Clean the streets and bring down crime as she had before, while never again running afoul of the law.


According to early returns in the Democratic primary for mayor, many Baltimoreans ― faced with an unrelenting murder rate, high unemployment and widespread frustration with the state of the city ― are willing to take that deal.

The state elections board released about 75,000 votes late Tuesday, counted from ballots voters mailed in and dropped off before primary day, showing Dixon leading with about 30% of the vote, followed by City Council President Brandon Scott with 24% and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller with 17%.


Former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah had 12%, followed by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young with 7% and former Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith with 6%.

It was unknown how many ballots remained outstanding. Four years ago, about 133,000 Democrats cast votes in the mayor’s race.

Election returns were substantially delayed Tuesday because of long lines at in-person voting sites. That held up closing the polls, as well as the release of the early data. The state never released the results of Tuesday’s in-person voting, as had been expected. Election officials are expected to continue counting ballots Wednesday.

“We are finally here today, not knowing the results, but feeling very upbeat and positive,” Dixon said Tuesday night at her campaign headquarters on North Howard Street.

She declined to predict an outcome, but said she was inspired by the number of young voters she met in the final days of the campaign, some of whom were submitting ballots specifically because they want change in the wake of George Floyd’s death last week while being arrested in Minneapolis.

She said she normally would have felt tense and grouchy by election evening.

“I decided that win or lose, I’m at peace with myself,” she said. “That’s the difference this time.”

In an uncertain moment in a city with an uncertain future, Baltimoreans wearing face masks queued up to vote in the mayor’s race, one many called the most important in a generation.


With the city facing myriad issues ― including high crime, a deadly pandemic and days of protests against police abuse ― voters said the race was too important not to risk a trip to the polls during a public health crisis.

"There’s definitely a need for change,” said Cotina Gould, 47, who was one of hundreds standing in line at Edmondson-Westside High School, one of Baltimore’s six in-person voting stations. Gould said she voted in person because she worried a mail-in ballot would “get swept under the rug” and she believes she owes it to her ancestors to ensure her vote gets counted “no matter how long it takes.”

Gould and other Baltimoreans had a litany of candidates from which to choose in what polling suggested would be a close race. About two dozen Democrats are running for mayor of deep-blue Baltimore.

Miller made a statement shortly after the first election returns from mail-in ballots were posted with her receiving the third-highest amount of those votes.

“These preliminary results are just that, with perhaps a third of ballots not counted yet. We’ll be eagerly watching as the remaining ballots are counted — and we’re prepared for all outcomes," Miller said.

At the former Northwestern High School, now the home of Cross Country Elementary/Middle School, elementary school teacher Toni Grimes and her husband, Gerald, reached different conclusions about who was best to lead Baltimore through such trying times.


Toni Grimes voted for Dixon, in part because she remembered how during a 1991 debate at City Hall on redistricting, Dixon caused a stir when she took off one of her shoes, held it up and told white City Council members: “Now the shoe is on the other foot.”

Dixon was among a wave of black politicians to rise to power in Baltimore in the 1980s, eventually making the City Council majority-black in the 1990s. She remains a popular figure with many black voters, who make up her base of support.

Dixon has baggage, Grimes conceded, given the former mayor’s ouster from office in 2010 after she was convicted of misappropriating gift cards intended for the poor. But “she doesn’t hide it,” Grimes said, and she sees Dixon as a “known quantity" and the right candidate to address the city’s problems.

Gerald Grimes voted for Vignarajah, a man he has met and whom he sees as “pretty passionate, pretty for real,” someone with the administrative abilities to implement “fresh ideas.” Vignarajah released detailed policy plans and ran a campaign focused on driving down crime.

Baltimore is facing a historic set of challenges. The city has suffered from more than 300 homicides a year for five years in a row, and lost one-third of its population since World War II. Meanwhile, more than 200 Baltimoreans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has prompted business shutdowns and widespread unemployment.

And this week, the city once again broke out into protests, this time over the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody. It was five years ago that Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in Baltimore police custody, prompting days of unrest.


Nicole Ross, 37, who works in clinical support at the Baltimore Convention Center field hospital for patients recovering from COVID-19, said she came to the polls because of the “drastic need” to reduce crime. That convinced her to support Smith, who lost a brother to gun violence. "His fight is different; he can sympathize with those mothers who are crying over the loss of their children,” she said.

At Edmondson-Westside, Bea Zipperle, 58, waited in line for hours because the state didn’t send her a ballot in the mail. She was committed to voting for Scott because of his policy plans, some of the more progressive in the race.

Zipperle said she expected the city to see a strong turnout in the election due to the recent unrest nationwide after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With that in mind, she said the 36-year-old Scott could be a role model for the youth in Baltimore who need more positive examples in the community, the social worker said. “He’s young and he’s the face of change,” Zipperle said.

Scott did not make a statement Tuesday night. After 8 p.m., he noted in a Facebook post that polling places were still wrapping up voting for people waiting in line.

“Polls are closed but everyone currently in line will have the opportunity to vote,” Scott said. “I am inspired seeing so many Baltimoreans participate in the democratic process.” ‬

Meanwhile, Dayauna Thompson said she liked what she has seen from the current mayor. Thompson recently moved to a new address in downtown Baltimore and didn’t get a replacement ballot in time for primary day, she said.


The 22-year-old call center employee said she supported Young because of how he has handled the end of ex-Mayor Catherine Pugh’s term, the coronavirus pandemic and the protests sparked by Floyd’s death.

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"Even with everything going on, I liked how he handled his position and was all for making change,” she said. “How he has held down his position since Mayor Pugh leaving, how he has handled quarantine, making sure people are informed rather than misinformed.”

Pugh resigned as mayor last year amid a corruption scandal. Young, then City Council president, was elevated to mayor. He has argued he’s a steady hand leading the city through crisis, including with his handling of the pandemic.

Seven Republicans and two unaffiliated candidates are also running.

The race so far has been expensive. The Democratic candidates have spent at least $6 million to convince voters they’re the right person for the job ― including Miller, who pumped more than $2 million of her personal wealth into the campaign. That funded a robust television advertising campaign that saw her rise in the polls. She has argued she’s the most competent manager to turn the city around from its years of problems.

As the night grew later, Young released a statement in which he appeared to acknowledge he was unlikely to win.


“I love this City. The results of this election will not change that,” he said. “I am blessed to help shape it for future generations in my role as Mayor. It has been an honor to serve you for the last 24 years in office. … If the results do not go my way, I pledge to work alongside and help the next mayor and foster a smooth transition of power.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie, Colin Campbell, Lorraine Mirabella and Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.