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With just days remaining in Baltimore mayor’s race, top candidates eye different paths to victory

Moira Graham finally got her ballot in the mail on Wednesday. Now comes the hard part.

With just days remaining in the race for Baltimore’s next mayor, Graham, 67, must figure out who’s the best choice to lead the city in an election of unusually high consequence.

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She wants someone who isn’t entrenched in the political establishment. But she’s also worried a political outsider won’t know how to run a big city.

“That’s where my dilemma is,” the Northwest Baltimore resident said.

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Like Graham, more than a fifth of voters surveyed recently were still undecided about who to support in the June 2 Democratic primary, the election expected to determine who will become mayor.

Candidates are flooding mailboxes and TV screens with ads, but many traditional ways of winning over voters have been rendered irrelevant by the coronavirus pandemic that has taken more than 200 lives in the city.

Victory, on Election Day, will come down to two questions: Which candidate can best persuade ambivalent or undecided voters like Graham to support him or her; and which candidate can best rally a base of voters to the polls.

Traditionally, the core of Baltimore’s Democratic primary electorate has been made up of black women over 50. But with this year’s largely mail-in election, "there’s a lot of uncertainty around who is going to end up voting,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll on the race for The Baltimore Sun, University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM.

The poll, released Wednesday, showed a statistical three-way tie between former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, both with 18% support, and City Council President Brandon Scott with 15%, a difference within the poll’s margin of error.

The poll showed each of the leading candidates is drawing support from specific blocs within the electorate. A high turnout among older, black voters could carry Dixon to victory. White voters, a minority in Baltimore, are more likely to favor Miller. A strong turnout in the elusive youth vote could benefit Scott.

The candidates are being forced to find creative ― and often expensive ― ways to reach voters like Graham. In addition to a large swath of undecided voters, the poll showed 41% of respondents were open to changing their preference.

The top Democratic candidates have spent more than $6 million on the race combined, campaign finance reports show.

Vignarajah, 43, a former federal prosecutor and state deputy attorney general, plans to hit hard in the final days on a message of fighting crime — the issue voters say they care most about. He has released detailed crime-reduction plans, and pledges to drive murders under 200.

His campaign, like some others, has begun driving around the city in decorated trucks to try to spread his message in a socially distant manner.

Vignarajah loaned his campaign $100,000, giving him $360,000 to spend in the last stretch. He said he plans to hammer home the deficiencies of other candidates in television ads.

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“My job is to make clear the sharp distinctions between how concrete our crime plans are compared to the vague platitudes and copycat approaches of other campaigns," Vignarajah said.

Meanwhile, Young, 65, who is trailing in the polls, is counting on residents approving of his response to the COVID-19 crisis. He has essentially stopped campaigning since the pandemic hit Maryland, other than to attend some online forums, but remains confident in his chance to win his own four-year term.

"Nobody polled me. Nobody polled my family,” Young said. "The only poll that for me that counts is when the ballots are finally counted.”

During a critical week of the drawn-out election, Young announced plans Wednesday to cancel some of Baltimore’s signature summer events in an attempt to protect residents from the virus. He also chastised President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the city, for his plans to mark Memorial Day at Fort McHenry. Young asked the Republican to stay home.

Young also released a web ad in which he played clips of his opponents thanking him and crediting his leadership during the pandemic.

Young’s performance during the health crisis has been enough to convince Jennifer Watson, 39, that she should cast her vote for him.

“I see that he is trying to get the pandemic under control in his city,” she said.

While times of crisis can sometimes serve to unite a city around its mayor, it appears voters are also tying Young to Baltimore’s long-standing problems like violent crime. He leads a city that two-thirds of residents feel is heading in the wrong direction, the poll found.

Other candidates believe the poll results illuminate a path forward for them. Scott, 36, was the choice of voters under age 50, and had support among black and white voters.

People want someone who can come in and address the crime and offer a vision for the future. They want someone who can be an inspiration.


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Scott is also among the most popular as voters’ second choice. So the campaign has an army of volunteers phone-banking and texting voters to try to win them over or firm up their support.

“People will turn out when you provide them vision and ideas,” Scott’s campaign manager Marvin James said.

Scott is running on a message of “transformational” and “generational" change. He has offered a 26-point plan that includes lowering the voting age for city elections to 16 and fundamentally remaking the top levels of city government, in part by changing the composition of the city’s spending board. His crime plan includes addressing root causes, such as lack of education and opportunity.

Scott’s campaign is endorsed by several local unions, and could be bolstered by the manpower those groups provide.

In 2011, members of Service Employees International Union 1199 knocked on 18,000 doors in the final two months of the election in support of their favored candidates. That included Scott, a political newcomer seeking a City Council seat.

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Now that he’s running for mayor, the organization continues to back him.

Ricarra Jones, SEIU’s political director, said under normal circumstances it would mobilize “boots on the ground.” The union represents health care workers and typically rallies support among members by visiting them at work at hospitals and nursing homes ― places that now don’t allow visitors for safety reasons. So, many members are taking on phone-banking shifts.

Miller, 64, has benefited from television ads that have been a near-constant in recent months, taking her from a virtually unknown candidate in January to a leading contender. She, too, is zeroing-in on undecided voters.

In her ads, she has been stressing her background as a former T. Rowe Price executive and a Treasury official under President Barack Obama, but also her support for Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and continuing his crime fighting strategy.

Her campaign expects to roll out a final ad campaign playing up that Miller has lived in Baltimore for more than 30 years and been involved in dozens of organizations. She says she hears people criticize her for not having “deep roots” in the community and wants to refute that.

“I may be a political outsider," she said, “but I am no stranger to Baltimore.”

Such a sustained media buy is possible because she contributed more than $2 million of her own money to her campaign.

According to the poll, Miller has the support of 31% of white voters, compared with 11% of black voters. The city’s population is about 63% black and 32% white, based on the latest census estimates.

As other candidates talk about Baltimore’s violence, Dixon, 66, touts that she’s the only candidate who has experience bringing the murder rate down. During her three years as mayor, the number of city homicides fell from 282 to 238. There have been more than 300 annually in recent years.

In the final days of the campaign, Dixon said she plans to contrast her record with Miller’s status quo approach of supporting the current police commissioner and Scott’s lack of success in reducing crime as a chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

“Look at what we’re going through in this city,” Dixon said of the unrelenting pace of murders. “Even with the coronavirus, things haven’t been reduced. I’m not saying Brandon isn’t a nice young man, but talk is not going to get us through this.”

The former mayor has had to shift her robust door-knocking operation because of the pandemic. She relies on other methods, such as an SUV that pumps Dixon’s voice into neighborhoods from a bullhorn, Facebook Live events and internet videos.

While the poll showed Dixon to be the leading choice among black voters with 26% support, she has struggled to gain the support of white residents.

Karen Miller, a Baltimore-based political strategist, said many white voters still hold the criminal case that forced her from office against the former mayor. Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, and resigned as mayor part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge.

“Sheila’s support is so solid. People who are impoverished and distressed, they feel like Sheila is their champion," she said. "African American women, we tend to be a lot more forgiving than our white counterparts.”

For his part, Smith, 42, launched a new social media ad last week emphasizing the city needs a new leadership direction. The Facebook push is simple and plays on what analysts say is Smith’s likability: a photo of the smiling candidate and the message, “I voted for change.”

When the poll came out Wednesday, Smith said his supporters told him they couldn’t believe it. Smith had performed better in previous polls.

“People were furious to see the poll say what it said,” Smith said.

But Smith looked at the data and saw a public hungry for a different approach to crime-fighting and an electorate in which 63% of voters are either undecided or open to switching candidates.

“The pandemic is a significant thing we’re working to address, but the long-term epidemic of gun violence has long been detrimental to the city,” Smith said. “We really need to make sure people remember how important this race is.”

About two dozen people are running in the Democratic primary. There are seven candidates in the Republican primary, as well as one unaffiliated candidate. For decades, the primary contest among the city’s Democrats, who outnumber Republican voters by nearly 10 to 1, has determined who will be mayor.

Farajii Muhammad, a radio show host on WEAA-FM who recently served as panelist for the Baltimore NAACP’s mayoral debate, said each candidate presents strengths and weaknesses.

Mary Miller, he said, needs to build inroads with black voters. Young needs to change the public’s view of him as an interim mayor. Smith and Vignarajah need to show range on issues beyond crime. Dixon needs to restore public trust. And Scott needs to emphasize his experience.

But most of all, Muhammad said, the candidates need to convince undecided voters they truly care about the future of the city and have the strategies to change its direction.

“People want someone who can come in and address the crime and offer a vision for the future,” Muhammad said. “They want someone who can be an inspiration.”

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