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Baltimore is choosing a mayor to lead the city at a perilous time. How are candidates getting voters’ attention?

Baltimore 2020 mayor candidates, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, TJ Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Jack Young.
Baltimore 2020 mayor candidates, (top, left to right) Sheila Dixon, TJ Smith, Mary Miller, (bottom, left to right) Brandon Scott, Thiru Vignarajah and Jack Young. (Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

Christine Layton thought she knew who she was going to vote for in a consequential race to become Baltimore’s next mayor. That was before the whole world seemed to be ending.

Now, shut inside like the rest of society, she’s more preoccupied with bracing for the next sign of the apocalypse than settling on a candidate.

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“I’m waiting for flying monkeys to come by,” the 54-year-old Oakenshaw resident said. “You’re thinking about the mayoral candidates, but you also are thinking, 'Where am I going to buy toilet paper?’ ”

The deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 100 lives in the city has upended the mayor’s race. In early March, roughly 40% of Democratic primary voters said they were undecided about who to vote for, but the virus has shut down many traditional ways for residents to evaluate candidates.

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Dozens of typically packed town hall forums have been canceled. Door-to-door campaigning is suspended. Political rallies are now illegal.

At the same time, the pandemic has raised the stakes of the contest to unprecedented heights. Not only will the next mayor of Baltimore be tasked with trying to address the city’s record-high murder rate ― and the underlying conditions that fuel the violence ― but he or she also will be forced to deal with a continuing public health crisis, manage a projected $100 million budget hole and tackle record levels of unemployment.

In the month since Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan began ordering nonessential businesses to close, nearly 40,000 Baltimoreans have lost their jobs. That’s more than one-tenth of the city’s workforce.

“There’s fear in the air,” says former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, the WBAL radio host known as C4. “The next mayor is facing a deficit and may have to actually cut real jobs before they can get to any of their plans. The next mayor is facing a lot walking in the door."

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The pandemic has also changed the dynamics of the race. State Sen. Mary Washington ― a progressive Democrat and Layton’s preferred candidate ― dropped out, leaving her supporters searching for someone new. The health crisis pushed the all-important Democratic primary election from late April to June 2, giving lesser-known and better-financed candidates more time to raise their name recognition.

And it forced the election to be conducted mostly by mail. Some analysts predict that could change who ends up voting, and thus potentially change who wins. Ballots are expected to go out in the next week.

Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic likely has changed what’s on voters minds as they decide who to support. In a race previously defined by candidates’ approach to fighting crime, voters now must decide who they most trust to lead the city out of the crisis caused by the virus.

”COVID-19 is it,” said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. “I don’t know how you pay attention to anything else.”

Twenty-four Democrats have filed to run for mayor, but only six candidates have gained traction with the electorate, according to polls: former Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Brandon Scott, former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, former police spokesman T.J. Smith, former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller and current Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Seven Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate also have filed to run in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

Before the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, half of respondents in a Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore-WYPR poll said reducing crime is the most important thing the next mayor must do.

That still matters, as Baltimore has experienced more than 300 homicides for five years in a row and killings are up again in 2020. But voters are also considering who they believe can take on the new virus threat.

“Prior to COVID-19, which feels like a thousand years ago, the biggest concern was: How do we stop the epidemic of violence in our city?” said Loyola University Maryland Professor Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, who also hosts a radio show on WEAA. “That’s not a conversation we’re having in the same way right now.”

The shift is evident in some campaigns. From his campaign launch, Vignarajah has been focused on a message of rooting out violent crime. His billboards across the city screamed: End the bloodshed.

But he’s since started broadcasting different slogans. His blue-and-gold billboards now urge everyone to stay home and remind residents to vote by mail. Vignarajah has continued to run an active campaign, livestreaming press events at the Perkins Homes to condemn water shut-offs and outside Cab Calloway’s old house to urge it not be demolished.

“COVID-19 is it. I don’t know how you pay attention to anything else.”


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Like other candidates, he has released a plan to help the city recover from the virus. He argues the crisis underscores how unprepared some candidates are for a leadership role.

“Voters don’t want someone who is going to learn on the job. They don’t want someone who is looking for a cushy end to their career,” he said. "They want someone who can fight a battle on multiple fronts.”

Other candidates also are focusing on the virus — and touting their ability to get the city through it. Scott holds frequent briefings online focused on the pandemic, and his office put together an “asset map” showing where kids can get food, seniors can find dedicated shopping hours and the uninsured can find health care.

Scott says he’s been intentional about trying to use his social media pages to amplify the messages of public health experts, and is using Instagram in particular to reach black residents.

“When you have a crisis like this, it highlights a type of leadership only I represent in this race,” he said. He argues he not only “knows how government works” but can move the city into the future.

Relying on his communications background, Smith says he’s been relaying information to voters from the mayor, governor and even the White House in an apolitical way.

“My position is, ‘What can I do to help right now?’ I don’t want to be throwing shots at the current mayor while we’re in a crisis,” Smith said. “I don’t feel that’s appropriate.”

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Dixon has been hosting a Facebook Live show to provide information about the virus. She’s also been out in the community, delivering meals to the needy and posting workout videos to inspire residents to stay healthy while staying home.

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She says the crisis shows a clear disparity between her experience running city government from 2007 to 2010 and those who aspire to such a role.

“A month ago, the economy in the city was good,“ she said. “Now there’s a deficit. We’ve never been though something like this before, but I am the only mayor that ran a city during a recession.”

With the campaign weeks longer now that the primary has been moved to June, the candidates have had to reallocate their resources to carry through until the end. And they are spending money differently with the electorate under stay-at-home orders.

Miller poured $1.5 million of her own money into her campaign. That’s helped her flood voters’ TV screens, especially while they’re stuck at home. Her campaign updated her commercials to be more focused on the current crisis and her experience as a Treasury official in the Obama administration helping to rebuild the economy.

“Having an idea of how you tackle recovery is critical,” Miller said. “People have to have hope.”

Julia Montgomery, 50, was an undecided voter two months ago. But now she’s sure that when her ballot arrives in the mail, she will cast it for Miller.

Miller’s message of helping America recover from the Great Recession ― broadcast frequently on Montgomery’s television screen ― resonates.

“She’s ready for this,” Montgomery said. “I would feel good with her in office.”

Whitehead, though, said it could be hard for voters to focus on proposals for the city’s recovery from the pandemic. Their own focus "is to stay alive and get groceries and see if my stimulus check is here. I’m not thinking about voting for mayor right now,” she said.

You have reached out to us with questions about the virus and its impacts. Our reporters will answer your coronavirus questions. Ask on baltimoresun.com/ask

Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, said he thinks Miller can move up in the polls if she’s willing to spend her personal wealth bombarding the airwaves with ads.

“If you don’t have money for television, you’re sort of cut off from the voters,” Crenson said. “Retail campaigning isn’t going to work during the pandemic. You can’t hold rallies. You can’t go door-to-door. I don’t think it’s going to make Mary Miller victorious, but it does give her more of an advantage.”

The crisis also could be beneficial politically to the candidate who can best show leadership. Incumbents, such as President George W. Bush during the 9/11 terrorism attacks or Governor Hogan during the unrest in Baltimore in 2015, often see an increase in public support during an emergency.

The crisis could represent an opportunity for Young, the current mayor, who was trailing in the polls, to show leadership. But he will need to be more visible, Crenson said.

“The mayor is not a grandstander. I think he could be making more of this than he is if he took a more active role,” Crenson said. “People are looking for someone who can give them a sense of security. Someone who is highly visible.”

Young’s early efforts ― including teaming up with Baltimore’s renowned hospitals, instituting a hiring freeze and partnering with the state to open up a testing site in the hardest-hit ZIP code ― have earned him some praise.

Dr. Deborah Birx, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, lauded him and two other mayors recently for their work to flatten the curve.

Angelo Cooper, a Realtor who runs The CoopGroup, said he plans to vote for Young in part because he likes the steps Young has taken during the pandemic to slow the virus’ spread.

“I think he’s been very effective,” Cooper said.

Since he took over after former Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned amid scandal last year, Young has talked about being a “steady hand” for the city as it weathered a leadership shake-up, a ransomware attack and unrelenting violence.

But for some voters, Young is tied to the city’s problems. “The crime is still rising, I am still seeing people get murdered, I still see open-air drug dealing,” said Chanel Tate, 37, a Southwest Baltimore resident who supports Dixon. In terms of coronavirus response, Tate said all she sees Young doing is closing things down.

To slow the spread of the virus, Hogan has ordered the primary to be conducted largely by mail, although in-person voting centers will be offered on a limited basis.

For years, the demographic group key to winning citywide election has been older black female voters, but Dixon says she’s worried many of her supporters will be suspicious about voting by mail.

“There are individuals who want to go to a site to vote," Dixon said. "I think its going to affect the election. I think it’s going to affect people of color in particular.”

The state already held a special general election to fill the 7th District congressional seat mostly by mail, and it ran relatively smoothly. But that was one congressional district. The June primary will involve voters throughout the city and the state as residents choose candidates for president and Congress, among other offices.

Mitchell, the WBAL host, says that for Baltimore’s mayoral candidates, a mail-in election will “benefit the individual who uses today’s technology the best” to get out the vote.

“We all are going to find out how this mail-in thing works,” Mitchell said. "It’s going to be an adventure. It’s done under duress. It can’t help but be a mess.”

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