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It’s a three-way race for Baltimore mayor — Dixon, Miller and Scott — new Sun/UB/WYPR poll shows

Steve Raabe, OpinionWorks president, discusses the results of polls taken in Maryland on the candidates running for Baltimore mayor.

The contest to be the next mayor of Baltimore has come down to a three-way Democratic primary race between an experienced but controversial former mayor, a millionaire business executive and a youthful City Council president, according to a new poll for The Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM.

The poll, released Wednesday, shows former Mayor Sheila Dixon and former T. Rowe Price executive Mary Miller tied with 18% support among the likely primary voters surveyed. Dixon and Miller were followed closely by City Council President Brandon Scott at 15%.

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“It’s definitely a three-way race,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. “Sheila Dixon and Mary Miller are literally tied. Brandon Scott is right behind, but he’s a leading second choice. The three of them are really competitive.”

The poll of 400 likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters was conducted May 11-18. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

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Raabe said the race has developed into two tiers among its six leading contenders, with the second grouping not far behind. It’s composed of former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah with 11% support; former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith with 6%, and incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young with 5%.

While Vignarajah could be positioned to pull out of the second tier, Raabe said, his campaign has “not managed to catch fire" as others have in recent weeks

Even as tiers have developed among the candidates, there remains much uncertainty in the race, the poll shows. More than one in five voters surveyed said they were undecided, and 41% said they were open to switching to a new candidate.

There are less than two weeks to go until June 2, the date by which voters must turn in completed ballots. This year’s election, upended by the coronavirus pandemic, is being conducted largely by mail with some voters starting to mail back or drop off ballots this week.

The poll shows that even as the death count from COVID-19 climbs and unemployment surges, Baltimore voters remain primarily concerned with crime. The city has had more than 300 homicides annually for five consecutive years.

Sixty percent of poll respondents said stopping violent crime should be the most urgent concern of the next mayor, followed by 10% who said the priority should be protecting the public from COVID-19 and 6% who said the next mayor’s focus should be jump-starting economic growth.

The candidate showing the largest surge in support is Miller, a former Treasury official in the administration of President Barack Obama. More than a third of her supporters in the poll chose to back her within the previous week, the poll found.

"Miller has an avalanche of people going towards her,” Raabe said. “If Mary Miller could figure out how to speak to the crime issue, in addition to her platform of good city management, she could lock it up.”

The race also is divided among racial lines. Dixon is the leading choice among black voters with 26% support, but has the backing of just 3% of white residents. In contrast, Miller has the support of 31% of white voters, compared with 11% support of black voters.

The city’s population is about 63% black and 32% white, based on the latest census estimates.

Carol Jones, 70, of Mount Washington, said she likes Miller best because she seems to have a more big-picture focus.

“You will solve issues of crime if people are employed. You will solve issues of housing if people are trained to build,” Jones said. “I’m not necessarily drawn to candidates who are single-issue. She tended to be, so far, more global in her response to what she can do to solve Baltimore’s issues.”

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Jones, who is African American, said she was familiar with the concerns over a pro-Miller political action committee called Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership that ran attack ads. A leaked fundraising email from its treasurer outlined a strategy to target white voters in the majority-black city. Miller quickly disavowed the PAC.

“OK, whatever,” Jones said. “There are all kinds of PACs out there.”

Scott appeals to both of Baltimore’s main racial groups equally, with 17% support among whites and 16% support among black voters, the poll shows. He is also the leading choice among younger voters, currently winning both the under-35 and under-50 groups.

Dave Christian of East Baltimore said Scott’s personal story resonates with him. He appreciates that Scott grew up in the city, and would bring “new blood” to the mayor’s seat.

“He started from the bottom and worked his way up,” said the 47-year-old project manager.

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.

The poll shows Baltimore voters remain deeply dissatisfied with the state of the city, with two-thirds saying Baltimore is on the wrong path. That could be hurting Young’s prospects. “He clearly is viewed as the status quo candidate,” Raabe said.

The poll found that much of the mayor’s limited support came from the minority of people who believe Baltimore is on the right path.

“Being an incumbent mayor gives you the opportunity in a crisis to really rally the voters and the city,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “In this case, it may be going in the opposite direction, where he’s being associated with the problems of the city.”

Vignarajah has the most cash on hand, more than $700,000, as of the most recent campaign finance report. He’s also got the support of a super PAC funded by backers of a new airplane surveillance program recording city neighborhoods to gather evidence of crimes. The money has paid for TV ads, which have taken on new importance in a pandemic-era campaign.

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But Miller is pumping her personal wealth into the race ― already spending more than $2 million ― to fund a sustained effort that her rivals will struggle to match. Miller has donated $1.5 million to her campaign, ensuring that she’s a frequent presence on voters’ screens.

Sara Artes, 37, of Ednor Gardens, initially supported state Sen. Mary Washington, once considered the most progressive candidate in the field. Artes shifted her support to Miller after Washington dropped out.

“I feel like there isn’t escaping the fact that she does come from money, and she has a lot of money,” Artes said. “But that provides, during these times, an opportunity for her to implement the things she wants to do.”

Dixon and Scott have less money than Miller, but enough to remain competitive in the race’s final weeks.

Scott reported roughly $415,000 to spend, and Dixon reported having roughly $300,000 on hand.

Dixon’s ads emphasize her success in driving down the homicide rate and efforts to clean up trash and blight. When Dixon was mayor from 2007 to 2010, the annual homicide count in Baltimore dropped from 282 to 238, arrests declined, and she gained a reputation as a competent manager.

When Brian Hubbard thinks about the challenges Baltimore faces, it’s Dixon he feels he can trust. Sure, he says, crime wasn’t at an all-time low when she was mayor, but it wasn’t hitting record-high levels as it has in recent years.

“With our city dealing with the crisis of COVID-19 and the crisis we had before, she’s equipped to turn the city around,” said Hubbard, 40, of Northeast Baltimore. “She has a pulse on the city and the people of the city.”

To win, Dixon must overcome concerns about her past. A decade after Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for the poor, she’s asked Baltimoreans to forgive her. As part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge, she resigned as mayor.

Denice Hall, 49, of Edmondson Village, said competency is more important than Dixon’s offense. Hall also believes what Dixon did is minor compared to the unethical behavior she sees coming out of the administration of Republican President Donald Trump.

“When she went in office, the crime rate wasn’t bad and she did a good job,” Hall said of Dixon. “To me, her issues were minor. Compared with what 45 is doing every day, it’s minor.”

In 2016, Dixon narrowly lost a mayoral primary to then-state Sen. Catherine Pugh. Pugh resigned last year as mayor due to her own corruption scandal involving the sale of self-published children’s books. Young, the council president, was elevated to mayor and Scott became City Council president.

During that race, Dixon led in polls until Pugh emerged as an alternative for anti-Dixon voters. Dixon won a majority of the majority-black precincts, but got few votes among white voters. Pugh won overall by a narrow margin.

Hartley said the “anybody-but-Dixon crowd” may look at these poll results and rally behind one of the other leading candidates to help them break out as the alternative.

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