Mayhem and Malaise in Baltimore for Hot Mail-In Mayoral Race

BALTIMORE (CN) — Running for mayor in a city wracked by violence and dysfunction, to say nothing of late-arriving ballots for a vote being conducted primarily by mail, three candidates — none of them the incumbent — are running even in the race.

One is an admitted thief who left the office in disgrace a decade ago. One is a former Treasury official under President Obama who has never held elective office.

And polling in third place, according a poll last week as vote-by-mail got underway, is City Council President Brandon Scott, who has the Baltimore Sun’s endorsement.

Scott, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller were polling in the high teens and within the poll’s margin of error.

“The way the candidates are bunched up, it will only take about 25% of the vote will win, and whoever wins the primary will win the general,” said John Dedie, a professor of political science at the Community College of Baltimore County. “I think it’s going to be a two-way between Scott and Miller, because Sheila’s ceiling is 22%.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who took over after former Mayor Catherine Pugh left office in scandal last year, was polling far behind, in sixth place. 

Baltimore City Hall, still closed for most business as Maryland, began to reopen Thursday, May 28, for the primary election that will be conducted primarily via mail. (Courthouse News photo/Edward Ericson Jr.)

There are 24 candidates in the June 2 Democratic primary race, whose winner is expected to easily win the November general election in the city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10-1. 

Fed up with the city standard of crime, misconduct and incompetence, many voters are staying away. “You have to swim through an ocean of corruption,” said Allen Savage, 57, an audio engineer and consultant, explaining his decision to forego mailing in his ballot. “What sense does it make to have a government the citizens have no control over?”

Savage spent months in 2017 fighting high water bills at his home, ending up on a payment plan. Dodgy billing plagued the city’s water works for over a decade before the city suffered a malware ransom attack last year that paralyzed its aging and unkempt computer systems — some residents complain they haven’t got a water bill in months and, as the Sun reported, some lucky (wealthy) folks never got one at all.

While in some ways signs of decay predate the Covid-19 crisis, in others they have been worsened.

New census totals show that Baltimore’s population dropped below 600,000 for the first time in a century. Tax receipts are down amid business shutdowns, and the city faces a budget deficit of more than $100 million.

Two weeks ago, one prominent local economist called for the city to merge with Baltimore County.

During the pandemic, crime is down nominally, but Baltimore has been reeling for five years under a murder rate that’s comparable to war zones. More than 300 people are violently killed every year, while the police department, hemorrhaging experienced officers even in relatively good times, has been hollowed out under a succession of short-time commissioners — one of whom went to prison for tax evasion.

An elite squad of city police robbed drug dealers and sold drugs for at least half a decade before the FBI charged them in 2018, and a federal civil rights consent decree has sapped administrative time and attention while street corner drug crews expand and clash, killing and maiming one another’s membership (and witnesses) in an endless cycle of retaliation.

Nine people were murdered over Memorial Day weekend.

An officer was shot on Tuesday night while chasing a suspect, who escaped by carjacking a bystander.

“The level of violence on our streets is completely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated,” Mayor Young wrote Tuesday in a late-night press release.

Young, 65, is an accidental mayor. His political career began over 30 years ago as a ward soldier under Clarence “Du” Burns, the city’s first black mayor and himself a product of the old school democratic patronage system that most American cities left behind four decades ago. 

Young pitched himself, and is still seen by many, as a caretaker and self-described “steady hand.” 

Dixon’s appeal is that she was able to work pretty well within Baltimore’s sclerotic bureaucracy, “getting things done,” as the 66-year-old former mayor says. Violence was down during her term. She was also corrupt, caught in a bribery scandal involving bid-rigging and her former boyfriend, which boiled down to her “stealing gift cards” earmarked at least in name for needy children. She pleaded guilty to perjury and embezzlement in exchange for probation; the bid-rigging parts of the scandal are largely forgotten now, and Dixon took a job with the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, supplementing the $83,000-per-year pension she preserved with her plea bargain. The association’s members have lately lent their dump trucks to her campaign, parading through the city’s streets, honking their horns, displaying “SHEILA DIXON FOR MAYOR” signs, to the population’s general annoyance.

Still, in a city where low-turnout primaries (45% of registered Democrats, last time) determine everything, Dixon’s support is solid in parts of the city where older church-going black women — Baltimore’s electoral backbone — dominate. 

“Dixon and Young are kind of the old school traditional candidates,” said Steve Raabe, president of Opinions Works, which conducted the latest poll for news organizations including the Baltimore Sun and public radio station WYPR. “Young was the choice of people who feel optimistic and think the city is moving in the right direction, and that’s a minority.”

Councilman Scott “is unique in that he appeals equally to African-American and white voters,” Raabe said. “He represents some change but is somewhat reassuring.”

Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh, second from left, leaves a sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

The 36-year-old Scott became president of the council when Young ascended to the mayorship on the resignation of former Mayor Pugh, convicted last year in federal court of enriching herself by peddling phantom copies of her self-published children’s books to various people and companies with business before the city and state.  

Scott is young, competent and a graduate of former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s political farm team, which is the closest thing to a progressive government reform club the city has. He spent four years doing constituent service in the city council office of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, won a council seat outright in 2011 on retirement of a long-time councilman and struck a high profile, holding police commissioners’ feet to the fire as vice chair of the public safety committee. 

In recent days he demanded an emergency meeting of the state board of elections to grill them on the whereabouts of absentee ballots they had promised to provide weeks earlier.

Voters had taken to social media to demand them; the state elections board found ballots from South Carolina mixed in with batches printed for Maryland.

Myles Michelin, 19, says he got his ballot last Thursday and voted for Scott, who spoke at his high school graduation. “I just like the way he carries himself so I put him on there,” Michelin said. “Honestly, a lot of the people I saw on [the ballot], I didn’t know who they were.” 

Scott fumbled a potential endorsement by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a politically oriented group of city clergy that used to be king makers. The endorsement went to Miller, a white woman.

“If you got into the weeds you could talk about the fact that Mary Miller had a lot of momentum,” Raabe said. “Thirty-eight percent of those who had decided in the last week decided to vote for her. Scott had movement too but only about half as much. 

Miller, 64, a former T. Rowe Price executive, has pumped $2 million of her own fortune into her campaign, putting her neck and neck with Dixon. Her pitch as a competent, experienced manager with finance chops and ties to Obama appeals to the city’s white voters — Baltimore is about two-thirds black — but she faced a mini-scandal three weeks ago amid the leak of emails from a political action committee that supported her, which made explicit its efforts to appeal to the white electorate. Miller disavowed any knowledge of the strategy and the PAC quickly shut down.

Also running as Democrats are Thiru Vignarajah, 43, a former federal prosecutor backed by the police union, who in 2018 lost a race to replace the city’s prosecutor; T.J. Smith, 42, who built up a following as the city police department’s chief spokesman, and 18 other candidates.

The mail-in vote ends June 2, and it’s expected to be a close race. 

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