Baltimore voters face watershed moment with mayoral primary

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In this June 7, 2018, photo, Thiru Vignarajah is shown after a candidate's forum for the office of Baltimore State's Attorney, in Baltimore. Vignarajah is running for mayor of Baltimore. Baltimore's primary is Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

BALTIMORE – Baltimore’s most consequential election in a generation is set to take place next week, when voters will be looking for a leader who can rein in violent crime, address entrenched poverty and restore steadily eroding trust in local government.

Although Tuesday's election is a primary, Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1 in Baltimore, all but assuring them a general election win in November. More than 20 Democrats and seven Republicans are running.

The election comes a year after a public corruption scandal that included a raid at city hall and resulted in the mayor resigning and pleading guilty to federal charges connected to the sales of her self-published children’s books.

That scandal remains fresh in voters’ minds. Many are also fed up after years of dysfunction in the city, from an incompetent public works department plagued with water billing and accounting problems to the arrest and conviction of numerous members of an elite police department unit who planted evidence. The death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody also remains central to people's concerns about the city.

“It’s a serious job, and it’s not an exaggeration to say people’s lives are on the line in terms of city leadership,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the political science program at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.

Tuesday’s outcome will reflect how confident voters are in Baltimore’s political class. Two front-runners have never worked at city hall, while the other two have well-established careers there, including former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is again trying to make a political comeback after being convicted a decade ago of misappropriating gift cards for the poor while in office. Her first attempt failed in a primary loss to Pugh in 2016.

“I know that I’m going to have to gain people’s trust back,” Dixon said. “I’m going to work and do everything in my power to do that, by making sure city government is transparent, making sure that I’m transparent.”

Dixon sat on the City Council from 1987 until becoming mayor in 2007. In that role, she had some success in reducing crime as she moved the police department away from a divisive policy of frequent arrests for nuisance crimes. Like some of the other candidates, she is campaigning on a “holistic” approach to fighting crime, believing the responsibility does not fall exclusively on the police department.