2 front-runners face off in Baltimore mayoral race

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Just one day ahead of the anniversary of the worst riot Baltimore had seen in more than 40 years, its residents will head to the polls to determine who will lead the city for the next four years.

It is a delicate moment for Baltimore, a pivotal point when the city is still struggling to heal from the trauma of the rioting that ripped through its streets, causing millions of dollars in property damage, and a history of political and social dysfunction that has resulted in widespread inequality, neglect and disenfranchisement.

Shortly after the April 27, 2015, unrest, Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew. Four months later, she announced she wouldn't seek re-election. The open race attracted a flood of hopefuls declaring their candidacy; before the Feb. 3 deadline passed, 13 Democrats jumped into the primary.

The two most politically entrenched candidates emerged as front-runners: Sheila Dixon, who resigned as mayor in 2010 after being convicted of embezzlement stemming from her use of gift cards meant for poor children, and Catherine Pugh, who served on the City Council before being elected state senator.


Dixon was the city's 48th mayor, serving from 2007 until she resigned in 2010. In 1987, she became the first African-American woman elected to the City Council and served for 12 years before being elected council president, beating out Pugh, who was also on the council at the time. Dixon is praised in communities, particularly in the west side where she was born and raised, for reducing violent crime and emphasizing community policing.

But her reputation was damaged when she was indicted on charges including perjury, misconduct, theft and fraud stemming from an investigation into alleged illegal gifts. She went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted of all but one charge. Despite her history, many voters believe she deserves another shot.

"She made a mistake," said Ralph Moore, a resident of the Charles Village neighborhood and a community activist. "But I come from a community where we understand forgiveness."

Pugh is also no stranger to local politics. She runs her own public relations firm, worked for a news station in Philadelphia and served as the dean of Strayer Business College in Baltimore. But Pugh also served on the City Council from 1999-2004 before she was elected to the state Senate. She's president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and the co-founder and chairwoman of the Baltimore Design School, a public middle and high school.


In her campaign, Dixon is focusing on bringing back a community policing model, improving transit access in the city's most vulnerable and isolated neighborhoods, and decreasing property taxes without offering big breaks for large developers. Dixon says she will also build parks, schools and community centers, establish a land bank to manage vacant properties and offer incentives to bring new job prospects to the city.

Pugh says she'll expand neighborhood watch and Safe Streets programs in crime-ridden neighborhoods and establish an Office of Returning Citizens to support ex-offenders in their transition back into society. Pugh says she'll return control of the public school system to the city and invest in filling empty storefronts by expanding retail corridors. Pugh also believes in cutting property taxes and says she will create a commission to work on the best ways to do so.


Rawlings-Blake was heavily criticized for her approach during the unrest and in the days and weeks that followed. She was absent from the public eye for more than five hours after rioting broke out on the day of the funeral of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while riding in a police van.

Meanwhile, Dixon and Pugh were visible on the streets of Baltimore during this period. Dixon attended Gray's funeral and was given a standing ovation, while Rawlings-Blake received a lukewarm welcome. The day after the worst unrest, Pugh was on the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues early, helping residents clean up after rioting and looting that set cars aflame, smashed windows and ransacked businesses. Pugh returned to the intersection each night to calm residents and help bridge a gap between police and protesters. When a 23-year-old was injured after his gun went off while running from police during the tense aftermath of the unrest, Pugh found the young man at the hospital and made sure his mother knew he was OK.


The two front-runners' camps have taken a no-holds-barred approach to lobbing attacks at each other. Last week, the candidates held news conferences at the same time, each accusing the other of impropriety. Pugh said Dixon campaign workers intimidated voters and shouted at people getting off Pugh campaign buses, demanding to know how much they were paid to vote for Pugh. Dixon claimed Pugh offered potential primary day workers free lunches and rides to early voting sites. Pugh asked State Prosecutor Emmett Davitt to investigate the Dixon campaign, while Dixon contacted the state attorney general's office to seek an investigation of Pugh's campaign.


It's a crowded one. Pugh and Dixon are facing off against former prosecutor Elizabeth Embry; activist DeRay Mckesson, who rose to fame through his involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement; City Councilman Carl Stokes; and businessman David Warnock, among others.


The 2014 primary election in Baltimore yielded a dismal 12 percent turnout, but if early voting statistics are any indication, this election cycle will yield much more robust returns. In Baltimore, 31,467 people voted early over eight days at the city's six early voting sites.

That's more than double the turnout for the 2014 gubernatorial election. That year, only 15,868 people voted early.

The sharp increase is likely related to the high stakes: It's not often an incumbent drops out of a race, leaving a mayoral seat open. Additionally, Maryland implemented a new rule this year that allowed voters to sign up and vote early, all in the same day.

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