Baltimore voters lean to former mayor when times were better

BALTIMORE (AP) — A former Baltimore mayor who argued crime was lower during her administration maintained her lead in the Democratic primary on Wednesday, even though her own tenure was cut short by scandal.

While the race remained too close to call, Maryland political observers noted that the crowded primary appeared to have been whittled down to two well-known politicians: former Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Brandon Scott.

In a primary with more than 20 candidates, the coronavirus pandemic hindered lesser-known challengers from using traditional campaigning techniques, experts said.

“There was no opportunity for people to have a dynamic moment in the campaign, because we were all locked inside,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the political science program at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.

Also, Dixon's straight-forward message that times were better during her tenure resonated with voters in a city where there have been more than 300 homicides annually for five straight years.

“I remember crime rates were lower," said India Bell, as she waited in line to vote for Dixon on Tuesday and noted that it felt like the city has been in “a state of emergency” for the last decade, since Dixon resigned amid scandal. "I remember the streets were a lot cleaner. I remember police and community relations were a lot more consistent, and they were a lot more stable than they are.”

Dixon led Wednesday with nearly 31% of the votes, compared to Scott's roughly 25%. Former U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Mary Miller was in third place with nearly 17%.

Armstead Jones, director of the city’s Board of Elections, on Tuesday told The Associated Press that outstanding mail-in ballots will not be counted before Thursday.

The primarily mail-in election didn’t go without a snag in Baltimore. Two weeks earlier, officials had to authorize the setup of additional voting centers in the city over concerns that ballots were not arriving in the mail as planned. On Tuesday, dozens of voters remained in line two hours after polls were scheduled to close because social-distancing measures prompted by the pandemic slowed the flow of people at voting centers. And early Wednesday, voting results from the city were taken down from the state’s Board of Elections website due to an issue with ballots in one district.

Gov. Larry Hogan said there were “significant failures," and he called on the state elections board to prepare a report to him and other state officials by July 3. He also requested that the legislature conduct oversight hearings to correct problems and “ensure that the November election is free of these failures and these issues.”

Dixon's resignation in 2010 ended a three-year tenure that began with promise but unraveled amid embarrassing allegations she stole from the poor. She stepped down as part of a plea deal for misappropriating about $500 in gift cards meant for needy families.

Dixon ran for mayor in 2016, but lost in the primary to Catherine Pugh who went on to be mayor and resigned last year amid investigations into the lucrative sales of her self-published children’s books. Pugh pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

Kromer said Dixon was aided this time by voter recollections that the city appeared to run well at the start of her tenure.

"The previous record is what allowed her to be, I think, forgiven for the gift-card scandal,” Kromer said.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said the crowded field created an opening for someone to ride a strong base and name recognition to victory.

“Having a known name, having a built-in constituency, is absolutely going to help you, and there’s no question but that Dixon and that Scott had built-in constituencies.” Eberly said.

Eberly also said there's nothing new about voters not punishing scandal-plagued officials on Election Day.

“What is fascinating, of course, is we just had a mayor forcibly resign because of self-dealing, self-serving actions, and she is likely to be succeeded by someone who was brought down by scandal involving self-dealing and self-serving actions,” Eberly said.

Bell, for her part, said what happened in the past did not bother her now.

“I just don’t think somebody that messed up once is going to come back in office and mess up again, because she knows the spotlight will be on her,” Bell said.