As much as any place in the country, Baltimore in recent years has careened between a barrage of crises — a devastating riot, corruption scandals and unceasing carnage that included, most recently, nine homicides over the long Memorial Day weekend.
Now, as a gaggle of candidates will wrangle in Tuesday’s Democratic primary to become Baltimore’s next mayor, the coronavirus is causing a new wave of anguish for a city already managing rampant poverty, drug abuse and dysfunctional public schools.
“It will take a mayor the likes of Pericles to turn this around,” said Anirban Basu, chairman of Maryland’s Economic Development Commission. “The city is in a death spiral.”
While the White House warned in early April that Baltimore could become a coronavirus hot spot, the majority-black city has fared better than expected by at least one measure. As of Monday, the city’s per capita coronavirus-related deaths — 3.7 per 100,000 residents — was lower than the rates in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District.
Yet the city’s next mayor faces the economic damage wrought by the virus — soaring unemployment and massive shortfalls in tax revenue. Since 2014, the year before Freddie Gray’s death in police custody triggered looting and arson, Baltimore has lost 30,000 residents, more than 2,000 of them to homicide. The city’s population fell below 600,000 for the first time in more than a century.
“Baltimore is like a covid patient that had significant underlying issues prior to getting sick,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a community organizer. The virus “lays bare all the vulnerabilities. Whether we have the mayoral candidates who address them is the real question.”
In the Democratic primary, the contest that matters in this blue city, three of the leading candidates are political outsiders, including Mary Miller, 64, a business executive and largely unknown former Obama administration official. Miller, the only white candidate among the top contenders, has fueled her surge by spending more than $2 million of her own money on her campaign, much of it on television ads.
Another main contender is City Council President Brandon Scott, 36, a leader of a new generation of reform-style Democrats seeking to change the culture of City Hall. Scott’s youth and personal story — he grew up in Park Heights, among the city’s toughest neighborhoods — has energized a mix of white and black supporters.
The field’s most familiar name — also at the top of the polls — is Sheila Dixon, 66, the former mayor who touts her experience and the crime reductions that occurred during her administration.
Dixon also is known for resigning a decade ago after pleading guilty to embezzling gift cards meant for the poor. If she wins, she would assume an office vacated last year by Catherine Pugh, the former mayor and state lawmaker who pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme involving her self-published children’s books.
Pugh’s replacement, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, 65, who moved up from city council president, hopes to keep his current job. But his history of verbal missteps — he once proposed that the city host boxing matches to settle gang beefs — has made him something of a punchline to many voters.
As she evaluates the candidates, Aimee Evans Hickman, 43, worries the city will choose poorly, a skittishness reflected in a recent Baltimore Sun poll. More than 20 percent said they were undecided; 41 percent said they could still switch candidates.
“I don’t know anyone who’s really excited about the possibilities,” said Hickman, a mother of three who lives in West Baltimore and sells vintage jewelry. “We all have strong feelings about who we don’t want, but not nearly as positive feelings about who we want. People have serious fatigue about how much they can trust elected officials to do the right thing.”
Dixon encountered that skepticism when “Liz from Baltimore” was a caller on a recent WYPR-FM radio show.
“I’m offended you’re running,” Liz told the former mayor. “I don’t think you’re trustworthy.”
A ‘significant unknown’
On a recent morning, the line for free coronavirus tests extended from the parking lot of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church along South Conkling Street, then around two corners — 97 people in all, the second to last of whom was Miguel Fuentas, 35, an unemployed electrician.
Fuentas’s fever had broken days before. But he was still feeling sore and was afraid he had the virus. Whatever the case, he said he needed documentation of a negative test result to find work: “They won’t hire you unless you show you’re not sick.”
In late April, two weeks after the White House targeted the city as a potential hot spot, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) opened a 250-bed field hospital at Baltimore Convention Center. Only a couple of dozen beds are typically occupied, an indication that city hospitals have not been overwhelmed.
Yet, anecdotal evidence, including groups that can still be found hanging out at Fells Point and on corners and outside bodegas in poor neighborhoods, suggests the virus’s full imprint may not have been revealed.
In mid-May, the first day that Sacred Heart offered coronavirus tests, 50 people were in line by 7 a.m. By early afternoon, medics had to turn away 200 people after using up their allotment of 200 tests. Most of those waiting were Latinos working low-paying, high-risk jobs.
“The overwhelming majority appeared sick,” said Bruce Lewandowski, Sacred Heart’s pastor. “One lady collapsed and had to be taken away by ambulance.” Forty congregants are hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, he said.
As Memorial Day approached, only about 3 percent of Baltimore’s population had been tested. “Obviously, there’s still a very significant unknown,” said Matt Gallagher, a co-leader of a public-private partnership established by the city, local hospitals and CareFirst to respond to the virus.
More certain is that the virus has altered the dynamics of the election, keeping candidates from meeting voters who will also select a new city council president and, possibly, a new comptroller. That office is occupied by Joan Pratt, a onetime Pugh business partner, who is being challenged in her race for a seventh term.
“There’s going to be change in Baltimore, we just hope it’s to our advantage,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, the leader of a neighborhood association near where the 2015 riot began.
Cheatham said he detects little interest in the election among neighbors who have largely “lost faith” in local leaders. “Our problem is we elect the same candidates over and over and we don’t get results,” he said.
The candidate whom Cheatham most praised was Thiru Vignarajah, 43, an Ivy League-educated former prosecutor who promises to reduce crime. Vignarajah’s support waned after news that he had asked a police sergeant last fall to turn off a video camera recording their exchange during a late-night traffic stop.
Yet Vignarajah remains viable in a fractured race that is all the more unpredictable because the governor has ordered that ballots be mailed to every household. To limit the potential spread of the virus, only a few in-person polling stations will be open.
As the spate of shootings dominated Memorial Day weekend, Vignarajah held a news conference and said he would work to cut homicides — more than 300 in each of the past five years — to less than 200 in his first term.
“If I don’t, vote me out,” he said, standing with several mothers who have lost children to gun violence.
The weekend killings also drew the attention of Brandon Scott, who posted on social media that he had to console his grandmother after a man was shot outside her house over the weekend and bled on her truck.
“Nothing will rattle you more,” he wrote.
By then, T.J. Smith, 42, a former police spokesman who also is running, had posted videos from two crime scenes he had visited. “The biggest threat to Baltimore and to young people in Baltimore is not covid-19,” he told viewers. “It’s the violence.”
On a recent Wednesday, Young announced that all special summer events — including July 4 fireworks and festivals celebrating the arts and African American culture — were canceled through August because of the pandemic.
“We don’t want people to constantly get sick,” Young said, behind a rostrum equipped with a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. “We don’t want people to constantly die.”
The demands of managing the virus have made it difficult for the mayor to campaign. During a debate, his cellphone rang while a rival spoke. “You know, I’m still running the city,” he said when the moderator asked him to mute his phone.
Young got 5 percent in the recent Sun poll, a result that “puzzled” him. “I don’t know who they’re talking to — nobody polled me, nobody polled members of my family,” he said.
North of City Hall, near the Pimlico racetrack, Bradley Scott, 73, has a wide “Sheila Dixon for Mayor” sign outside his house. He waved off concerns about her past. “I’m comfortable with her,” he said. “She knows the bad guys and the good guys, and if she doesn’t, she knows people who do. She’s out among the people.”
Over in Hampden, Dionna Blackwell, 33, a medical assistant who is six months pregnant, paused between scoops of a snow cone and said Dixon represents a past she’s not interested in revisiting.
“We need a new face,” she said, still deciding who that should be.
Robert Koulish, 59, a political science professor, sat in his backyard in southwest Baltimore, itemizing the city’s past pain as he contemplated the future.
“For me, this is kind of a last chance to believe the government can make a difference,” he said. “I have the choice of saying, ‘Go to hell.’ I’m not there yet but my confidence is wearing thin.”