Who Wants to Run the Deadliest Big City in America?

Theodoric Meyer

BALTIMORE—One Thursday evening in September, two or three dozen of the most influential people in this city gathered at the home of a former judge to discuss what was wrong with their hometown. The crowd—former mayoral aides, lawyers, nonprofit types and former Mayor Kurt Schmoke—were part of an off-the-record dinner society called the Singapore Club.

After cocktails and dinner, they sat down to hear from the night’s guest of honor: Alec MacGillis, a longtime Baltimore reporter who’d written a recent cover story for the New York Times Magazine on the city’s struggles. The story with the headline, “The Tragedy of Baltimore,” laid out how the city had come apart in the years since the riots over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody in 2015. In the six months since the story had run, things had gotten even worse. The murder rate—which shot up after Gray’s death—had climbed even higher. And Mayor Catherine Pugh had resigned amid a criminal investigation into the sale of tens of thousands of her Healthy Holly children’s books to companies hoping to do business with the city. She was the second Baltimore mayor to resign amid scandal in less than a decade.

In July, President Donald Trump had turned his attention to the city, slandering the district of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings—a beloved Baltimore native who died months later—as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where no “human being would want to live.” Outraged Baltimoreans defended the city, but the insult recalled the version of the city depicted on “The Wire,” the acclaimed HBO show: its violent drug trade, crumbling rowhouses, struggling schools and incurably petty politics.

MacGillis placed much of the blame for the city’s problems on the people in the room, some of whom had written checks to Pugh’s mayoral campaign in 2016. “Why do you accept poor leadership?” he asked, according to Mary Miller, a former executive at T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based investment firm, who was there. “Why do you just keep putting the same kinds of people in office?”

Much of the crowd responded with frustration. “It’s unfixable,” said one man, whom Miller described as “a fairly significant person in Baltimore” but declined to name. “We’re a post-industrial city. The jobs have left. Poverty’s moved in. We can’t do anything about it. It’s just hopeless.”

“They were saying, ‘Why did you have to write that piece, “The Tragedy of Baltimore”? Why did you have to do that and put another nail in the coffin?’” Miller told me. “And he said, ‘Because it’s true. And we’ve got to wake up and do something different here.’”

It’s not hard to make the case that the city’s leaders bear much of the blame for its dysfunction. Baltimore has had five police commissioners in the past five years. Pugh is heading to prison. And Mayor Bernard Young—who succeeded Pugh after she stepped down—seems unable to articulate a strategy to stop the killing. “I’m not committing the murders and that’s what people need to understand,” he said in November. “How can you fault leadership?”

Five years after Gray’s death, the city is struggling to reverse its slide. Baltimore is by far the deadliest of America’s 50 most populous cities. Since the early 1990s, murder rates have fallen dramatically in New York and Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, Chicago and Atlanta, Detroit and Dallas. Not in Baltimore. After years of halting progress under Mayor Martin O’Malley and his successors, the murder rate soared after Gray’s death and last year hit an all-time high.


Next week, voters will choose a new mayor in a race that’s been fought over who can possibly reverse the trend. Sixty percent of voters say stopping violent crime is the most urgent task facing the next mayor, according to a poll conducted for the Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR released last week; only 10 percent said combatting coronavirus was the most urgent task. It’s not hard to find voters who’ve lost friends and family to gun violence. Several of the mayoral candidates have, too. Even the pandemic hasn’t slowed the killing much, despite Young’s plea in March for Baltimoreans to stop shooting people to free up hospital beds for coronavirus patients. Nine people were killed in violence over Memorial Day weekend.

The race is wide open. Young, running for a full term, is one of six Democrats facing off in Tuesday’s primary—which in deep-blue Baltimore might as well be the general election. But voters seem disinclined to keep him in office. Just 5 percent backed him in the Sun poll.

Instead, voters are torn between three challengers: Sheila Dixon, the city’s no-nonsense former mayor who resigned in scandal a decade ago; Brandon Scott, the brash young city council president; and Miller, who was motivated to run, in part, by MacGillis’ harangue last year. Dixon and Miller were tied at 18 percent in the Sun poll, with Scott at 15 percent—within the margin of error. (Thiru Vignarajah, a former prosecutor and Maryland deputy attorney general, was in fourth with 11 percent support.)

Dixon and Miller’s bases of support couldn’t be more different—Dixon supporters tend to be black and working class, while many of Miller’s are white and college-educated—but they each have proposed largely the same strategy to address the killing. So have Scott and Vignarajah. That strategy, known as focused deterrence, has helped cities such as New Orleans and Oakland, Calif., bring down their murder rates. Baltimore tried a version of the strategy when Dixon was mayor more than a decade ago, which helped reduce the murder rate to its lowest level in decades. But focused deterrence was abandoned in the years after corruption charges drove her from office.

With her tarnished record, many Baltimoreans see Dixon as emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the city. But a surprising number are ready to forgive her—or at least see her transgressions as something they can stomach if it means electing a mayor who can address violent crime. “She got a raw deal,” Scott Creek, a 53-year-old contractor wearing a Baltimore Ravens cap and a Ravens sweatshirt, told me. He remembered how much safer Baltimore was when Dixon was mayor. “She was actually putting police in the community,” he said.

The idea of reelecting a former mayor who resigned in a corruption scandal might seem hard to understand for those who don’t live in Baltimore—indeed, it’s hard to understand for many Baltimoreans. But some voters have decided they’re willing to risk a little corruption if it means electing someone who can slow the killing. When Dixon tried to return to City Hall in 2016, O’Malley voted for Pugh, thinking Dixon’s past would keep her from hiring top talent if she won. This time around, “I hear from a number of neighbors who reasoned the same way that they wish in hindsight they had just voted for Sheila four years ago,” he told me. “Because maybe so many people wouldn’t have lost their lives in the meantime.”


Baltimore isn’t the city depicted on “The Wire”—or at least the show doesn’t tell the full story of the city, especially today. There are blocks and blocks of boarded-up rowhouses, but there also are well-preserved 19th century neighborhoods of three-story houses with white marble stoops. The shooting that left seven people injured in March and led Young to plead for peace happened across the street from a new restaurant serving fried chicken and $14 cocktails. The Sun ran a story last year on the thousands of Baltimoreans fleeing the city on the same day a developer finished leasing a luxury apartment building in Locust Point, a mostly white neighborhood on the city’s harborside that hasn’t seen a murder since 2017.

Sheila Dixon’s family has been in Baltimore for generations, since the days when the city council passed what the New York Times described as a “drastic plan of race segregation” after a black lawyer moved into a well-off white neighborhood. The city’s schools and parks were still legally segregated when Dixon was born in 1953, and she grew up in West Baltimore as the city slowly integrated. Her father, Phillip, was a car salesman, and her mother, Winona, was a teacher’s aide and an activist known for scouring public housing projects for truant children and bringing them to school. As a child, Dixon often dreamed about leaving the city and living abroad. Instead, she stuck around and became a fixture of Baltimore politics.

Dixon was elected to the city council in 1987, the same year Baltimore—now a majority-black city—elected its first black mayor. She won a measure of notoriety a few years later by brandishing one of her shoes at white council members who were fighting a redistricting plan that gave most of the council districts black majorities. “You’ve been running things for the last 20 years—now the shoe is on the other foot,” she said. “See how you like it.” (She explained years later while running for city council president that one of her white colleagues had provoked her by using a racial epithet.)

After O’Malley was elected governor in 2006, Dixon, who as city council president was first in the line of mayoral succession, replaced him. She was elected in her own right the following year, and the murder rate started to fall. Even as her approach started paying off, though, prosecutors were building a corruption case against her. Less than 18 months after she became mayor, officials raided her home and hauled away boxes. In 2009, she was indicted after a grand jury accused her of failing to disclose more than $15,000 in gifts, including a $2,000 gift certificate she used to buy two fur coats and a trip to New York, from a prominent developer. She had dated the developer, Ronald Lipscomb, while she was city council president, and he had benefited from tax breaks and zoning changes that she backed. She was also accused of taking gift cards donated by Lipscomb and other developers meant for needy families in Baltimore and using them herself.

Dixon’s lawyer insisted the investigation was politically motivated, arguing that the Republican-appointed prosecutor handling the case had developed a “singular personal obsession” with bringing her down. But later that year a jury convicted her of stealing about $500 in Target and Best Buy gift cards, while acquitting her of three other charges. She resigned on January 6, 2010, as part of a plea deal that allowed her to keep her pension and wiped away her criminal record following four years of probation.

After being asked about the scandal again and again over the past decade, Dixon has settled on a strategy of apologizing for what she did while downplaying it. She has emphasized that she was convicted of a misdemeanor, not a felony. “If I had disclosed a relationship that I had when I was city council president, I would be retiring from being mayor right now,” she told me in an interview at the offices of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, where she’s worked since leaving office. “And this city would be a whole lot different than it is.”

A decade after she left office, Dixon remains phenomenally popular among many black voters. White voters are much less enamored. A poll conducted for a rival mayoral campaign earlier this year found that 54 percent of black voters—who represent roughly two-thirds of Baltimore’s electorate—have a favorable opinion of her but only 15 percent of white voters do. “I think sometimes that African Americans are more forgiving of people because sometimes they can see through things that others don’t want to see” through, Dixon told me when I asked her about the divide. “And whites tend to be—some, not all—tend to be more judgmental.”

While Baltimore’s murder rate is now higher than it was when O’Malley won election in 1999 by promising to crack down on crime, the politics of policing have shifted. None of the candidates running this year have proposed a return to zero tolerance. Vignarajah, who’s probably the most conservative of the six major Democratic candidates, has ruled out anything resembling a return to stop and frisk. “I think all of us agree that the policies of mass incarceration and zero tolerance in the early days of Baltimore’s war on drugs were failed policies,” he told me.

Instead, most of the candidates have called for implementing a strategy that Dixon backed when she was mayor, known as focused deterrence. More recently, the strategy has also been embraced by Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Focused deterrence has helped New Orleans—where Harrison was police superintendent before coming to Baltimore last year—and other violent cities bring down their murder rates.

Harrison laid out how it worked on a sunny morning a couple of weeks before the pandemic shuttered much of the city. “Focused deterrence is about, basically, in layman’s terms, the carrot and the stick,” he told the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group, on the 17th floor of an office tower overlooking the harbor. The strategy is built around identifying the relatively small number of people in a city most likely to commit violent crimes. Those of them on parole or probation are compelled to come to a meeting, known as a call-in, with top police officers, prosecutors, social workers and community members. There they’re given an ultimatum: Stop shooting and accept help, or we’ll come after you with everything we’ve got.

“That is how you drive down murder,” Harrison said. “By giving the young men options to do something different but bringing the options to them—not telling them to go seek them out but bringing the options to them. This is what we did in New Orleans.” He recalled what he told those who came to the call-ins: “If you need a GED or if you can’t read or if you need a high school diploma, all those folks are here to help you today. If you need relocation because you live in a gang area and the only way out is to relocate, housing is here to help you do that today. If you need drug addiction help, mental illness help, people are here to help you with that today.”

There’s substantial evidence that focused deterrence—also known as Ceasefire or group violence intervention—works. A meta-review of research on 30 different crime- and violence-reduction strategies conducted by Harvard researchers Thomas Abt and Christopher Winship in 2016 found that focused deterrence was the most effective. In his book, Bleeding Out, Abt estimated that a newly elected Baltimore mayor could save 788 lives by implementing focused deterrence and other strategies over two four-year terms, allowing for no reduction in murders in the first year as the strategy is set up. He described the estimate as “extremely conservative.”

But the strategy has a troubled history in Baltimore—and only Dixon has been able to pull it off.

“Baltimore had the worst law enforcement politics I’ve ever seen,” David Kennedy, a criminologist who pioneered the strategy in Boston in the 1990s, wrote in his memoir, Don’t Shoot. “The three main players, the police department, the state’s attorney’s office, and the U.S. attorney’s office, saw crime-control as a zero sum game: anybody gets any credit for anything, the others lose.” Kennedy came to Baltimore in 1998 and spent more than two years working with police and prosecutors to set up a focused deterrence strategy. It collapsed after O’Malley was elected. “O’Malley didn’t want it, didn’t like it, wanted New York-style zero tolerance in Baltimore,” Kennedy wrote. “He got it. The Baltimore Police Department started arresting everybody in sight.”

When Dixon became mayor, she cast aside O’Malley’s approach, which he’d modeled on the zero-tolerance tactics used in New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in favor of a more targeted policing strategy. “I knew that zero tolerance was not the route that we needed to go, that we needed to focus on the most violent offenders, that we needed to bring all of our public safety entities to the table,” she told me.

She embraced a focused-deterrence strategy that Maryland’s U.S. attorney, Rod Rosenstein, had started setting up in O’Malley’s last year as mayor. Rosenstein—who would go on to serve as deputy attorney general overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation—and one of his deputies, Jason Weinstein, modeled their strategy on Kennedy’s. The strategy relied on aggressive prosecution of what they termed “violent repeat offenders” paired with call-ins held in churches and community centers. Sometimes Weinstein would hold them in neighborhoods in which he’d recently sent a violent repeat offender to federal prison, to give his warnings more credibility. “We would say, ‘We’re standing up here because we don’t want to prosecute you,’” Weinstein told me. They delivered the ultimatum as some of the young men’s mothers, girlfriends and neighbors looked on.

The strategy worked. The number of murders fell to 234 in 2008 and held steady at 238 the following year, even as the number of arrests declined. The call-ins played “a significant part in driving down violent crime,” Fred Bealefeld, whom Dixon tapped as her police commissioner and who helped lead call-ins himself, told me.

After Dixon resigned in 2010, the call-ins continued under her successor, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The following year, the number of murders fell to less than 200 for the first time since the 1970s. But the strategy started coming apart after Bealefeld retired in 2012. Two aides deeply involved in implementing focused deterrence under Dixon, who had initially stayed on under Rawlings-Blake, left around the same time as Bealefeld, along with a crucial O’Malley aide. The collaboration required to keep the strategy going eroded. “People didn’t understand what it took to sustain it,” Bealefeld said.

Baltimore tried to revive the strategy, without success. Kennedy returned in 2014 after Rawlings-Blake read his memoir and recruited him. He started holding call-ins in the police department’s Western District, which he described in an interview as “extremely successful.” (Kennedy also met Vignarajah, who was a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office at the time. He gave $500 to Vignarajah’s mayoral campaign earlier this year.) He’d just started expanding into the Eastern District—the other one of the two most violent in the city—“when Freddie Gray died,” he said. “That was the end of that brief but hopeful moment in which there seemed to be enough common ground amongst the principals to do work.”

It’s hard to tease out how much of the decline in the murder rate under Dixon was due to her leadership. Others certainly contributed. O’Malley, who remained so intensely focused on crime in Baltimore as governor that he got daily reports on the number of homicides in the city, directed state authorities to step up their supervision of those on parole and probation in Baltimore. Rosenstein was already working to build out his focused deterrence effort when Dixon took office. But Dixon backed the idea once she took office even though she hadn’t come up with it herself—something other mayors haven’t done.

Consider the experience of Melvin Russell, a police colonel who tried to set up his own, more modest version of focused deterrence in the aftermath of Gray’s death. He started holding call-ins, working with a local judge, the state’s attorney office, and eventually some police officers. But Pugh and the police department’s leadership never bought into the strategy. Pugh’s chief of staff told the city council in 2017 that the police department wasn’t interested in focused deterrence anymore. “We were pretty much mocked, laughed at, shamed,” Russell told me. “We just didn’t get the institutional support.” He left the department last year after Harrison arrived rather than accept a demotion. The call-ins he’d been holding have stopped.

The collapse of Russell’s effort disappointed the Reverend Alvin Hathaway, senior pastor of Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church, where Russell had hosted some of his call-ins. Hathaway urged the next mayor to return to focused deterrence. “The next administration should revisit that call-in and exponentially scale it up,” he said.

Dixon’s popularity is rooted in her devotion to what might be called constituent service, although she’s still doing it a decade after leaving office. “She will find out that you were a welder and your welding license expired because you didn’t pay the annual fee, and she’ll give you the phone number of the office to call to get your welding license back,” Martha McKenna, a longtime Dixon adviser and a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee political director, told me, recounting an interaction earlier this year. “And then she’ll tell you, ‘And then you call me when you get your welding license back, you call me and I’ll get you a job with so-and-so construction firm.”

Still, it’s hard to understand the depth of Dixon’s appeal until you walk around the city with her, which I did one afternoon in February when she went to knock on doors in Cherry Hill, a neighborhood of worn rowhouses on the southern edge of the city. Dixon can be brusque, even critical, but she’s also a charismatic retail campaigner. When I met her, she was wearing a black Adidas hoodie, bright red Adidas pants, black boots and red knit cap. She’s 66 but looks much younger—due in part, perhaps, to her pescatarian diet and intense workout regimen.

“That’s my girl,” John Brown, a mustachioed man who wore white Nikes with red swooshes, said as Dixon walked up to him in the yard of a brick rowhouse with a chain-link fence.

“How you doin’?” Dixon asked him. They promptly took a selfie together.

As Dixon bounded on to the next house, I asked Brown, 55, why he supported her. “She’s going to do the same thing Marion Barry did in D.C.,” he said, referring to the former Washington mayor who went to prison in 1990 after the FBI videotaped him smoking crack, only to return to the mayor’s office four years later. “She’s going to turn it around.” He was untroubled by the scandal that forced her from office. “Redemption, man,” he said. “We all need a second chance.”

After Dixon stopped to greet voters across town at the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, a young woman driving an Acura rolled down her window as Dixon crossed the street. “I love you!” she yelled. Dixon greeted her and asked her to consider supporting her. “I’m voting for you, so you don’t have to worry about it,” the young woman said.

Later, a bus driver stopped at a red light spotted Dixon and gave her a thumbs up.

“Good luck!” she yelled through the closed window of the bus.

Dixon is betting voters remember how much violent crime declined while she was mayor—especially black voters who live in the neighborhoods where most murders take place. Those were also the neighborhoods where arrests soared under O’Malley’s zero-tolerance tactics, which Dixon moved away from.

“Take it from me,” an older black man wearing glasses and a blazer sitting on a marble stoop says in Dixon’s first TV ad. “I’ve been in Baltimore my entire life, and Sheila Dixon is the best mayor we’ve ever had.”

A chorus of voices chime in. “Sheila cleaned up these streets,” an older woman says.

“She stopped the police from making illegal arrests,” another woman says.

“She brought the homicide rate down,” a man says, as the words “LOWEST CRIME RATE IN 25 YEARS” flash on the screen.

The Baltimore Police Department’s troubles run deep, and focused deterrence won’t necessarily solve them. Gray’s death from injuries sustained after police arrested him for carrying a small knife in 2015 severely eroded many Baltimoreans’ trust in the police. So did the ensuing rise in murder as cops pulled back from policing after six officers were charged in Gray’s death. (Three officers were acquitted, and the state’s attorney ultimately dropped the remaining charges the following year.) The department remains bound by a federal consent decree, put in place after a Justice Department investigation in the wake of Gray’s death found Baltimore’s policing tactics produced “severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans.” The prosecution of members of the Gun Trace Task Force, an elite police unit, revealed how its members had robbed people and planted evidence in the years leading up to Gray’s death and immediately afterward. The department has also lost hundreds of sworn officers since Dixon’s time as mayor, making it harder for the ones who remain to police the city. While 120 people have been murdered in Baltimore this year, only 50 murder suspects have been arrested so far this year, according to the police department.

Focused deterrence has its critics—including O’Malley, who insists it doesn’t work. “It’s very alluring for wealthier liberal people to believe that if you only bring all of the hit men and the drug gangs in and tell them that they need to behave properly and get a job and you know who they are that it’ll work,” he told me. “But it doesn’t work like that.”

A 2018 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers found the focused deterrence program that Kennedy set up when he returned to Baltimore in 2014 “was not associated with any change in the number of homicides in the areas where” it was active. But the researchers allowed the strategy might not have been given a chance to work. “Concerns were raised by staff and community members that there were insufficient resources and commitment to deliver promised services to individuals targeted by the program,” they wrote.

Focused deterrence can take time to get right. It requires not only close collaboration between the mayor, the police department, prosecutors and other actors, but also a careful balance of what Harrison described as the strategy’s carrot and stick elements. The Reverend Michael McBride, an Oakland pastor who pushed his city to implement focused deterrence, compared the process of calibrating it to solving a Rubik’s Cube. Oakland tried to make the strategy work twice before pulling it off. But once it came together, it produced dramatic results: Oakland’s murder rate has fallen by half since 2012. Crucially, the strategy has endured in Oakland through two mayors and a succession of police chiefs, despite a police department scandal.

Philadelphia also plans to try focused deterrence for a second time, after its first attempt fell through several years ago. And Harrison has pushed Baltimore to try again, too. The city is in the process of bringing on a service provider to help run the effort. Once one is hired, “in the very near future after that we hope to host a call-in,” Harrison told me.

With most of the candidates backing focused deterrence, they’ve each tried to distinguish themselves by arguing that he or she is only one who can fulfill the promises they’ve all made to tackle violent crime. “We don’t need more plans to fight crime,” Miller says in one TV ad. “We need somebody to be accountable. And I will.”

Miller—the only white candidate in the race—has poured more than $2 million of her own money into her campaign. She’s thrown her support behind Harrison, promising to keep him on if she’s elected. Miller, 64, left T. Rowe Price in 2009 to serve as a Treasury Department undersecretary in the Obama administration, and she’s leaned on her time working for the first black president in her ads. But her efforts to appeal to black voters took a hit earlier this month when the Sun obtained an email sent to potential donors by the treasurer of a super PAC supporting her, which outlined a strategy to peel off white voters inclined to support Vignarajah or Scott. (Miller apologized and said she had nothing to do with the super PAC.)

Vignarajah, the former prosecutor, has promised not to run for reelection if he can’t bring the murder rate to less than 200 a year—which would still make Baltimore one of the most violent cities in the country. Such pledges can backfire: When O’Malley ran for mayor in 1999, he promised to reduce the murder rate to 175 a year—a target neither he nor any of his successors has achieved. Vignarajah, 43, who came to Baltimore as child from Sri Lanka, has proposed giving rebates to residents and business owners who set up cloud-connected security cameras and register them with the police department, with the goal of adding 10,000 cameras, among other ideas. He’s also backed an aerial surveillance program funded by John Arnold, a Texas philanthropist who gave $100,000 to a super PAC supporting him. (The American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully sued to stop the flights, which started earlier this month.)

Scott, the city council president, won the Sun’s endorsement and has managed to appeal to black and white voters alike in a race divided along racial lines. He’s called for Baltimore to adopt focused deterrence for years and castigated Pugh’s administration in 2017 for abandoning the strategy. Scott, 36, grew up in the rough area of Park Heights and has lived the violence of Baltimore’s past few decades. “I always say no one is exempt,” he tweeted on Sunday in the midst of a violent Memorial Day weekend. “Nothing will rattle you more than a [sic] having to talk to your grandmother about someone being shot outside her house and bleeding on her truck.”

But the race has revolved around Dixon. She’s not a formidable fundraiser. She had spent less than $500,000 on her campaign as of May 17, less than any of the top six candidates except for T.J. Smith, a former Baltimore Police Department spokesman who was stuck at 6 percent in the Sun poll. But Scott and Vignarajah both told me they see the race as a faceoff between Dixon and themselves. “She has no money and she’s winning,” a Young campaign aide groused to me in March a few days after a previous Sun poll had found Dixon in the lead.

Not everyone is ready to forgive Dixon. The poll that found 54 percent of black voters have a favorable opinion of her also found 32 percent had an unfavorable one. “I’m not voting her back in,” Rose Biggus, 70, a black retired city worker who would rather see Miller win, told me. “We’re sending a message that you can go ahead and steal.”

And no one knows how coronavirus will affect the outcome, especially in a race in which no candidate has cracked 20 percent support in most polls. Voting will be conducted mostly by mail, with only six in-person polling places in the city. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan pushed back the primary five weeks to June 2, giving Miller more time to run TV ads introducing herself to voters. But in Baltimore, “organization usually beats money,” Schmoke, the former mayor who won three elections in the 1980s and '90s, told me. “So people with a lot of ads but no organization are not in the greatest position to win in Democratic primaries.”

There are no runoff elections in Baltimore, so whoever racks up the most votes in the primary will almost certainly be the next mayor. In a six-way race, Dixon is betting her base of longtime supporters—who nearly returned her to City Hall in 2016 in a less splintered primary—will be enough to put her over the top. After she lost the primary to Pugh four years ago, Dixon mounted a last-ditch write-in campaign in the general election. “Fifty-one thousand people wrote her name in,” McKenna said. “People are going to find a way to vote for Sheila Dixon.”

One evening in February, I went to a Dixon fundraiser at Carlos O’Charlie’s, a Mexican restaurant and bar with worn wooden floors in the Highlandtown neighborhood. The theme of the fundraiser was “Baltimore Wants Our Mayor Back!” The crowd—maybe two-thirds black and a third white—had forgiven Dixon her transgressions. “Sometimes our trials and tribulations—they make us stronger, they make us better,” the Reverend Lonnie Hardy, who serves as pastor of Hope Chapel Freewill Baptist Church in West Baltimore, told me.

Dixon spoke briefly in the back of the restaurant, wearing a red leather jacket. The decision to run again had been a hard one, she said. “I really gave it a lot of thought,” she said. “And I said, You know what, Sheila? I don’t want to look back and say, ‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’” As she went on, she slipped briefly into the cadences of the black church. “I’ve come to the point in life whether you have to be honest and truthful with yourself and others,” she said. “You can’t play a game with people. You have to give them who you are, good or bad.”