Understandably, Sheila Dixon is the early favorite to win April’s Democratic primary and become the next Mayor of Baltimore. Baltimore Rising doesn’t like that outcome because we feel that Ms. Dixon is a poor choice for a city in desperate need of economic recovery. There’s nothing about her record in office or about her campaign to suggest that she appreciates that jobs creation – as part of all-inclusive economic growth, particularly in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods – must be the highest priority of city government. She doesn’t get it and wouldn’t know what to do about it even if she did.
Baltimore Rising is all about jobs and we believe that there are other candidates who are much better suited to reduce unemployment and poverty in the city. This is not a time to re-elect someone who did nothing to improve the city’s economy while she was in office and whose conviction for embezzlement will not inspire confidence in her role as the Salesperson-In-Chief selling Baltimore to employers around the area and country. It’s laudable that the good people of our city believe in second chances, but this is a time for professional, proven leadership that understands and is committed to economic recovery.
That Ms. Dixon is running on an anti-crime and pro-health platform is nice. These are certainly very important objectives. What Ms. Dixon doesn’t understand is that our problems with crime, with drug use and other health issues are themselves the consequences of long-term, chronic unemployment and poverty. Without a strong economy that benefits every neighborhood in this city, nothing else works.
The Sun’s poll in late November gave Ms. Dixon 24% of the vote. It was a baseline poll that preceded the onset of full-out campaigning by the 6 major Democratic candidates, but it makes an important point… Sheila Dixon has a significant core following and very high name recognition from having been Mayor, President of the City Council before that and, ironically, as a result of her high profile conviction and early, forced departure from City Hall.
Take a look at the table above. It’s a screenshot from the Maryland State Board of Elections website. 2007 was the first time Sheila Dixon ran for Mayor after having taken over the position when her predecessor, Martin O’Malley, left to become Governor. Out of 86,125 total votes cast and despite having 7 opponents, she collected an impressive 54,381 votes. She won going away with over 63% of the vote.
Needless to say, if any substantial number of the 54,000+ people who voted for her 9 years ago are still supporting Ms. Dixon, she starts with a very significant leg up on even the strongest among her competitors. She’s very well known and has a certain style, a charisma of sorts that is clearly appealing to many voters who are with her, at least for now, regardless of her lack of qualifications to hold high public office.
So, if you are one of her opponents, what do you do to beat someone with such a substantial head-start and loyal following? In a race with 6 prominent candidates that only requires a plurality, not a majority to win? Here, in no particular order, are some suggestions.
- Too many candidates. Of the six major Democratic candidates running for Mayor, at least 3 have no real chance of winning. They need to suck it up, do what’s right for the city they sincerely care about and drop out. They don’t have to endorse someone other than Sheila Dixon, but at least the votes – and contributions – they would have received will go to the other two remaining candidates. That will make it harder for Ms. Dixon to win with a relatively small plurality.
- Ms. Dixon’s core support. Talk to the people who say they are going to vote for Sheila Dixon. Ask them why? Is it hard or soft support and what, if anything, can change those voters’ minds? The answers to these questions may dictate a strategy that contains, if not actually reduces, the size of her core following.
- Exposure/name recognition. You may think voters know who you are, but they don’t. Only one of the 6 of you has been Mayor and President of the City Council, both citywide offices. The other 5 of you are either best known in your City Council or state legislative district where you were elected with only a few thousand votes or you have never held or run for elective office. You need to get your name out there.
All the neighborhood meetings and events you attend don’t give you anywhere near the exposure you need. Not enough voters really care about endorsements and that’s assuming that you have any of note. No one reads mailings. And the closer you get to the election, the more crowded the media with all manner of candidate stuff. Too much noise for you to get the attention it takes to give Ms. Dixon a run for her money.
You need to spend every dollar you can raise to get on television. If you can’t afford network shows, run your commercials on local cable and/or radio, but get your face and name in front of as many voters as possible.
And you and your volunteers need to canvass like there was no tomorrow, because there isn’t. Either you or your surrogates need to knock on every door in the city where a Democratic likely or maybe-voter lives.
- Messaging. Voters do not read stuff. BaltimoreRising.org is a blog. We’re not running for office so we get to write longer pieces that candidates and other politically involved people will read. You, on the other hand, need to limit your campaign’s message to no more than 3 to 5 major points that you can communicate through memorable sound bites in 30 seconds or less. Make your point. Don’t bore people with details unless they ask.
- Turnout. A higher turnout, particularly among younger voters whose view of Sheila Dixon will be more technical, less personal, will probably favor her opponents. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, it’s too late for you to affect turnout. Early voting starts in just 3 months. You need to put everything you’ve got into putting you face, your voice and your name in front of likely voters.
- Negative campaigning. If you don’t tell voters why you’re a better solution for Baltimore than Sheila Dixon, who will? Don’t shout or be vulgar or otherwise mean-spirited. And you certainly don’t want to go after Ms. Dixon in a way that isn’t truthful and completely professional. But you do have to help voters make up their minds in your favor. If all they know about Sheila Dixon is what her campaign is telling them, you lose.
Challenge Ms. Dixon’s accomplishments when she was Mayor. Ask voters if they and their city are any better off today, any less in trouble now as a result of her being Mayor? Ask voters why Ms. Dixon’s campaign, in February and March of last year, revised their prior 17 campaign finance reports going all the way back to 2006 to correct an almost $200,000 overstatement of her funds on-hand. That’s right, she now claims to have had almost $200,000 less in the bank when she ran in 2007 than she thought she had at the time. And now she wants another shot at running a $2.5+ billion city government?
Ask her about the substantial structural budget deficits she left to her successor. It’s called “kicking the can down the road” instead of dealing with it while you’re in office. Talk about her standards for awarding of city contracts. And yes, you’ll need to remind people about her conviction, removal from office and failure to honor the terms of her probation except under threat of its being revoked and going to jail.
If you don’t point out these things to prospective voters, Sheila Dixon sure isn’t going to do it for you. To win, you need Sheila Dixon to be on the defensive about her qualifications and history.
Okay, the point is, running a small, polite campaign is not going to beat Sheila Dixon. We may not like her as a Mayor, but we have huge respect for her political skill and the natural chemistry she still has with so many who have voted for her over the years.
You want to win this? Well, our advice is to run big or drop out and help another candidate who has a real shot at beating her. The city needs a real leader. Act like one or get out of the way. Winning the April primary is not going to be a victory you can finesse.