Former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah’s announcement Wednesday that he is running for Baltimore mayor makes him the first Democrat of note to launch a campaign following Mayor Catherine Pugh’s entanglement in an ethics controversy.
But with Pugh on a leave of absence for medical reasons and fighting to cling to her job in the face of demands for her resignation, the names of other potential candidates are being mentioned by Democratic Party insiders.
Vignarajah, a partner at DLA Piper, kicked off his campaign on Wednesday. Primarily a prosecutor, Vignarajah has never held elected office. He finished third in a three-way race in his 2018 campaign for Baltimore State’s Attorney.
Normally, a Democratic incumbent mayor would be an overwhelmingly presumptive favorite to win nomination to a second term. But Pugh’s receipt of at least $800,000 for her “Healthy Holly” children’s books — including $500,000 from the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat, and $114,000 from Kaiser Permanente, which has a major contract with the city — has fueled investigations, audits and demands she step down.
One potential candidate could be former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after taking a plea deal stemming from corruption charges. She lost to Pugh by 2,408 votes in 2016 and has not ruled out a run in 2020.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, currently the city’s acting mayor, insists he doesn’t want the job full time. If Young does run, according to campaign finance reports, he possess a significant fundraising advantage with nearly $600,000 in his campaign account. And, as someone who is running the city’s in Pugh’s absence, he is implicitly making a case to voters and community leaders that he can do the job.
There’s also potential for one of Baltimore’s state lawmakers to pursue a campaign now the 2019 General Assembly session is finished.
Sen. Bill Ferguson attracted attention as a potential mayoral candidate after his remarks criticizing Pugh during a Greater Baltimore Committee event in January.
And first-term Sen. Mary Washington was touted as a mayoral candidate by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot on WBAL radio’s “C4 Show” on Monday.
Sen. Jill Carter, whose legislation led to the disclosure of the $500,000 in payments to Pugh by UMMS, has also previously campaigned for mayor.
No candidates have filed with the Maryland Board of Elections to run for mayor. The filing deadline for the Democratic primary, Baltimore’s dominant political party, is Feb. 5, 2020. Early voting in the primary starts April 16, 2020, and primary Election Day is slated for April 28, 2020.
At the start of the year Pugh presented a formidable foe for potential challengers. The mayor, according to a campaign finance report filed at the start of 2019, raised more than $393,000 between Nov. 14, 2018, and Jan. 9, 2019, leaving her with nearly $1 million on hand.
Amid the outrage and subsequent calls for investigations, Pugh started a leave of absence last week. Her office said Pugh, 69, needed time to recover from pneumonia that hospitalized her earlier this month. Her aides say she is planning to return to her job.
While Pugh amassed a substantial fundraising haul her reelection wasn’t certain. In her first two years as the city’s executive Pugh irritated progressives, who made a up a crucial component of her 2016 coalition, by vetoing a bill raising Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15.
All the while Baltimore has continued struggling with violent crime. The city suffered more than 300 murders annually during her first two years in office, continuing the gruesome streak of four consecutive years topping the milestone.
Pugh’s choices for police commissioner also have drawn fire. Daryl De Sousa, Pugh’s first pick for police commissioner, resigned after less than three months on the job, and was subsequently sentenced to 10 months in jail for tax fraud.
Against her search committee’s recommendation Pugh selected Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald to replace De Sousa. After his son fell ill, and with mounting criticism of the choice from City Council members, Fitzgerald withdrew from consideration.
Eventually Pugh offered the position to the committee’s top choice, former New Orleans Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Harrison, since arriving in Baltimore at the start of the year, has received praise for his handling of the job.
“What we have endured in Baltimore is heartbreaking and humiliating,” said Vignarajah in announcing his candidacy Wednesday. “From our street corners to City Hall, I am running to put an end to crime and corruption.”
The son of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Vignarajah was born and raised in Baltimore. He then graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
As an assistant U.S. attorney, Vignarajah defended Maryland’s case against Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a case that has received national attention thanks to the popular “Serial” podcast and an HBO documentary.
Vignarajah also attracted attention after being targeted by right-wing activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, which surreptitiously recorded Vignarajah, then a deputy attorney general, sharing his view that guns should be banned in the United States.