Adam Bednar//May 15, 2020
//May 15, 2020
Tensions between a pair of Democratic mayoral candidates with strong backing among Baltimore’s business community are escalating as the monthslong primary race turns into a sprint.
Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general, and Mary Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive, continue swapping barbs as the candidates vie for votes in a field jammed with viable contenders.
The clash spilled into view during a virtual debate broadcast by television station WBAL.
That exchange started with, of all things, a discussion about the city’s property taxes.
During the debate Miller, a former undersecretary of domestic finance in the Obama administration, said she planned to reshape Baltimore’s tax system. She proposed lowering Baltimore’s state-high property taxes, offsetting the revenue loss with increased income tax revenue from a larger employment base.
“Our tax structure is uncompetitive, inequitable, and broadly distrusted by the public,” Miller said.
Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general, then touted his campaign’s proposal to cut property taxes by half during the next decade. The Washington Post, he said, praised his proposal as “game changer.” The piece he referenced, however, was an op-ed penned by two of his campaign’s supporters.
Vignarajah then pivoted to Miller’s pledge to reform taxes to attack a campaign contribution Miller made to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.
“I find it ironic that other people are talking about cutting taxes or gaining more from income taxes. Mary Miller gave donations to Mitch McConnell the year after he dramatically reduced taxes on the wealthiest people in our country,” Vignarajah said.
Miller made the contribution in 2006, three years after McConnell supported the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, and a decade before McConnell led efforts to pass the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.
“I certainly don’t support Mitch McConnell, nor do I approve of President Trump’s recent tax cuts. I want to be clear,” Miller said.
Miller acknowledged the contribution from “decades ago,” and said she has no intention of changing Baltimore’s income tax rate. Her plans, Miller said, boost revenues by “creating jobs here.”
The exchange was one of a handful of recent incidents highlighting tensions between the Vignarajah and Miller campaigns as the June 2 primary approaches. But the collision was almost certain to happen.
Prior to Miller officially joining the field in January, Vignarajah’s campaign enjoyed robust fundraising, with deep support from city business and legal leaders. Some polls showed him near the top of the race.
Once Miller officially entered the race Vignarajah’s momentum slowed. Her campaign, buoyed by self-financing and a strong fundraising operation, developed a strategy that transitioned well to a contest where the COVID-19 pandemic halted retail campaigning.
Right as voters were starting to be largely confined to their homes, her team uncorked a slew of ads on television, social media, and in mailboxes.
Those ads touted her service in former President Barack Obama’s administration, which boosted her credibility with a diverse swath of the city’s Democrats. Recent polls showed Miller in a three-way tie atop the race with City Council President Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.
At about the same time Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC, a political action committee supporting Miller but not affiliated with the campaign, started running attack ads against Vignarajah. The spot featured video of a controversial traffic stop last September during which Vignarajah sniped at the officer and asked him to turn off his body camera.
But the PAC ended up hurting Miller’s campaign as much as helping. Earlier this week a fundraising email from the PAC’s treasurer, Martin G. Knott Jr., was leaked to The Baltimore Sun and caused its own controversy.
Knott’s message discussed the PAC’s goal of eroding white voters support for Vignarajah and Scott in order to boost Miller’s candidacy. Rival campaigns framed the email as racist, forcing Miller to disavow the PAC, which closed Thursday.
Timing of the scandal also deflected attention away from a political win for Miller. Lost in the commotion over Knott’s email was the fact her campaign secured the endorsement of the influential Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.