Thiru Vignarajah was late to join the Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor, diving in after two other well-known candidates. But in just over two months, the four-time candidate for citywide office has jump-started his campaign, raising more money than his chief rivals, incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon — combined.

How? Thanks to your tax dollars.

Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general who has run unsuccessfully twice for state’s attorney and once for mayor, is among the first crop of candidates to take advantage of a new public financing system for Baltimore elections. The program, which multiplies small dollar donations for candidates who eschew corporate, union and political action committee contributions, has sent a windfall of mostly public money to Vignarajah: just over $700,000 at his latest disclosure.

He’s wasted little time spending the haul.

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Last week, Vignarajah announced that he would be injecting nearly all of his war chest into a media “blitzkrieg” less than a month out from the May 14 primary, launching a “hard-hitting” TV ad that paints his competition as a choice between “corruption” in Dixon and “incompetence” in Scott.

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In the first cycle using Baltimore’s new Fair Election Fund, the handful of candidates who have opted to publicly finance their campaigns are finding that the approach can pay dividends. In addition to Vignarajah, former Councilwoman Shannon Sneed reported more money in the bank earlier this month than incumbent Nick Mosby in the race for City Council president, City Council candidate Zac Blanchard has received the maximum amount available in district races, and former teacher Steven Johnson is looking to unseat the council’s longest-serving member on a publicly funded campaign.

Baltimore voters approved the system in a 2018 ballot referendum.

Vignarajah claimed barely one in 10 respondents in a recent Goucher College Poll/Baltimore Banner poll of the mayor’s race, but argued that those results reflect that voters haven’t had time yet to get to know him or his candidacy — something his campaign can now address. Public financing is a worthy investment of taxpayer funds, he said, to guard against the kinds of tax breaks, grants and procurement contracts establishment politicians have approved for their big-dollar supporters.

“The public’s investment in public financing is a penny compared to the waste of taxpayer dollars that go to pay back the donors and developers that fund traditional politicians,” he said.

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Backers of public finance noted that the point of the system is to make grassroots campaigns competitive with those funded by wealthy donors.

Emily Scarr, state director for the consumer protection group Maryland PIRG, said the most common critique of public finance is that jurisdictions are simply “giving money away.” But “we have a choice,” said Scarr, whose organization has successfully advocated for public finance systems in Baltimore and other jurisdictions around the state.

“Either it’s money coming from Baltimore residents to fund local elections — and yes, some of it will go to people you don’t like — or we’re gonna let corporations, wealthy people make the call of who gets to have that much money.”

Funding for the program’s first cycle is limited: The Scott administration earmarked $2 million in its 2023 budget.

Under Baltimore’s system, publicly financed candidates commit to accepting no more than $150 from any donor — well below the $6,000 limit for traditionally financed campaigns — and no donations from PACs, corporations and unions. The city multiplies small-dollar contributions from Baltimore residents, with smaller donations being more heavily rewarded.

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In the mayor’s race, the first $25 dollars of each donation are multiplied by 9. That means a $25 donation becomes a total of $250 once the match is included.

The next $50 is multiplied by 5 and the final $75 multiplied by 2. Races for other offices follow a similar tiered system.

One distinctive aspect of Baltimore’s system is an initial batch of “boost” funding that candidates receive upon qualifying for the public finance program. In the mayor’s contest, that means attaining 500 contributions from city donors that total at least $40,000 — a threshold that unlocks a $200,000 kickstarter. The boost funding is lower in other citywide races and does not apply for the district-level council seats.

Scarr said she hopes that 2024 will be a “building year” in Baltimore’s public financing system, demonstrating to candidates that the program can make them competitive, even if they don’t have access to wealthy supporters. Backers of the program weren’t able to get as much money set aside for the campaign fund as they’d hoped, and Scarr said she’s heard some candidates have shied away from adopting the approach this year out of concern that the fund would run dry.

From left, mayoral candidates Thiru Vignarajah, Shelia Dixon, incumbent Brandon Scott, and candidate Bob Wallace participate in a televised debate hosted by WBAL in Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/ for the Baltimore Banner) (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Vignarajah represents an unlikely poster child for public finance. In past citywide races for mayor and state’s attorney, he has drawn backing from the Baltimore County developer John “Jack” Luetkemeyer Jr., Sinclair Inc. executive and new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith, and former Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos. In Vignarajah’s 2022 bid for state’s attorney, a super PAC that spent $220,000 on his race was largely financed by members of the Smith family.

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Both Scott and Dixon have outside PACs spending money — independently — on their behalf this time around.

Vignarajah said he’s a longtime champion of public financing but never had the opportunity to use it until now. The former deputy attorney general has said he thinks this year’s mayoral contest is a “million dollar race” — a target that would be well within his reach under the constraints of the Fair Election Fund. Candidates for mayor can qualify for a maximum of $1.7 million in public financing, while candidates for council president and other council seats have lower ceilings.

Public financing has freed Vignarajah in some ways, he said.

His political aspirations have been dogged by allegations that he harassed and abused staff in his former roles in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, as reported by The Baltimore Sun.

Gathering reporters at his law offices last week, Vignarajah apologized and attempted to explain previous abusive behavior. Now that he has a publicly financed campaign, he feels “liberated” to speak candidly without facing consequences from donors.

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Around $100,000 of Vignarajah’s campaign account, as of the latest reporting deadline, came from direct, small-dollar donations from more than 800 city residents, he said.

Dixon campaign manager Martha McKenna dismissed Vignarajah’s candidacy as a public rehabilitation campaign and questioned the motivations of his new ad, portions of which tout pro bono legal work he’s done for residents.

“The only reason Thiru is staying in the race is to spend the public money his campaign has received — nearly a million dollars of public financing — on ads promoting his law practice,” McKenna said.

The Scott campaign declined to comment.

The handful of publicly financed candidates in races down the ballot have also made their small-dollar backing central their campaign message.

“I am unbought and unbossed,” asserted Sneed, the council president candidate, to a round of applause at a housing policy forum earlier this month, invoking the slogan of late U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress, to make the case that she would only be beholden to voters.

Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed announces her candidacy for City Council president outside the Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters on East North Avenue on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. Sneed represented the city's 13th District and most recently ran for lieutenant governor of Maryland alongside gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In the race to represent Baltimore’s 11th District, public financing is fueling attack ads against one of City Hall’s most powerful officials.

“Make a donation to Councilman Eric Costello and you can win BIG!” declares a mailer designed to look like a lottery scratch-off ticket. The incumbent Democrat, who consistently has some of the deepest pockets on the council, reported more than $400,000 on hand in campaign finance reports last week. He has represented South Baltimore since 2014.

Blanchard, the vice president of economic development for the Midtown Benefits District, hopes to unseat him. A Marine veteran, Blanchard had never asked someone for a political donation before starting his publicly financed campaign.

“I didn’t have to tailor my campaign to what I thought wealthy donors wanted to hear,” Blanchard said, asking neighbors and friends for small contributions.

The city’s matching funds turned “what would’ve been $30,000 and one mail piece” from more than 450 donors into more than $160,000, he said. Blanchard will have a total of eight mailed ads, some of which rebuke Costello’s relationship with “fat-cat political donors.” The ads have named the Smith family, the owners of the Bresco trash incinerator and towing companies as donors that influence politics.

Costello said he’s never made a decision based on a contribution, adding that he is proud of a wide and diverse level of support that comes across every neighborhood in his district. “People give to people that they think are effective,” he said.

A mailer sent by Blanchard's campaign is designed to look like a scratch-off lottery ticket, saying: "Make a donation to Councilman Eric Costello and you could win BIG!"
Mailers sent by 11th District candidate Zac Blanchard's campaign tout his small-dollar donations and criticize Councilman Eric Costello, one of the most formidable fundraisers on the council, for his relationship with influential funders. (Adam Willis)

Maryland PIRG, Scarr’s organization, conducted an analysis of public finance systems in Howard and Montgomery counties, both of which have made the option available to candidates since 2018. The group found that the average donation for publicly financed candidates in those counties was $124, compared to $2,137 for privately financed campaigns. On average, publicly financed candidates drew contributions from more than double the number of donors than their competitors.

Just as taxpayers fund voting booths and poll workers, investing in the Fair Election Fund is a way to ensure that Baltimore elections are financed by Baltimore residents, said Scarr.

“The only way we can create a system where candidates can run for office without having to go ask for those big checks is providing them with an alternative.”

In the next cycle in 2028, Scarr said, she anticipates the city fund will need to be expanded substantially to around $8 million to accommodate increased interest.

Jon Weinstein, a member of Baltimore’s Fair Election Commission who sponsored legislation to establish public financing in Howard County in his former position on its County Council, said he thinks the program is off to a good start. After this election cycle, officials will evaluate Baltimore’s program and determine whether any of the particulars, like the multiplying factors, boost funding or if the fundraising ceilings warrant changes.

In 2028, Weinstein would like to see more than double the number of publicly financed campaigns in Baltimore, with at least one small-dollar candidate for every race.

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