Former state Del. Bilal Ali and outreach worker Paris Gray were locked in a tight contest late Tuesday in the race for Baltimore’s City Council seat in the 8th District, one of two closely watched open slots on the 15-member body.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will advance to November’s general election and, as of now, run unopposed; no Republican or third-party candidate has filed to enter the race.

By midnight Tuesday, with all the election day precincts reported, Gray had the slightest of edges with a 53-vote lead over Ali. More mail-in ballots were left to be counted, though, and Ali had won more of them so far.

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The district’s current representative, Kristerfer Burnett, will leave office at the end of the year after two terms. He announced last June he was stepping down to leave politics and immediately threw his support behind Gray, who has worked as the office’s outreach coordinator since 2020.

In the two candidates, voters were offered a choice between a relatively fresh face and a member of the older West Baltimore guard.

Gray, 37, and Ali, 72, competed closely over the past few months for donations and endorsements, two good gauges of candidates’ viability in races where no opinion polls are conducted. While Gray scored the backing of one of the state’s largest public labor unions, AFSCME Maryland Council 3, Ali landed the endorsement of AFRO News late last month and ended April with about $40,000 on hand, more than twice as much as Gray.

Throughout much of the 8th District, signs large and small bearing Ali’s name were peppered along busy thoroughfares Tuesday — a testament to his fundraising advantage.

The other challengers in the 8th District race — Joyous Jones, Jeffrey David Allen and Christian B. Allen — either did not report their fundraising totals to the state or had not spent or raised more than $1,000, according to campaign finance records.

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Gray ended April with about $15,000 on hand and reported spending heavily on media during the race’s final stretch. In the lead-up to the primary, he received financial backing from City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, City Councilman Ryan Dorsey and outgoing City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who declared victory late Tuesday in the primary race for City Council president. He also received money from Maryland General Assembly political allies from the Baltimore delegation, including Del. Caylin Young and Sen. Cory McCray.

Mayor Brandon Scott, who also declared victory in the mayoral primary late Tuesday, joined Gray earlier that afternoon to canvass outside Beechfield Elementary/Middle School. Ali supported Dixon in the mayor’s race.

The Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter and the AFL-CIO Progressive Action Committee supported Gray’s campaign as well. He has said the enthusiasm around his bid stemmed from his commitment to constituent services and a track record of showing up at community events.

For Fernando Kirkman, a 38-year-old who lives in West Baltimore, Burnett’s endorsement of Gray went a long way. It worked for him as a “confirmation bias,” Kirkman said.

He liked the work Burnett poured into community, which makes him think that Gray will also uplift the district. Paris, he said, is “already doing the work.”

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Gray spent much of Tuesday afternoon in the rain, flagging down voters as they headed to the polls. One voter, in-home caregiver Ernestine Ross, supported him, thanks to the information provided on the campaign brochure he handed her on her way to the voting booth.

Others weren’t swayed. Maynn Baxter, a nurse from West Baltimore, voted for Ali.

”I’ve seen him out and about a lot, doing good things,” Baxter said. “And I’ve heard good things about him.”

Ali, who served as a state delegate from 2017 to 2019 after being appointed to fill an open seat by Gov. Larry Hogan, reported having an outstanding loan balance of more than $64,000 in April and spent the last few weeks of the campaign investing in printed materials and postage, his latest report shows. He brought in around $8,400 over the last fundraising period.

The former state lawmaker claimed support from some some powerful backers, including state Sen. Antonio Hayes, who donated $3,000 to Ali’s campaign last year. Former state Del. Tony Bridges donated an equivalent amount to Ali this past October, and the campaign also won some support from state Sen. Charles Sydnor and former state Del. Talmadge Branch.

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Ali’s employer, the Columbia-based Clinic Management and Development Services, has also spent heavily in Ali’s run. The behavioral health clinic has been at the center of a community dispute in Northeast Baltimore over its efforts to open a residential substance abuse treatment facility on Harford Road. The organization sued the city in 2022 over its decision to deny a residential use permit for the center and subpoenaed at least three neighborhood associations about their roles in the matter.

Community members who opposed the facility raised concerns about Ali, who would have been in charge of the center; his health care licenses for substance abuse treatment and counseling had previously been put on probation.

The case remains ongoing: In February, the organization filed an appeal in Baltimore Circuit Court, appealing a decision from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to deny a residential use permit. A federal case in Maryland District Court also remains active.

In an interview last month, Ali maintained that his employer’s legal case was not connected to his run for the council. He pledged to bring a steady hand to the City Council, borrowing from his experience as a state legislator.

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Baltimore Banner reporter Clara Longo de Freitas contributed to this report.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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