Arch McKown thinks Sheila Dixon is what the city needs to be successful.

In 17 years living in the city, he has observed her “leadership” and “effectiveness” on the Baltimore City Council in the ’90s and then as mayor in the early 2000s.

“She has a real knack for cutting to the heart of the matter and listening to various viewpoints, taking things into account and getting things done,” said McKown, 54, a Butchers Hill resident and area business manager for a biotech company, who checked his ballot for Dixon in early voting.

McKown is part of the city’s white demographic, a group that is expected to play a pivotal role in electing Baltimore’s next mayor. Dixon has a loyal base of Black voters, but that hasn’t been enough to secure a win in her last two attempts to be mayor. Her biggest challenge is expected to come from current Mayor Brandon Scott, who polls show has drawn support from a broader base of voters. Residents like McKown could sway a tightly contested race, political observers said.

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“It would be different if Brandon Scott was not drawing African Americans at a high level, but he is,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. “That does put white voters very much in play.”

McKown said courting these voters isn’t simple. “There are a mix of philosophies. Largely, they are Democratic voters. But they are on the spectrum of whether they are progressive or more center or middle of the road,” he said.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates was elected in 2022 in part by winning over voters in what has been dubbed the white L of the city because of how neighborhoods that are largely white show up on a map.

Most of McKown’s friends, a majority of whom are white, plan to vote for Dixon. They know of Dixon’s past troubles, which include resigning from office in 2010 after being found guilty of misdemeanor embezzlement tied to misuse of donated gift cards. But they say they are more concerned with her competent leadership abilities and approach to addressing crime and other issues facing the city.

Arch McKown, right, thanks everyone for attending the meet and greet with Sheila Dixon at his home in East Baltimore on Wednesday. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

In recent years, the results of Baltimore’s mayoral races have come down to a few thousand or fewer votes. Scott beat Dixon, who said this will be her last bid for mayor, by just over 3,100 votes in 2020. Catherine Pugh beat her by fewer than 2,500 votes in 2016, and the white vote made a difference.

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Pugh beat Dixon in the Democratic primary after winning most of the majority-white precincts and few of the majority-Black precincts, according to The Baltimore Sun. Dixon won 170 of about 200 majority-Black precincts, while Pugh won 69 of the 96 majority-white precincts, according to the same story

An April Goucher College Poll, in partnership with The Baltimore Banner, found Dixon’s support among Black voters — particularly older ones — was holding. Sixty-two percent of Black voters said their mind was made up for Dixon.

Dixon campaign officials said she also has broad appeal.

“This election has showcased Sheila Dixon’s unique ability to bring both Black and white voters together, win support across the ideological spectrum, and build a wider coalition than any other candidate in the race,” Dixon spokesperson Luca Amayo said in an emailed message.

Hartley said the Goucher-Banner poll showed Scott draws support across the spectrum of race. Dixon is more apt to receive support from African American voters, and her Black support seems to have “topped out.”

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If Scott’s support among Black voters is stable and Dixon’s support among Black voters is stable, then white voters could decide the election, Hartley said.

Baltimore City Sheriff Sam Cogen, top center, speaks about why he supports Sheila Dixon in the mayoral race during a meet and greet in East Baltimore. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Jay Kei, a 60-year-old Southeast resident, said he was impressed with plans by former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah to address problems in what he says is a city “in crisis.” Vignarajah dropped out of the race this month and announced his support for Dixon.

Kei, who is white, voted for Scott in the last election because he questioned Dixon’s integrity, but he now thinks the mayor is in over his head. Dixon is his choice.

“I’ve come around very much in the last four years. I am disgusted with the current mayor,” said Kei, an accountant and controller, who opposed Scott’s controversial deal with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. over access to the city-owned underground conduit.

Kei said in the past it felt as if Dixon “rejected my demographic in a lot of ways,” but now she seems “more open to the whole city as opposed to people who have supported her in the past.”

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Matthew Wyskiel, a 55-year-old investment manager from Guilford, said he has “fond memories” of Dixon and that she did a better job in the past than Scott.

Citing crime and high property rates as some of the most pressing city issues, Wyskiel said the small group of white friends he discusses politics with supports Dixon.

“I do think the sense is the city is not well run and well managed. From a small sample of people I have talked to, Sheila will do a better job running the city and doing the day to day, and address things people care about,” he said.

Scott also has white voter support.

Brandon Eilertson, 43, a physician who lives in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, said he’s a reluctant second-time supporter of Scott.

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“He is the best choice of the remaining two options,” he said. “His execution hasn’t been flawless. There have been some challenges. That is the reason. I do feel that he is at least honest about his limitations and honest in general.” Eilertson also thinks the way Dixon views Baltimore is more ominous than Scott.

Some wonder if white voters have gained outsize influence in a city that is 60% Black, reflecting an electorate that mostly isn’t involved in state politics.

“Baltimore City, beyond this particular race, has to really start thinking strategically about what we can do to get more people to the polls,” said Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola. “Because if you get the people registered to the polls then what you are talking about would not be a concern.”

Sinclair Inc. executive David Smith is the new owner of The Baltimore Sun. In a mid-April interview, Thiru Vignarajah said Sheila Dixon had secured financial pledges from Smith in exchange for promises to ax controversial appointees and programs upon taking office. (Doug Wells/AP)

Dr. Raymond Winbush, a research professor and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, believes Black people in particular need to be better organized and educated when it comes to politics, as Black people were in the 1960s.

Where Dixon’s white support is coming from has always raised concern among some. Eilertson isn’t a fan of some who are donating to her campaign.

Her support from David Smith, Sinclair Inc. executive and the new owner of The Baltimore Sun, has been a topic of criticism from Vignarajah. He has said Dixon secured financial pledges from Sinclair Inc. in exchange for promises to ax controversial appointees and programs upon taking office.

Smith has come under fire for racially insensitive views and remarks, including telling the staff of The Sun in a recorded conversation that graduates of Baltimore City Schools were destined to be welfare recipients for the rest of their lives, products of an “inner-city lifestyle.” The school system has a Black student population of 71%.

Hartley pointed out that Smith and other white Dixon supporters live outside the city, which may not translate into votes, as has been shown in past elections.

“While that money might be helpful in a campaign, you got to draw voters in the city. People in Baltimore County can’t vote in the election. Nor can conservatives,” Hartley said of the Democratic primary. “While support of interests outside the city can help certainly with mobilizing and certainly can help with getting name recognition up and trying to build connections with others, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will draw votes.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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