As Sheila Dixon begins her third run for Baltimore City mayor since she resigned from office in 2010, the landscape looks markedly different than it did in the past two cycles.

For now, she and Mayor Brandon Scott are the sole major candidates in the Democratic primary, which is tantamount to winning the general election. Other viable candidates have declined to throw their names in the ring, unlike the crowded primary of 2020. And for the first time since Martin O’Malley’s reelection in 2004, an incumbent mayor who was elected to the position — not automatically appointed following a vacancy — is running to hold onto the seat. Candidates have until Feb. 9 file a run in the May 14 primary.

“You learn a lot from loss, which makes me think her advisors are working to shore up areas in which she can expand the base and grow,” said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College.

Dixon has said she wants to recruit voters who previously have not supported her. “I know I have a base. And people die off, I’ve been going to a lot of funerals,” Dixon told The Baltimore Banner in June.

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Make new friends, and keep the old

Dixon’s first attempt to reenter City Hall was a strong showing: she netted 34.7% of the 2016 primary vote, coming in a narrow second behind Catherine Pugh’s 36.6%. Pugh resigned as mayor in 2019, after her own corruption scandal involving straw donations, wire fraud and self-published children’s books led to a sentence of three years in federal prison.

In 2020, as the city reeled from Pugh’s fraud and the coronavirus pandemic, she once again came in second — this time in a crowded field — to Scott, who marketed himself as a change candidate in a time of instability. He received 29.6% of the primary ballots; Dixon trailed close behind at 27.5%. Like her 2016 race, Dixon’s champions were older, Black voters who traditionally turn out for the primary. Scott earned double-digit support from both Black and white voters across all age groups.

Broadening her coalition “is going to take going out and reaching those individuals that I haven’t touched base with, or new people that have come to the city don’t know me, but I have only heard about how well I was as a mayor and a manager,” Dixon said.

Campaign manager Evan McLaughlin said the Dixon camp will work to broaden the base by knocking on doors in all neighborhoods. “She is not afraid to go anywhere,” he said. “It’s really going to be our job to make sure that her schedule serves her best.”

Tommy Dorsey has voted for Dixon since 2016 and said he will do again this spring. Born and raised in Sandtown, Dorsey is a lifelong Baltimorean, save for the 12 years he spent in Philadelphia.

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“On my way back to Baltimore, I’m driving through town, and I could not believe the cleanliness of the alleys in the streets. It was like a different city,” he remembered. The 73-year-old had not kept up with Baltimore news while he was gone, and he marveled at the differences between the city then and now. “Turns out, it was Sheila,” he said. “That’s first and foremost the reason for the approval Sheila gets.”

Talk about the elephant in the room

To win new voters, Dixon needs a better answer to the first question many have: Why should I vote for you after the gift cards?

Dixon was convicted of embezzlement in 2009 after she took gift cards intended for low-income recipients. She resigned her office the next year, after pleading guilty in a separate case.

Dixon acknowledged the gift card question is a problem, penning an editorial published in The Baltimore Sun Thursday that attempted to recast her apology.

“I’ve been told that my prior efforts to apologize for the past have fallen short,” she wrote. “I write to you today to eliminate all ambiguity or questions of where I stand and have stood since I left office. I let matters of the heart lead me astray once before, and for that, and the pain that it caused to my beloved Baltimore, I am truly sorry.”

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Voters will decide if they’re ready to give her another chance in 2024.

New alliances

Dixon spent the morning of her campaign announcement shuttling between different television stations, including a prime 7:15 a.m. appearance on WBFF Fox45, which many city Democrats, including Scott, eschew. She has embraced the station, which is owned and operated by the conservative Sinclair Inc., in recent months.

Thursday’s appearance featured some softball questions while Dixon and two interviewers sat before an image of Mount Vernon’s Washington Monument in pieces. A continued slate of appearances would almost certainly set her apart from Scott, who does not sit for interviews in the studio’s station.

Last summer, Dixon teamed up with Mary Miller, who placed third in the 2020 Democratic mayoral primary, to endorse Ivan Bates for Baltimore City State’s Attorney. Miller, who has not commented on her plans for 2024 and netted votes largely from white residents, put $250,000 of her own money in a political action committee to fund advertisements featuring her and Dixon praising Bates, who ousted Marilyn Mosby in the primary.

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This summer, employees at a prominent fundraising firm formed The Better Baltimore super PAC to support her campaign. Adeo Advocacy, which fundraises for Gov. Wes Moore, state Comptroller Brooke Lierman and city Comptroller Bill Henry, may put uncapped donations toward activities that support her mayoral campaign. The super PAC cannot donate directly to the Dixon campaign, nor coordinate directly with her or the Democratic Party. But it will likely have a huge impact on pro-Dixon advertising.

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According to the most recently required state Board of Elections data, which was filed in January, Dixon has just under $5,000 in her campaign account. Scott reported having nearly $451,000.

Overcoming incumbency

Typically, incumbency is an advantage in most elections. Voters are familiar with the incumbent’s record, and the incumbent can use their office to emphasize those accomplishments.

But Dixon’s camp has one advantage, should the race remain between her and Scott: If you’re unhappy with the current mayor, you have nowhere else to go.

“We feel confident that in a one-on-one race, we can make it about the management question: Who’s better served to provide basic fundamental services to keep every neighborhood safe? McLaughlin said.

Dixon came in very a close second place two cycles in a row, both times to a nonincumbent politician. More than 50,000 city residents wrote in Dixon’s name in the 2016 general election after she lost the primary to Pugh.

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Last cycle, city voters ousted the incumbent sheriff and the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, a sign of displeasure with city leadership echoed in the results of a 2022 Baltimore Banner poll of residents.

“Her most important attribute is her unshakable base,” Kromer said. “Unlike most challengers to an incumbent, she is coming into the race with a large number of supporters that has almost delivered victory multiple times.”