Thiru Vignarajah, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore City State’s Attorney in 2022 and for mayor in 2020, is taking a major step toward another run for City Hall’s top office, confirming to The Baltimore Banner he is forming a campaign exploratory committee.

The exploratory committee is a formality that nonincumbent candidates generally undertake to signal to the public and donors that they are gearing up for a run.

Vignarajah’s entry would make the competitive Democratic primary even more interesting. Mayor Brandon Scott, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and businessman Bob Wallace have all declared for the race. Wendy Bozel, “Uncle Wayne” Baker, Wendell Hill-Freeman, Yolanda Pulley and Keith B. Scott are also in the Democratic field.

Dixon and Scott ate up the majority of prospective Democratic votes in a mid-September survey conducted by the Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner. The poll also found that about one-quarter of voters wanted a candidate other than Scott or Dixon, even if they were the only candidates on the ballot.

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Scott won the 2020 mayoral primary with 29.6% of the vote compared to Dixon’s 27.5%. Vignarajah finished fourth with 11.5% of the vote.

In a city of more than 570,000, where the last two mayoral primaries have been decided by fewer than 3,200 votes, a Vignarajah campaign has the potential to greatly impact the 2024 race.

Vignarajah confirmed the committee formation on Thursday during holiday travels in Sri Lanka, where his parents emigrated from, saying that supporters have urged him to enter “a stagnant contest between two status quo politicians funded and directed by special interests.”

“Residents need a real alternative, a real leader who, even when it’s politically inconvenient or against a powerful opponent, will fight for what’s best for the people,” he said. “I hope I’ve shown not through words, but through my work, that’s who I am and that I’m not going to quit.”

Vignarajah will have to decide within the next several weeks — the filing deadline to get on the ballot is early February.

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He did not declare any fundraising in the most recent campaign finance reports, which were published nearly a year ago, saying he did not receive contributions of more than $1,000.

Vignarajah emailed a 185-page document detailing his past policy ideas to supporters this week, which includes a pledge to hire 600 more police officers, create a new cold case unit and strengthen enforcement of juvenile offenders.

“Some ideas have aged well and others may need to be refined or retired,” the document reads. “Either way, this document is meant to spark conversation about ideas and our work.”

Vignarajah has helped split the vote in prominent past races. In addition to his 2020 mayoral bid, he netted just over 30% of the 2022 primary vote for the city’s top prosecutor. Third-party and internal campaign polls of city voters show that Dixon has an edge over Scott, but much of the electorate remains undecided.

“The analysis of this race from the get-go has been: Will anyone viable besides Sheila and Brandon get in?” said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College.

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Kromer said she believes there’s a path for Vignarajah to again receive a double digit share of the vote, but that it would be a greater challenge for him to receive around 30% of the vote, which is likely needed to win a three-person race.

“Right now, I think it’s still Sheila versus Brandon,” she said. “It’s tough to go up against an incumbent and a candidate who is as unique as Dixon, as a former mayor with a demonstrated base.”

But thanks to Vignarajah’s solid name recognition, especially compared to a candidate like Bob Wallace, he could appeal to anti-establishment voters who don’t want to vote for a current or former mayor, she said.

“In 2020, Thiru was the tough-on-crime candidate,” she said. “This time around, I’m curious how that will interact with Sheila’s base. It’s pretty clear that Dixon is trying to position herself as a candidate who can reduce crime and purposefully messaging to those voters. If those voters would go to Thiru, he would potentially eat into her base.”

What Kromer is not sure about, she said, is the crossover voter between Scott and Vignarajah voters.

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“Brandon’s base is more progressive than we would expect from Thiru voters, but progressives aren’t across-the-board thrilled with the mayor,” she said. “Brandon is still the most progressive candidate in the race.”

Vignarajah has stayed in the public’s eye since his last unsuccessful run. He’s served as attorney for the family of Timothy Reynolds, who was shot and killed after he grabbed a bat and confronted a squeeqee worker at a busy downtown intersection in 2022, and for successful community efforts to block BGE from installing external regulators on homes. He’s also represented sex abuse victims of Catholic clergy and residents facing eviction from their homes.

The 47-year-old previously served as the Deputy Attorney General of Maryland, the chief of major investigations at the state’s attorney’s office, and an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. He graduated from Woodlawn High School and received an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a master’s degree from King’s College London. He graduated from Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Harvard Law Review.

Vignarajah has been accused of creating hostile work environments and harassment, which he has vigorously denied.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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