Thiru Vignarajah has dropped out of the Baltimore mayor’s race and endorsed former Mayor Sheila Dixon, a move that could dramatically reshape the May 14 Democratic primary.

The attorney announced his decision at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Fells Point. He has consistently placed third in polls measuring support for candidates.

“She’s called me names. I’ve called her names,” he said. “But the one thing that no one has ever accused Sheila Dixon of is not being able to build a great team.”

Dixon called his decision to step out of the race evidence of his love for Baltimore. “Thiru and I have talked, and he has great ideas that could be so instrumental in making a difference in this city,” she said. “I’m grateful and humble.”

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Vignarajah’s name will still appear on the primary ballot. More than 16,300 Democratic mail ballots had already been cast by Tuesday evening — one-third of all mail ballots sent to Baltimore Democrats. In 2022, mail ballots made up about 37% of all Baltimore ballots cast in the Democratic primary.

Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said Vignarajah may have been convinced by recent polling that shows him trailing Dixon and Scott by large margins. It’s possible, Hartley said, that Vignarajah realized he didn’t have much of a chance.

”It will help Sheila Dixon some,” Hartley said, “but it depends on the undecideds.”

Hartley said voters may feel momentum building in Dixon’s favor, given her latest endorsements from Sheriff Sam Cogen and now Vignarajah. Still, Hartley said, it would be presumptuous to assume that all of Vignarajah’s support would move to Dixon; Bob Wallace may also now see a bump in support, he noted.

”Some could argue that it’s a cue to the undecided voters that we’re rallying behind Dixon,” he said. “I definitely think there’s got to be both happening at the same time.”

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The candidates had sparred just one day ago at a debate hosted by WJZ-TV, WYPR and The Baltimore Banner, during which Vignarajah said that both Scott’s and Dixon’s terms had been failures. The attorney said the debate was a catalyst in his decision to drop out.

Speaking about the recent return to weekly recycling after four years of disruptions, the mayor “literally said that the [recycling] trucks just got in,” Vignarajah said — a moment during Tuesday’s debate that Vignarajah grabbed onto as an example of Scott’s nonchalance in tackling city problems.

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Mayor Brandon Scott looks down and former mayor Sheila Dixon shakes hands with Attorney Thiru Vignarajah at the Banner/WJZ/WYPR mayoral debate at the University of Baltimore’s H. Mebane Turner Learning Commons. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

A Scott campaign staffer contested that timeline, saying that Vignarajah first approached the mayor last week to discuss the possibility of an endorsement.

“We were told if the mayor considered making Thiru police commissioner or CEO of city schools, that Thiru would be open to endorsing us,” they said.

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They said Scott and Vignarajah met again at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, hours before the news conference with Dixon. The mayor told Vignarajah that he “absolutely could not” promise either position to him and that he should consider staying in the race.

“Whether she agreed to one or two of those positions, I don’t know,” they said. “But we know what the price was when it came to us.”

Vignarajah did not confirm or deny the account. When asked if he had conversations with Scott about becoming schools CEO or police commissioner, he replied: “I don’t talk about conversations with principals unless we are here together.”

Asked if they made any agreements on future City Hall employment, he replied: “The only deal that we made is to commit to seeing Baltimore become the city that we know it can be.”

The only dream job he has is mayor, he added.

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Dixon later responded to the accusation on social media, posting she had not agreed to terms for the endorsement.

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In this competitive primary, every vote matters.

A recent survey from Goucher College Poll and The Baltimore Banner found 11% of respondents said they would support Vignarajah, while 40% said they would back Mayor Brandon Scott and 32% said they supported Dixon. Businessman Bob Wallace garnered 3% support. Ten percent of those polled were undecided.

The poll of 440 likely Democratic voters was conducted by phone and text from April 3 to April 7 and has a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

Scott bested Dixon in the 2020 Democratic primary with 43,927 votes, earning a few thousand more ballots than Dixon. Vignarajah earned 17,080 votes that cycle.

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One Vignarajah supporter from The Banner-Goucher poll said she wouldn’t be swayed by his endorsement of Dixon.

Kellie Felder, 39, who lives in Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, said she would have to think carefully between Wallace and Scott. She is impressed, she said, by the reduction in crime reported over the mayor’s term, a difference she said she can sense in her community.

”I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do now, but Sheila Dixon is not the one I’m wanting to vote for,” said Felder, who works in nonprofits. “I feel like we’ve been there and done it.”

Felder said she’s been turned off by Dixon campaign ads that report a dramatic drop in crime under her tenure.

”I did not live through that,” Felder said. “I don’t remember that ever being the case.”

Amanda McCall, another voter who indicated support for Vignarajah in the poll, also said she would not vote for Dixon despite her preferred candidate’s endorsement.

”I’m currently undecided,” McCall said. “I’ll be re-doing my homework on my options before I send in my ballot to decide who best aligns with my values.”

Vignarajah had been intensely critical of Dixon in recent weeks, alleging that she built a track record in leadership of piloting deals to influential financial contributors.

In a mid-April interview, Vignarajah said Dixon had secured financial pledges from Sinclair Inc. executive and new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith in exchange for promises to axe controversial appointees and programs upon taking office.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Sheila hasn’t changed. Her price has just gone up,’ ” Vignarajah recounted.

Over the course of a lengthy meeting, Vignarajah added specific claims of his own. The attorney alleged that Dixon had only earned the backing of another powerbroker, John “Jack” Luetkemeyer, because the Baltimore County developer believed he could get her to do his bidding.

Hartley, with the University of Baltimore, watched Vignarajah take on Dixon earlier this week — with gusto — at a mayoral forum hosted at the university.

”Thiru seemed all in,” Hartley said. “He was energetic, he really brought up the [city] services issue and hit the mayor really hard on that. I’m surprised, given his energy.”

Vignarajah was using Baltimore’s new public financing system in his run for mayor and had raised more than $700,000 for his campaign, most of which came from public dollars matching and multiplying small donations from Baltimore residents. Publicl financed candidates must return unspent money in their campaign accounts.

Baltimore Banner reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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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