Thiru Vignarajah is joining the race for mayor, a month after taking initial steps to join a Democratic primary that includes Mayor Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The former deputy attorney general for Maryland and now four-time candidate for office in Baltimore said he was pushed to enter the race after two major events last week: the latest batch of campaign finance reports from his rivals, which he was less than impressed by, and the purchase of the Baltimore Sun by David Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair Inc. The Hunt Valley-based company owns and operates more than 190 television stations, including flagship WBFF Fox45.

The attorney hopes to catch a segment of voters who are seeking a different choice than Dixon or Scott. He gathered outside City Hall Wednesday morning alongside a group of about a dozen supporters — some of whom he has represented in pro bono cases — to announce his campaign. The frequent candidate for city office made light of his reputation for campaigning, acknowledging “a stiff breeze might have been enough to push” him into this race, but said he is not just running “for sport.”

“We have a chance to seize the opportunity of a race that is framed as a choice between corruption and incompetence, and coming in and disrupting that frame,” Vignarajah said in an interview ahead of the announcement.

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This time, Vignarajah plans to run using Baltimore’s public financing system, which multiplies small donations made to candidates if they eschew contributions greater than $150 and any money from unions or PACs. The strategy is a departure from his 2020 mayoral run and 2018 and 2022 runs for Baltimore City state’s attorney, in which the candidate stacked cash despite his positioning as a political outsider. Vignarajah raised over $1 million in his previous mayoral run.

Timing is everything

Vignarajah said he was concerned by the sale of The Sun. Smith told reporters he paid nine figures for the paper — or at least $100 million — and has told the paper’s reporters that they should look to Fox45′s work as an example to emulate.

“The disturbing news that a small group of individuals intend, it seems, to peddle so much influence over who runs the city and where the city goes? It’s not democratic,” Vignarajah said.

In documents filed last week, first-term Mayor Brandon Scott reported a war chest of $835,000, while former Mayor Sheila Dixon said she has $370,000 on hand. A super PAC in support of Dixon’s campaign reported raising just over $200,000, half of which was donated by Smith.

Members of the Smith family have previously provided major financial support to Vignarajah. In 2022, as he vied unsuccessfully for state’s attorney, Smith’s adult children Devon Smith, Blake Smith, Jacqueline Smith and Matt Smith each gave $50,000 to a super PAC supporting his candidacy. Unlike traditional campaign accounts, which are limited to contributions of $6,000, super PACs may receive unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. The groups are prohibited from coordinating with candidates and political parties.

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Last week, Vignarajah filed an affidavit stating his personal campaign had raised and spent less than $1,000 in 2023, putting him legions behind Scott and Dixon, as well as their fellow primary candidates Bob Wallace and Wendy Bozel. Wallace reported having $230,000; more $200,000 came from a self-loan. Bozel is also seeking to run through public financing and reported raising $7,829; her campaign is awaiting certification from the state board of elections.

By Vignarajah’s estimation, the mayor’s race is “a million dollar race,” adding Wednesday that he believes he can raise that money through public financing. Mayoral candidates using public finance can receive up to $1.5 million in matched city funds.

Earlier this month, the employment and civil rights law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp announced that Vignarajah joined the group as managing partner of the Baltimore office. Speaking from his office overlooking the Inner Harbor, Vignarajah said the firm is supportive of his political ambitions and the time and energy it will take to pursue then.

Scott and Dixon remain the front-runners in this year’s Democratic primary, which also includes former independent candidate Robert Wallace.

Scott dismissed Vignarajah’s bid at a news conference Wednesday, saying he intends to focus on his own record. “Mr. Vignarajah is free to run as he always has,” the mayor said.

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A spokesperson for Dixon’s campaign noted that some of the high-profile endorsements from Vignarajah’s mayoral campaign of four years ago, including retired Judge Wanda Heard and former Councilwoman Rikki Specter, are now in their camp.

“Sheila Dixon is the only candidate with a track record of successfully running a safe and clean city and the management experience to build a brighter future for Baltimoreans,” said Gabe Ortis. “That’s why she’s going to win this race regardless of who enters.”

Vignarajah’s 2024 agenda

A former president of the Harvard Law Review and law clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Vignarajah captured solid chunks of the 2018, 2020, and 2022 city electorates, but never made it across the finish line. In 2020, Scott beat Dixon by a few thousand votes. Vignarajah finished fourth and his roughly 17,000 votes were fewer than half of those for Scott or Dixon.

Vignarajah has made headlines multiple times for reports of hostile work environments he oversaw and harassment; a late-night traffic stop in which he asked the officer who pulled him over to turn off his body camera; and a Project Veritas sting when he was deputy attorney general.

“Some of them [the stories] are wildly unfair and inaccurate, and some of them are fair, and are things I’ve had to wrestle and reckon with,” he said. “Like Sheila, like Brandon, like, frankly, everyone, I have made mistakes and I’ve grown.” He declined to specify which stories were inaccurate.

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Vignarajah plans to run on many of the same policies that defined his previous campaigns — proof, he says, that he has never been bought by influential donors and instead stayed true to his core beliefs.

Those plans include free in-state college or trade school for Baltimore public school graduates, which he estimates will cost $10 million, as well as expanding the free Circulator bus routes across the city. He also plans to lobby the Maryland Transit Administration for free MTA buses throughout Baltimore, a process he said will likely take years longer than expanding Circulator routes.

Vignarajah also will present a plan to cut property tax rates for owner-occupied homes by half over ten years, a policy he advocated for in a 2021 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Renew Baltimore, a group of civic leaders including former City Solicitor Andre Davis, is calling for a similar rate cut made over seven years. Vignarajah said he is unaffiliated with the effort.

His crime plan includes bolstering law enforcement presence in Baltimore’s 12 most violent neighborhoods, establishing long-term investigative units that track repeat violent offenders, and reforming child support laws. According to a 2019 Abell Foundation study, Maryland’s policies, which include suspending drivers’ licenses and garnishing wages from parents in arrears, destabilize low-income Black families.

Fathers who are returning from prison with burdensome child support payments face hard choices, Vignarajah said. Would you work at Burger King and risk driving on a suspended license to get to your shift and make a minimum wage that is garnished, or “go around the corner back to your old crew and start dealing again?”

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“That is not an irrational choice for them to return to the path that they know best,” he said. He pledged to pursue a policy that would eventually cancel child support debt for returning citizens, as long as they abide by the terms of their probation.

The newest addition to his agenda is to reject MCB Real Estate’s plans to overhaul Harborplace.

“We need a community-led, not developer-driven, design for what we should do with our most precious public space,” he said.

He plans to propose new rules for Baltimore’s spending board that would prohibit contractors who donate more than $250 to sitting members from bidding on city projects, except through blind applications. “The corruption in Baltimore City sometimes ends in state and federal indictments, and sometimes it ends in deals being given to donors” instead of what’s best for the city, he said.

Vignarajah is adamant that he can win this time. Even though campaigning is a source of joy and energy for him, he said, he wasn’t sure he would throw his hat in the race until it became evident to him that enough voters feel they are choosing between the lesser of two evils in a city he feels desperately needs better leadership.

“I’m gonna keep running until I win or until they fix this [City Hall],” he said. “If you want Thiru to go away, just fix it.”

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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