On Tuesday, officials overseeing Baltimore’s new Fair Election Fund wired $68,000 to Thiru Vignarajah, sending him a tranche of taxpayer money earmarked for financing small-dollar, grassroots political campaigns.

Within a day, Vignarajah had dropped out of the race for mayor and thrown his weight behind Sheila Dixon — a potentially seismic shift in the race with just two weeks to go before election day. His sudden decision to drop out and endorse a rival, though, has raised questions about the regulation of Baltimore’s new public finance system and how much of Vignarajah’s money the city should be able to recoup.

Vignarajah, who has now completed his fourth bid for citywide office, is among the first crop of candidates in Baltimore to take advantage of a new public finance system that multiplies small-dollar donations for candidates who eschew support from corporations, political action committees and labor unions. In all, Vignarajah received just under $669,000 in public financing, according the Baltimore City Fair Election Commission, which oversees the campaign fund.

Backers of the city’s public financing program, including the City Council member who introduced the 2018 legislation to establish the Fair Election Fund, argued on Thursday that Vignarajah should return all the money he’s received.

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At the Wednesday afternoon press conference where Vignarajah announced his support for Dixon, the former deputy attorney general seemed to equivocate on that question.

“We’re very familiar with the options that are available to us,” said Vignarajah. Pressed for an answer on whether he plans to return the money to the city, he said: “Those are the kinds of conversations that we’re gonna save for another day.”

Baltimore’s public financing law makes clear that a candidate who drops out of a race is obligated to return money in their campaign accounts to the Fair Election Fund. What’s less clear is whether Vignarajah may also have to pay back the entirety of the sum he received in city funding. A provision in the law states that a candidate who withdraws from the public finance program must return all of the funding they received — plus interest compounding from the day of their exit.

The city’s law does not say whether a publicly financed candidate can make and endorsement and only addresses “affiliation” with other campaigns once, outlining specific criteria that would allow for candidates to work together on “campaign materials.”

Reached by phone later in the day Wednesday, Vignarajah clarified that he “of course” plans to return the money that remains in his campaign account, but did not directly answer a question about whether he also intends to pay back money he has already spent.

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The attorney said he believes the city’s public finance law is clear and said his campaign “will fully comply with the applicable regulations.”

Exactly what those regulations require, though, is already up for debate.

On Thursday, the author of the 2018 legislation to establish the Fair Election Fund, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, sent a letter to the city solicitor’s office requesting a formal opinion on whether a candidate who withdraws from a race before the election must return taxpayer funding. Burnett, who has endorsed incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott’s reelection, also called on the city Law Department or Maryland Board of Elections to freeze Vignarajah’s campaign account and asked that he return all of the public funding he has received, plus interest.

In writing the law, Burnett said he had hoped to safeguard the public finance fund by ensuring that any campaign that withdraws from the election pays back the money it received.

“It is critical that we preserve the trust” of city voters who approved changes to the charter in 2018 to create the Fair Election Fund “by ensuring that all publicly financed campaigns follow all of the rules and regulations outlined in the law,” he said.

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In response to Burnett’s letter, Vignarajah referred The Baltimore Banner to attorney Tonya Baña, who argued that the city’s law is clear cut.

Nowhere in the law is a candidate barred from making an endorsement, noted Baña, an employment law attorney. She also pointed to two subsections of the code that suggest lawmakers considered endorsements and therefore never intended to disallow them, and that they drew a distinction between candidates opting to withdraw from the public finance program and those opting to withdraw from the race.

In Burnett’s letter, “there seemed to be this deliberate conflation of withdrawing from a campaign and withdrawing from the program,” said Baña. “I have to believe that anyone who was involved in creating and passing the legislation knows the difference very well.”

Meanwhile, two organizations that have advocated for public financing in Baltimore and in other jurisdictions, Maryland PIRG and Common Cause Maryland, urged Vignarajah Thursday to pay back his public support in full.

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Emily Scarr of Maryland PIRG said she hopes Vignarajah “voluntarily returns every penny,” while Joanne Antoine of Common Cause called it “unprecedented” for a publicly financed candidate in Maryland to endorse an opponent and said Vignarajah should pay the money back.

Jon Weinstein, vice chair of the Fair Election Commission overseeing the public finance fund, said Thursday that the commission is evaluating “appropriate next steps” regarding Vignarajah’s withdrawal.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the Maryland Board of Elections, said he couldn’t speak to the specific regulations in Baltimore’s new public financing system, but did note a similar situation in the 2022 governor’s race.

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker suspended his publicly financed campaign before primary election day in 2022. While Baker’s endorsement was highly sought after by the remaining candidates in the field, he was never able to get a clear answer on whether he’d face possible consequences if he threw his weight behind another candidate.

DeMarinis said at the time that state law was unclear about whether Baker would have to return any of the $850,000 he’d drawn in public support if he opted to make an endorsement.

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City law bars a publicly financed candidate from using their campaign funds to run ads for any other candidate. Vignarajah said he has no intention of trying to use his public funding to campaign for Dixon.

Exactly how much money Vignarajah had left in his coffers Wednesday wasn’t clear, and Vignarajah declined to specify.

His most recent campaign finance report, filed April 23, disclosed $602,286 in the bank and noted that he’d recently spent $180,000 on television ad buys. Vignarajah estimated that he spent between $300,000 and $350,000 on advertising so far. An additional purchase of $180,000 in television airtime was cancelled Wednesday upon announcing his exit, Vignarajah said.

Until this week, Vignarajah threatened to play a potential spoiler role in the race for mayor. Recent polling has shown him trailing incumbent Scott and Dixon by a wide margin, but his decision to side with Dixon could shift the balance between the two front-runners.

Even so, Vignarajah made a splash with public financing, raising more than Scott or Dixon combined since his late entry in to the race in January and amassing a war chest of more than $700,000 between direct small-dollar donations and matching funds ahead of this month’s reporting deadline.

That has made Vignarajah an unlikely poster child for Baltimore’s new public financing program. In past citywide races for mayor and state’s attorney, he has drawn backing from some of the biggest power brokers in city politics, including Baltimore County developer John “Jack” Luetkemeyer Jr., Sinclair Inc. executive and new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith, and former Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos. In a 2022 bid for state’s attorney, a super PAC that spent $220,000 in support of Vignarajah was largely financed by members of the Smith family.

This time around, Luetkemeyer and Smith have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a pro-Dixon super PAC.

In the Wednesday news conference announcing his exit from the race, Vignarajah again touted the merits of a taxpayer finance campaign.

“I am so proud, to this day, of using public financing,” he said. “I think I will use public financing as long as it available in this great city.”

Banner reporter Emily Sullivan also contributed to this story.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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