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Politicsby Fern Shen1:01 pmApr 17, 20240

Baltimore market-goers ahead of the election: Wary of corruption, searching for competence

At the Sunday Farmers’ Market, people sounded off about the current mayor, a former one and the state of the city heading into the May 14 primary

Above: Undecided voter Frances Oglesey at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, at the intersection of the Jones Falls Expressway and Saratoga Street. (Fern Shen)

Shoppers at the most recent Baltimore Farmers’ Market looked preoccupied and mellow as they selected produce, snacks and flowers under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown.

But when asked about their choice for Baltimore’s next mayor, quite a few winced.

“I’m anxious. I’m very anxious,” said Frances Oglesey, who lives in South Baltimore and has five kids coming up in city schools. “We’re at a turning point, and I don’t know which way things are going to go.”

Four weeks before the May 14 Democratic primary – which in overwhelmingly blue Baltimore determines who will win the general election in November – Oglesey was still not sure who she’ll pick, despite a nagging feeling that much is at stake.

High on her list is safety.

“Crime makes me want to move out of the city,” the 35-year-old exclaimed.

So how does that square with the fact that homicides declined in 2023 over the previous year and continue to trend downward, coinciding with the term of incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott, who is seeking a second term?

“The numbers don’t reflect the real situation,” Oglesey responded. “You can’t turn on the TV without seeing some horrible situation in the news.”

Since she’d just voiced a major talking point of Scott’s leading opponent, Sheila Dixon, did that mean Oglesey favors the former mayor, who left office in 2010 after pleading guilty to embezzlement charges?

Maybe. Maybe not.

While Scott, age 40, appears “in over his head, trying his best,” Oglesey said, she wondered what 70-year-old Dixon, with the gift cards cloud still hanging over her head, could have to offer.

“Even though she’s been around, she’s new to me. I wasn’t paying attention when she was in,” Oglesey mused. “Is she a new face, at this point in time, that’s right for the times? Could that be true?”

Nope, it could not, said market-goers Jackson Sides and his wife, Kara Berger, who live in northeast Baltimore’s Arcadia neighborhood.

“It’s crazy she’s trying to come back again,” said the 34-year-old landscaping and horticulture professional.

“I’m happy with what Brandon Scott is doing,” said Berger, an education specialist at Towson University’s Center for STEM Excellence.

She added, “I’m disappointed to see Sheila Dixon trying to come back again, with her history and with all that PAC money behind her,” referring to the more than $450,000 raised on behalf of Dixon’s candidacy by the Better Baltimore PAC, funded by developer John Luetkemeyer and conservative broadcast mogul and Baltimore Sun owner David Smith.

Jackson Sides and Kara Berger, of northeast Baltimore, say Mayor Brandon Scott is doing his best to deal with

Jackson Sides and Kara Berger say Mayor Scott is doing his best to deal with “systemic problems.” (Fern Shen)

Their wincing moment came when they acknowledged the city’s woes, but argued that the first-term mayor shouldn’t be denied a second term because of them.

“It’s a cheap shot for anyone to use crime against him, considering how long the city has struggled with that issue and so many systemic problems,” Berger said.

In this crowd, on this Sunday, that sentiment prevailed.

Jackie Quinones, who works in philanthropy and lives in Highlandtown, was typical of Scott supporters.

“He’s trying his best. I’m happy to see what he can do in a second term,” the 39-year-old said, going on to pretty much articulate Scott’s campaign ad pitch.

“I want to support somebody who’s young and new and has no history of corruption, at least that I’ve heard of.”

Déjà Vu Choices

Ahead of the May 14 primary, city voters are faced with an almost exact replay of their choices from 2020.

The result is a campaign season that’s sparked little enthusiasm outside of the political class and a few high-dollar donors.

In addition to Scott and Dixon (he having beat her by less than 2,400 votes last time around), the candidates include two other returning mayoral hopefuls – former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah and businessman Bob Wallace.

Neither man’s name came up during our decidedly unscientific morning of farmers’ market interviews.

“None of the above” was mentioned by quite a few shoppers.

“None of the above,” however, was mentioned by quite a few shoppers.

Hippie Hooks, a 29-year-old who works in the cannabis industry, described herself as a lifelong Baltimorean who never voted – and doesn’t plan to start now.

“My mom voted for all of them – Sheila, Martin O’Malley, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Brandon,” said Hooks, asserting that both past and present mayors never kept their promises and none of them made changes that resulted in a better life for residents like her.

Hippie Hooks says she cares about Baltimore's problems but doesn't believe city electeds will solve them. (Fern Shen)

Hippie Hooks says she deeply cares about Baltimore’s problems, but doesn’t believe city electeds will solve them. (Fern Shen)

In recent years, Hooks said she’s seen more homelessness – more people sleeping on the streets because of crowded or unsafe shelters or high housing prices – in a city awash with vacant rowhouses.

Meanwhile, the root causes of poverty, homelessness and crime, as she sees it, go unaddressed.

“The pay is the thing. Pay is so low. And inflation is high,” said Hooks, who has worked at different jobs in retail and in the service industry.

“No one wants to feel they’re working for chump change,” she observed.

“What is it about gift cards and politicians around here?”

She liked Scott’s remarks in the immediate aftermath of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse: “How he said he was more concerned about the people’s lives, the people who died.”

But Scott lost her with the baby registry he and fiancée Hana Pugh set up for their son, accepting more than $12,000 worth of merchandise, gift cards and cash from organizations and individuals, some of which were never identified.

“What are you doing messing with gift cards after what happened to Sheila? What are you thinking?” Hooks asked, wondering, “What is it about gift cards and politicians around here?”

Affinity for “Auntie Sheila”

Also deeply cynical about the mayoral candidates were Gee Ross and Mike Brooks, lifelong city residents who live downtown and work at local hospitals.

“It won’t make any difference who gets in. Nothing’s going to change,” Ross remarked, with a grimace, sigh and eyeroll.

Waiting in line for coffee, both men expressed a strong affinity for Dixon and a dislike of Scott.

“She knows the city, and she has more respect in the city.”

“I feel like she’s of the city. She knows the city, and she has more respect in the city. She’s Auntie Sheila,” said Ross, going on to dismiss the gift card theft charges that led to her resignation in 2010 as an unfair, targeted prosecution. “At least she’s not afraid to walk the streets.”

Recalling the shooting deaths of employees of the mayor’s Safe Streets anti-violence program, Brooks accused Scott of being “too close to the drug dealers” and called on him to “get rid of the open-air markets.”

Kids make music at the Baltimore Farmer's Market under the Jones Falls Expressway. (Fern Shen)

Kids make music at the weekly Sunday Baltimore Farmers’ Market under the JFX. (Fern Shen)

Old Problems? New Energy?

Bringing up similar concerns were Mariela Pinedo, a clinical researcher who lives in Mount Vernon and has been in Baltimore since 2008, and fellow shopper Anastasia Perron, a resident since 2010.

The women said they always vote, but were dismayed by the choices this time around.

“For sure, I’m looking into Brandon Scott, I want to see if he’s maintained his promises,” said Perron, 31.

Pinedo questioned whether she could vote for the incumbent given what she sees in the city.

“We still have these open-air drug markets. I mean a seven-year-old just got shot at Mondawmin Mall,” the 33-year-old declared. “And we have huge food deserts!”


In full support of the incumbent were Jason and Toni Scott, who say “it’s great to have a young mayor.” (Fern Shen)

A Fells Point couple, meanwhile, had a sunny view of the city and no doubts about the current mayor.

“I’m in full support of what Mayor Scott’s got going on,” said Jason Scott, a 49-year-old radar test engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

“All the new development will reduce crime, especially in the Inner Harbor,” he said, referencing Scott’s plan to replace the low-rise Harborplace pavilions and waterfront park with a developer’s high-rise apartment towers.

“All the new development will reduce crime, especially in the Inner Harbor.”

Also appealing to him was the mayor’s handling of squeegee workers.

The program aimed to get youths who wipe motorists’ windows, then ask for money, off major intersections and into support programs.

These days squeegee workers are a rare sight, at least downtown.

“They were threatening,” said Scott, who is no relation to the mayor. “They don’t let up. They come at you.”

His wife, Toni Scott, who directs the Integrated Early Learning Center at Kennedy Krieger Institute, disagreed, saying she never felt threatened by them.

But overall she shared her husband’s enthusiasm about the mayor.

“There’s been a new energy with him,” she said.

Concerned about the Children

Sandra Dunnock, a lifelong West Baltimore resident who came to the market with her grandchildren, expressed a jaundiced view of the state of the city.

“We’re never going to get back what we used to have,” said the 74-year-old retired government employee. “They took everything away from the children.”

She said she’s hopeful that Scott can do more than any of his opponents to fix what she thinks especially ails Baltimore – the lack of opportunities for city youth, plus the lack of discipline from their parents.

“He’s younger, and we need change,” she said.

Going on to explain why she won’t vote for Dixon, Dunnock brought up a widely circulated Fox45 television interview that ended abruptly after a man offscreen threw items at the former mayor and could be heard taunting her.

Dixon, who appeared to be in her home during the interview, had an oblique response to later questions about the incident.

“Everything is okay, people are in pain. It’s the holiday,” she said.

Dunnock’s conclusion: “Sheila Dixon needs to stay home and take care of her home situation. Her home’s not right.”

ABOVE: Sandra Dunnock: “He’s younger, and we need change.” BELOW: Lonnie Ballard: “I still like what Brandon is doing.” (Fern Shen)

“A young man like me”

Lonnie Ballard, another lifelong Baltimorean, also took pains to acknowledge Dixon, while explaining why he won’t vote for her.

He recalled Dixon once enthusing about community gardens and feeling like the idea was so trifling: “I mean, we have children whose only schools have out-of-date textbooks.”

“I still like what Brandon is doing. I still support him 100%,” continued the 40-year-old.

“As a young man the same age as me, to see him poised and calm. When you see him compared to mayors before him that were corrupt and disgraced the city, it’s great.”

He added this thought, “I love the fact that Black women represent the city. I’m 110% for that. But Sheila Dixon left a stain we didn’t want to see. I love Sheila, but. . .”

As his voice trailed off, it was his turn to wince.

To reach a reporter: fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com

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