Sun Poll: Mayor's race

Dixon dominates field

Incumbent has only fair record with voters, poll finds

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Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon holds a formidable lead over her rivals in this year's Democratic primary campaign, even though nearly half the voters surveyed believe the city is on the wrong track, a new poll for The Sun shows.

The survey indicates that most Baltimore Democratic voters believe that Dixon is doing only a fair job at controlling crime, improving city schools and making government honest, yet she has a solid overall approval rating and voters seem willing to give her a chance to prove herself in a full four-year term.

With less than two months until the Sept. 11 primary election, Dixon leads City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., 47 percent to 15 percent, with 28 percent of the electorate undecided, according to the poll of 601 likely voters who were interviewed on July 8 to July 10. The poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, was conducted by OpinionWorks, an independent, nonpartisan Annapolis-based firm.

"Dixon has a lot of good will, and there's a lot of hope for her and what may occur in this new administration," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks. "She's almost instantly created the idea that she's going to try to tackle some of the city's toughest problems."

The other six Democratic candidates received less than 5 percent of the vote each, suggesting that, at least at this point, it is a two-person race. Schools administrator Andrey Bundley received 4 percent and Del. Jill P. Carter and Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway received 2 percent each.

Dixon dominates in virtually every demographic and region of the city, including among whites, blacks, women and men. Fifty-five percent of voters approve of the way Dixon is handling her job, and 56 percent have a net favorable impression of her -- the highest of any candidate. The net favorable is the difference between the percentage of voters who had a favorable and unfavorable impression.

"She's got it," predicted Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson, an expert on Baltimore politics. "We're less than two months from the primary [and] with that kind of a spread, Dixon would have to suffer some major disaster in order to lose her lead."

Dixon even gets points, among some voters at least, for being a woman. As Baltimore's first female mayor, Dixon sits at the head of a city that for the first time has four black women in citywide positions. Nineteen percent of voters said the fact that Dixon is a woman would make them more likely to vote for her, while 77 percent said her gender is not a factor.

When asked about the strength of their support, 56 percent of Dixon supporters said they are firm, compared with 31 percent of Mitchell's supporters who gave the same response.

Mitchell appeals more to white voters than to black ones and more to men than women. Thirty-eight percent of likely voters have a net favorable impression of him, and 15 percent still do not recognize his name, suggesting he has room to build support.

In some ways, this year's mayor's race has begun to intensify. Mitchell, Carter and others have held announcement speeches, outlined at least part of their platforms and have taken an increasingly critical stance toward Dixon, who became mayor Jan. 17 when her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, was sworn in as governor. Mitchell aired a television advertisement June 12, and the candidates have come together several times for neighborhood forums.

But the race has lagged in other respects. Mitchell has struggled to draw substantial news coverage, holding only a handful of public events since announcing his candidacy. And while official fundraising figures will not be available until August, many believe Dixon is dominating. She has also locked up several early union endorsements.

Ellen M. Connor, a substitute teacher who lives in West Baltimore, said she intends to vote for Dixon, though she said she could change her mind.

"They all sing a beautiful song" during the campaign, said Connor, 55. "I'm going to be listening to all the candidates. ... But I know I can get more out of [Dixon] as a citizen. She has seen from where Baltimore has come and where it is at this point."

Not everything, though, is going Dixon's way. More than two-thirds of likely Democratic voters, without being prompted, pointed to crime as the top issue. In past months, the number of shootings and homicides has climbed well above where those figures were last year, and the Dixon administration has struggled to craft a coherent plan to deal with the violence.

Overall, 46 percent of likely voters said Baltimore is on the wrong track, 34 percent said the city is heading in the right direction and 19 percent are not sure. Two-thirds of respondents said Dixon is doing a fair or poor job controlling crime, compared with 23 percent who believe she is doing a good or excellent job dealing with it.

Only about a quarter said Dixon is doing good or excellent work improving schools, and 34 percent felt she is doing a good or excellent job making government honest. The category of service in which Dixon performed the best was on making the city cleaner -- an early pledge of her administration. Forty-six percent of voters said Dixon is doing a good or excellent job at that.

Yet when asked if they thought the city actually is "cleaner and greener" -- a question that used the mayor's own catchphrase -- a majority, 52 percent, said they do not, 31 percent said they do and 17 percent were unsure.

A number of respondents said they were focused on a desire to bring new blood to City Hall. For Theresa Parker, a 52-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident, that means Mitchell.

"He seems to have more of an insight or a fresh perspective in terms of what's going on in the city," Parker said. "I'm looking for something new in terms of what he could offer."

Despite Dixon's overwhelming lead, citywide primary elections are notoriously volatile. Voters often do not start paying attention until weeks before the election.

For example, an independent poll in August 1999 showed O'Malley trailing then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III by 3 percentage points. When the polls closed that year, O'Malley ultimately beat Bell by a 3-to-1 margin.

Arnold Feldman, a 77-year-old money manger who lives in North Baltimore, said he is undecided but will pay close attention to the candidates during the next several weeks. He said he is looking for a mayor who can address the city's biggest problems, including crime and education.

"I'm not very happy with the entire political scene in Baltimore," he said. "I don't want the best politician. I want the person who's going to have some inventive ideas and who's going to try to correct some of these problems in the city."

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