Taking his most negative approach yet in this year's mayoral election, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. launched a new television advertisement yesterday that blamed the city's high homicide count on Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget priorities.
Mitchell's campaign also confirmed that it has authorized a recorded telephone call to about 30,000 city voters that deals with the mayor's decision to employ her sister, Janice Dixon, on her campaign. In the past, the mayor has been criticized for hiring and steering city contracts to her sister.
"We're going to show that there's a clear difference between the interim mayor and Councilman Mitchell in this election," said Mitchell's campaign manager, Jayson Williams. "We want to make sure that every voter with a phone gets the message that there is a culture of cronyism and using City Hall to give out personal favors."
Candidates often "go negative" against a leading opponent when they are down in the polls, but this year's mayoral race has been tricky, because Mitchell is running against Baltimore's first black female mayor. Several experts have suggested that, in criticizing Dixon, Mitchell must be careful not to turn off the city's powerful female voting demographic.
Dixon's campaign questioned the recent shift in tenor from the Mitchell campaign.
"Mayor Dixon sets high expectations for the people of Baltimore City, including her opponents," Dixon's campaign manager, Martha McKenna, said in a statement. "Keiffer Mitchell's decisions this week, including his controversial hirings and inaccurate attacks, show that he is devoid of ideas for moving Baltimore forward."
Mitchell's more negative tone comes days after campaign finance reports showed that the mayor has raised nearly twice as much money as he has since January. According to those reports, Dixon had about $720,000 left to spend before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, compared with $163,000 in the bank for Mitchell.
Williams denied any connection between the shift in tactics and the campaign's recent decision to hire political strategist Julius C. Henson, an aggressive campaigner who once called former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "a Nazi."
Mitchell had scheduled a news conference yesterday afternoon to address economic development in neighborhoods. The event was canceled because of poor weather and is expected to be rescheduled for today.
In all, eight candidates are running for the Democratic nomination, though only Dixon and Mitchell are running television commercials. A poll conducted this summer for the Sun showed that Dixon, who took over as mayor in January, had a sizable lead over her opponents, including Mitchell.
Mitchell's latest ad, which is running on all four network affiliates, criticizes Dixon for not including additional money in the fiscal 2008 budget for police officers. In fact, the Police Department's budget increased 4.5 percent to $347 million. No new budgeted police positions were created, but the city has about 140 vacant police positions in the current budget.
Mitchell has made this year's spike in homicides a centerpiece of his campaign. He has vowed to hire 400 new police officers if elected mayor.
The latest advertisement also states that Dixon "wastes millions on no-bid contracts and pay raises." Though the ad does not directly address the matter, material provided by the campaign shows that the "no-bid contract" language is a reference to a series of articles in The Sun about how Dixon, as council president, steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in city work to a company that did not have a contract.
The company was run by Dixon's former campaign chairman.
The recorded phone call mentions Dixon's sister, Janice Dixon, who has received more than $20,000 from the mayor's campaign this year. Though there is nothing unethical about hiring relatives on campaigns -- Mitchell used his father as a treasurer until the campaign discovered more than $56,000 in questionable spending -- it did serve to remind voters of previous issues.
In July 2003, The Sun reported that Janice Dixon worked in the council president's office as a paid employee. Several other council members also employed relatives, and the city's ethics board ruled that such employment violated city regulations, forcing Dixon to fire her sister.
Last year, the newspaper reported that Dixon had voted on several city contracts that awarded money to a minority-owned firm that employed her sister. City ethics laws prohibit public officials from participating in any matter that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer.
In January, the city's ethics board said it would not pursue the matter.
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.