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Politicsby Mark Reutter and Fern Shen4:59 pmMay 16, 20240

The Smith family, seeking political influence at City Hall, gets a slapback from voters

Fox45 and Baltimore Sun owner David Smith and his nephew Alex Smith spent big on failed mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon. Their candidates down-ballot also fared poorly.

Above: Sinclair Broadcast Group Chairman David Smith has his eyes on Baltimore city government.

Tuesday was a bad night in Baltimore for some corporate interests and purveyors of dark money, chief among them David D. and Alex Smith, the uncle-nephew team that heads the Sinclair Broadcast Group, controls Fox45 News, owns the Baltimore Sun and operates the Atlas Restaurant Group.

Together with other Smith family members and the intertwined Paterakis real estate and bakery clan, the two businessmen sank at least $466,000 in cash to advance the campaign of former mayor Sheila Dixon, only to see their anointed choice rejected in the Democratic Party primary.

In a day of remarkably low turnout, Dixon came up 9 percentage points short of Mayor Brandon Scott’s vote count. That’s four times above the margin of her defeat at Scott’s hands in 2020.

The first thing that Scott brought up in his Tuesday night victory speech was the Smith-controlled Better Baltimore Super PAC, which had run TV ads portraying him as a bumbler over his head – a “nice guy, bad mayor.”

“Baltimore, tonight you said very clearly that your democracy is not for sale, no matter how rich they are,” Scott declared.

“We overcame the odds, including a Trump-loving Republican super PAC that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars telling lies about our city, ignoring the progress that we have talked about, and we still won,” he continued, reciting a campaign talking point he adopted after The Brew reported that David Smith had recruited Dixon to run against Scott, promising her mountains of PAC money from his wealthy circle.

Smith’s rightward push of the Hunt Valley-based broadcast empire is well documented. During the 2016 campaign, he met with Donald Trump and offered the then-candidate exclusive access to Sinclair reporters, telling Trump, “We are here to deliver your message. Period.”

Former Councilman Carl Stokes confirmed Smith’s arrangement with Dixon in an on-the-record interview with The Brew:

“David says to me, ‘I don’t know Sheila. Can you introduce me? I got a proposition. I want to put together 10-12 people and give Dixon enough money to win the race.”

Stokes said he passed on Smith’s phone number to Dixon, and “she took it from there.”

Why buy the Sun? One reason is to help Sheila Dixon win the May primary, insiders say (1/17/24)

$1 Million Raised for Dixon

Following their pact (which Dixon publicly denied, saying, “It was after talking to many people and doing a poll and praying and talking to my family that I decided to run”), the former mayor become a fixture on Fox45 news shows.

Meanwhile, political strategist Sophia Silbergeld set up the Better Baltimore Super PAC last summer as the legal means to funnel unlimited contributions from Smith and his friends in support of the Dixon candidacy.

That eventually meant $250,000 from David Smith, $150,000 from Alex Smith and a whopping $650,000 from John Luetkemeyer, a Baltimore County developer and philanthropist, according to state disclosure reports.

The Brew documented an additional $66,000 in contributions to Dixon from the Smith and Paterakis families and their affiliated entities in recent years.

This includes four $6,000 contributions (the legal maximum for campaign contributions) from the Atlas Restaurant Group and from Matthew, Blake and Devon Smith.

More money likely passed through the Smith network between late April and mid May that won’t be publicly disclosed until the end of August.

“Friends of mine from out-of-state constantly ask me, ‘Why is Baltimore so badly run, why is it so dysfunctional?’” Stokes said yesterday in a post-primary interview.

“What they’re really asking is, why can’t Blacks do better in Baltimore? And I say, ‘Because they’re being run by white people,’” the three-term councilman recounted.

“Why can’t Blacks do better in Baltimore? Because they’re being run by white people”  – Former Councilman Carl Stokes.

“They’re on a yo-yo,” he said, arguing that Scott’s ties to special interests are less extensive than those of his City Hall predecessors.

“The best thing about Brandon is that he’s not connected to the strings that have been here since Sheila’s time,” Stokes said, referring to Dixon’s three years as mayor (2007 to 2010) before she resigned after being convicted of stealing gift cards intended for poor children.

Page 2 of PAC funding and campaign contributions by Sinclair founder David D. Smith from his Cockeysville home address from 2014 to April 2024. (Maryland State Board of Elections)

Campaign contributions and PAC funding from David D. Smith total $834,000 (as shown above), which originated from his Cockeysville home address. The Better Baltimore PAC was created to support the candidacy of Sheila Dixon. People for Elected Accountability funded a successful effort to put reducing the size of the Baltimore City Council on the November 2024 ballot. (State Board of Elections)

Surprise for Costello

The Smiths not only were defeated in the mayoral race, but saw their favorite councilman, 11th District’s Eric Costello, nearly go down in flames.

With all primary votes counted but with provisional and late mailed-in ballots still pending, Costello is neck-and-neck with Zac Blanchard, a 31-year-old neighborhood association president who depended on public financing.

The shockingly close race was made possible by a phenomenon that the media mogul and his restaurateur nephew seemed unprepared for – exceedingly low voter turnover, despite all of the Fox45 airtime focused on carjackings and crime.

Running unopposed four years ago, Costello won 9,021 votes in the Democratic primary.

This year his tally was 2,565 as of Tuesday night – a 70% drop that was enough for a relative unknown to come within 25 votes of winning the race. (The count between the two will not be final until all votes are tallied. Election officials resumed the counting of mail-in votes today.)

Overall, 135,000 people voted in Baltimore’s Democratic primary in Covid-challenged 2020. This year the citywide total was 66,000 as of Tuesday night, with at least 20,000 more mail-in votes to count.

Costello has received more than $25,000 from the Smith/Paterakis clan since 2015, according to a review of state Elections Board records.

Councilman Eric Costello speaks at Baltimore Panning Commission hearing on Harborplace bills. At right, member Claudia Jolin. (WebX)

Eric Costello speaks at a Planning Commission hearing about legislation he sponsored to amend the City Charter to permit private high-rise apartment development at Harborplace. At right is Commissioner Claudia Jolin. (WebX)

Defeats for Smith-backed Candidates

Other office seekers with ties to the Smith money network suffered setbacks as well.

The group, for example, financially backed Liam Davis in the waterfront 1st District that includes Alex Smith’s restaurants in Fells Point and the H&S Bakery empire of the Paterakis family.

Contributions totaling $25,000 to Friends of Liam Davis from Alex and Eric Smith and the Atlas Restaurant Group (Maryland State Board of Elections).

Contributions totaling $25,000 to Friends of Liam Davis from Alex and Eric Smith and the Atlas Restaurant Group (Maryland State Board of Elections).

Alex Smith, his brother Eric and other persons and entities connected to the Atlas Group funneled $25,000 to Davis.

Thousands more came from Arsh Mirmiran and his Caves Valley Partners as well as P. David Bramble’s MCB Real Estate and Hanan and Steve Sibel of Pikesville.

Davis, who works in city government, was trounced by community activist and pastor Mark Parker.

His loss came despite endorsements from Costello and City Council President Nick Mosby, another recipient of Smith money, who lost his re-election bid to Councilman Zeke Cohen by a 25-point margin.

A Liam Davis sign in the window of the Atlas-owned Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point. (Fern Shen)

A Liam Davis sign in the window of the Atlas-owned Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point, where residents who are protesting an Atlas liquor license transfer request received a threatening letter from the  company’s lawyer. (Fern Shen)

Another candidate with ties to the Smiths who found himself in trouble on Tuesday was Councilman Robert Stokes Sr. of the 12th District.

The Brew traced more than $10,000 in contributions to Stokes from Smith and Paterakis family members and interests, plus $12,000 transferred to him from Costello and Council ally Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer.

Stokes, who had fended off previous primary challengers handily, now trails labor organizer Jermaine Jones by four percentage points with provisional and some mail-in ballots yet to be counted.

Mayor Young presides over the ribbon-cutting of Alex Smith's Choptank Restaurant at Broadway Market last September. Behind the mayor and Smith are Smith's brother, Eric, and City Councilman Robert Stokes (baltimoresnap.com)

Former Mayor Jack Young and Atlas CEO Alex Smith cut the ceremonial ribbon for the Choptank Restaurant in Fells Point. Behind the mayor are Eric Smith and Councilman Robert Stokes. (baltimoresnap.com)

Longtime Sinclair board director Howard E. Friedman also turned up as a small ($150) contributor to another would-be City Council newcomer –  3rd District candidate Margo Bruner-Settles.

Also supported by some of Schleifer’s financial backers, she lost to incumbent Ryan Dorsey by a wide margin in a campaign season marked by nasty interactions.

Come to Naught

Smith’s flagship outlet, Fox 45, also suffered a defeat Tuesday.

Months of “in-kind contributions” by Fox via softball interviews with Dixon, gotcha coverage of Scott and viewer polls that cast Dixon as miles ahead of the incumbent ultimately came to nothing.

Even the last-minute exit of mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah – and his sudden endorsement of a person he had repeatedly called “corrupt” – seemed clumsily stage-managed by the Smith forces.

Less than 30 minutes after Vignarajah dropped out, Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist and co-owner of the Sun, was on the paper’s website, hailing Vignarajah’s endorsement as a “selfless act” for Team Dixon and the greater good of Baltimore.

Unfortunately for the Smiths, not enough voters were listening.

A viewer

A Fox45 “who has your vote for mayor” viewer poll that ran on the morning of the primary showed Dixon with a supposed 94% – 6% edge over Scott.

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