Baltimore votes in mayoral primary a year after Freddie Gray racial unrest

By Donna Owens BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore voters cast ballots in the Democratic nominating contest for mayor on Tuesday, with a Maryland lawmaker backing law enforcement reform favored to win a year after rioting sparked by a black man's death in police custody. The primary election in the mostly African-American city of 620,000 people took place as Baltimore continued recovering from the unrest sparked by Freddie Gray's death. The incident stoked a simmering U.S. debate on treatment of minorities by law enforcement officers and prompted the current mayor to decline to seek re-election. While the Republican Party and other parties also held primaries, the Democratic race's winner almost certainly will win November's general election because Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to one in Baltimore, about 40 miles (60 km) northeast of Washington. In the Democratic contest, state Senator Catherine Pugh, the chamber's majority leader, led a field of 13 Democrats with 31 percent support of city voters, according to an opinion poll early this month for the Baltimore Sun newspaper and the University of Baltimore. Her closest rival was former Mayor Sheila Dixon at 25 percent. Dixon was forced from office in 2010 for allegedly misappropriating gift cards for low-income families. No other Democrat had more than 9 percent support, the poll showed. DeRay Mckesson, a nationally known activist with the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang up after police killings of minorities in U.S. cities, polled at less than 1 percent. Pugh, Dixon, Mckesson and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake are African-Americans. Pugh, who co-chaired a legislative working group on law enforcement reform, has called for greater accountability for Baltimore police and the use of mobile units to help residents find jobs. Five Republicans were running, and nine Green, Libertarian and independent candidates are on the ballot. Voters said they hoped the election would bring positive change to the port city. At 7.1 percent, Baltimore's jobless rate is above the national average, and the city has been hit by a surge in murders. "I think it's a very important election. It's time for change," retiree Diane McCants, 67, said at a polling place in West Baltimore. Tyrone Forney, a 52-year-old voter in northeast Baltimore, said the mayor's race was critical. "We need new faces, new ideas," he said. Polls close at 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT). The onetime steelmaking city exploded into world headlines a year ago after Gray, 25, died from a broken neck suffered in police custody. His death sparked protests and a day of rioting. Six police officers - three black and three white - have been charged in Gray's death. Rawlings-Blake, the mayor since 2010, came under fire for her handling of the crisis. She said in September that she would not seek re-election. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)