By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A Maryland state senator backing law enforcement reform won a narrow victory on Tuesday in the Democratic nominating contest for the mayor of Baltimore, as the city recovers 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 comes as Baltimore residents confront rising violent crime and unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray in April, 2015.
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 edged out former Mayor Sheila Dixon, 37 percent to 34 percent. Dixon was forced from office in 2010 for allegedly misappropriating gift cards for low-income families.
Pugh defeated a field of 13 Democrats vying for the nomination, including DeRay Mckesson, a nationally known activist with the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang up after police killings of minorities in U.S. cities.
Mckesson logged 12 percent of the vote.
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.
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.
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 in Washington, Donna Owens in Baltimore and Victoria Cavaliere in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Pullin)