Baltimore: It’s that big-city mayor’s race on the East Coast we had forgotten about until Ferguson, Mo.-inspired protester extraordinaire and symbolic godfather of the Black Lives Matter movement Deray Mckesson dropped onto the political scene with an audacious, blogged announcement of his candidacy for mayor.
He’s a native son of Baltimore, doing his hometown proud with two years of activism under his belt, joining a crowded platoon of candidates for the city’s Democratic mayoral primary, slated for April 26.
While admirable and refreshingly disruptive, it’s a rather familiar narrative in the history of black politics—especially since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 spurred a tsunami of black elected officials: energetic community organizer dreams of the next level, soon reaches point where dipping toe in electoral politics becomes an attractive proposition.
And, side note, the nearly $170,000 salary for running Maryland’s largest city of 600,000 residents won’t hurt, either.
Candidate Mckesson argues sound points in his punchy, passionate plea for change (and votes).
“I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs,” says the novice candidate, seeking to personify a scathing anti-status-quo message now amplified on both sides of the partisan aisle during a bigger-cousin presidential election.
“Too often the elected individuals we put our public trust in disappoint us. We have lived through lofty promises and vague plans. We have come to expect little and accept less. When we rely on this traditional model of politics, we are rewarded with consistent, disappointing results,” he says.
On a high note, Mckesson’s troubled city of “Rosemont Elementary, K Swift & Miss Tony on 92Q, Shake N Bake and the Inner Harbor” returns to the spotlight.
Baltimore could use that.
The national conversation has moved on since the fury that ripped through Charm City less than a year ago after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. Now we’re all caught up in orange-haired caricatures and long shots leaving the campaign trail to change clothes.
There’s obvious national media strength in the digital eyeballs of Mckesson’s 300,000 Twitter followers now focused back on Baltimore—and, perhaps, Baltimore in a moment at its urgent best. Elections are all about, yes, the pitch, hit and run for power. But they are also collective searches for a greater fix of the things that matter to us. While elections are an ugly, sweaty, unfolding process, it’s an awesome thing to watch brave souls enter the campaign Terror Dome on personal quests for glory, vision and that elusive “change.”
But Mckesson also runs into big snags the size of Baltimore potholes amid a field of 12 or so scrappy candidates.
Pesky questions will linger for some weeks: Where’s the central website? With less than three full months before the Democratic primary (which, in this Dem town, will pick the next mayor), Mckesson’s move can seem impulsive and unprepared. There’s no evidence of real campaign infrastructure yet, beyond the 300,000 followers (perhaps half of that trolling haters and Fox News viewers spitballing shade). The announcement blog post was eloquent, but there are signs of politicking on the fly, from the Google Docs volunteer form to the template Crowdpac site (which, give the brother some due, raised a decent $40,000 right after he announced).
Mckesson, rightly so, would contend that’s the beauty of it. A former teacher, an upstart with a rise-up story they didn’t see coming. A moment where—hell to the yeah—you didn’t need a black-tie network, a Greek council and a party machine to let you run after years of standing in line. Kiss the ring, gargle, spit, rinse.
But how exactly does he translate furious, nonstop 140-character clout into that “traditional” retail-style, grind-the-pavement politics he’ll need to win? Unless he’s perfected a micro-targeting strategy to filter actual B’more voters, the jury is still out.
What’s also unclear is if candidates like Mckesson—who, presumably, aim to draw on the anxious enthusiasm of Baltimore’s jaded 18- to 30-year-old millennials—can draw on a sudden surge of young black voters. Is there any real Election Day power in restless millennials that Mckesson and another young brother, Councilman Nick Mosby, are anxious to tap?
It’s no surprise that it’s the city’s old-guard black politicos ahead in recent polls—Baltimore’s former mayor Sheila Dixon (leaving the disgrace of gift-card scandals way behind her) has led comfortably in the last two polls, with state Sen. Catherine Pugh (Philly bred) still averaging 10 points behind, followed by Councilman Carl Stokes. Mosby is way in the back at 7 percent. Iffy white candidates like millionaire businessman David Warnock (who just dropped his own cool million into the race to pound the airwaves with ads) and lawyer Elizabeth Embry poll at 5 percent.
If candidates like Mckesson and Mosby are putting big chips on 18- to 30-year-old voters for this primary, good luck with that. Black turnout in Baltimore is soberingly low as is—barely a quarter of voting-eligible black Baltimore residents cast a ballot in the highly consequential 2014 Maryland governor’s race. (Yeah, remember that race where the white Republican beat the black Democrat who barely showed up?)
And the folks who do turn out somewhat reliably (especially during those off-month, non-November, less-glitzy municipal elections) are voters 45-65 years old or older—those who don’t use Twitter all that heavy. Those are the folks who’ve known Dixon as she’s accumulated over 20 years of constituent respect.
Generationally, it becomes a tall order for Mckesson and others. And with so many black candidates crowding up the field, there’s always that remote chance (momentary low polling be damned) that a white candidate like Warnock or Embry will surge and split it all up. Just ask former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley about that. He’s got a lot of time on his hands, we’re told.
The other problem with turnout is that incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is out. Most, if not all, of the candidates mentioned above, and those not mentioned, were all hyped to take on a mayor who became deeply unpopular and maligned overnight for her (mis)handling of last year’s unrest. Rawlings-Blake’s departure took the air out of much political energy that was there, the anger aimed at her now deflated.
As it stands, the current state of Baltimore’s race for mayor is a somewhat dopey citywide “What next?” Perhaps Mckesson engineers a quick-and-dirty campaign bum rush that wakes his beloved Charm City up.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.