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Baltimore Politics

A famous activist, mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson tries to win over Baltimore

"This is not about fame," Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson says. "It's about doing the work."

One in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor.

DeRay Mckesson enters his mayoral campaign office near Lexington Market a little after 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday with his ever-present cellphone pressed against his ear. He is a man in high-demand.

Mckesson, one of the country's best-known Black Lives Matter protesters, is engrossed in a conversation about racial issues in Missouri and Maine as his campaign staff waits.

When he finishes, they need to discuss his calendar. He has turned down a speaking engagement at Harvard University to be in Baltimore for a mayoral forum that night. Then, he's taking an overnight train to a high-dollar fundraiser in New York.

For many outside of Maryland, Mckesson, 30, is the best-known candidate running for mayor of Baltimore. They've seen him on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, read about his White House meeting with President Barack Obama and follow him on Twitter, where his following of 320,000 surpasses the voting population of Baltimore.

But few know him here, where many don't use Twitter or lack access to the Internet in their homes. In a city that has lost population for decades, those who have stayed are often skeptical of people perceived as outsiders. Mckesson — the final candidate to enter the race last month, but among the first to release a detailed platform — had less than 1 percent support in a poll conducted this month for The Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore.

"He's got a clear plan and good ideas," says Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. "But does he have a ground game? You can have all the Twitter followers in the world, but you've got to get them to turn out to vote."

To try to make inroads here, Mckesson plans to leverage his large online following into a non-traditional campaign. He wouldn't discuss details but said the effort could include enlisting his Twitter followers — most of whom aren't from Baltimore — to call voters here. Only in the race for 40 days, he's already raised more than $240,000 for his campaign from about 5,000 donors around the country.

Mckesson has hired full-time staff and set up office space on West Saratoga Street. During the morning meeting, workers lay out an ambitious plan for the day: Mckesson is to meet with groups of millennial pastors, participate in media interviews and attend a candidates' forum on gay and transgender issues, where, as the only openly gay man in the race, he has an opportunity to speak about his own experiences.

Mckesson, one of 13 Democrats running for mayor, says he got in the race because other candidates didn't offer a platform "that speaks to people's lives." With 344 murders last year and failing schools, Mckesson sometimes describes the state of the city in dire terms.

"I stepped up to offer a vision and a plan," he says. "People's lives hang in the balance."

The meeting with millennial pastors at Red Emma's on North Avenue goes well for Mckesson. Several offer their support.

But Mckesson also spends some of the day on activities that don't directly help the campaign. He still sends out dozens — if not hundreds — of tweets and retweets per day, many of them focusing on national issues. After meeting with local pastors, he takes time to do an interview with Swedish radio.

Mckesson also spends energy addressing a number of Internet conspiracies. He dedicates a portion of his website to debunk claims that he's a puppet of the "illuminati, George Soros or Teach for America."

During the day, Mckesson consults with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for advice on how to handle critics.

Gates said if Mckesson's critics met him, he would win them over.

"He is so smart and so dedicated," Gates says. "He's committed to helping the black community and fighting racism and sexism."

'Not about fame'

Mckesson's path to prominence began in August 2014 when he decided to drive nine hours from Minnesota to Missouri, following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson.

Mckesson arrived alone but quickly became influential. He helped create a newsletter and tweeted about protest activities, recalls Johnetta Elzie, the protester known as Netta. They were tear-gassed and often faced danger on the streets. Mckesson began wearing a blue Patagonia vest he now wears everywhere. He says if he's elected mayor, he will hang it above his desk.

"He helped me learn how to fight a different way besides just being out on streets yelling and being mad," Elzie says.

People from around the country started to take notice, relying on Mckesson and Elzie's tweets as a better source of news than traditional media — which many viewed as anti-protester.

"A lot of people lost trust for the media," says D. Watkins, a Baltimore writer who supports Mckesson's campaign. "They felt they could trust him more."

The rise was quick. Mckesson went from having fewer than 1,000 Twitter followers to being on a first-name basis with the CEO of Twitter. Mckesson and Elzie were named among "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders" by Fortune Magazine. The comedian Michael Ian Black and the actress Susan Sarandon recently tweeted support for his campaign.

His fame, however, has come at a cost. Mckesson hasn't received a regular paycheck since quitting his job after Brown's death. He once made a six-figure salary as a school administrator, but now lives in the guest room of a friend's house in North Roland Park and needs to sometimes borrow money from family to pay bills.

"This is not about fame for me," he says. "It's about doing the work. Because, Lord knows, I'm broke."

It wasn't always like this for Mckesson, who grew up the son of former addicts in West Baltimore. He rarely saw his mom when he was young, and the family just took its first Christmas photo together last year.

"I grew up at [narcotics anonymous] meetings sitting in the back," Mckesson says. His father got clean, and moved the family to Catonsville when Mckesson was in middle school.

Julie Reeder, director of Youth as Resources, recalls meeting Mckesson when he was 13, and putting him on the organization's board as a rising ninth-grader. His intelligence and work ethic, she says, were immediately obvious.

"I told DeRay one time that I was certain I would be working for him one day," Reeder says.

After 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries in police custody in Baltimore, Mckesson returned home to protest. He called an old friend, Robin Wood, a board member at the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, and asked if he could stay at her house, where he's lived since.

During the height of the protests, Mckesson used live television interviews to explain the rioting that took place after Gray's death.

On CNN, Mckesson clashed with host Wolf Blitzer, who argued that Mckesson should condemn the looting.

"You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines," Mckesson told Blitzer. "Freddie Gray will never be back. Those windows will be."

'Telling the truth'

At Wood's house, Mckesson preps for the evening's mayoral forum. He speaks quickly, making points in rapid-fire, emphasizing that his life's work has been about "telling the truth in public when that truth might get you killed, when telling that truth makes you afraid."

"I remember that growing up as gay black boy in Baltimore," he says.

There's a frustration for Mckesson and his supporters that he's still little-known in Baltimore despite his effort at these forums and his detailed policy papers. His wide-ranging mayoral plan calls for the city school system to release all internal audits, establishing a minimum wage of $15 per hour, and requiring a majority of Baltimore officers to be recruited from — and live in — neighborhoods with the most police activity.

"The forums privilege talking points," Mckesson says. "They always privilege who yells the loudest."

But there are signs of progress for Mckesson. He meets at the restaurant Dooby's with a supporter named Ebony Johnson, 28, who tears up upon seeing him in person. Mckesson then walks around shaking hands, introducing himself as a candidate.

He makes his way down the street near the Walters Art Gallery. A man pulls over in an SUV. He recognizes Mckesson's blue vest and offers to work for the campaign.

As they're talking, two other men walk by.

"That's DeRay," one says to the other. "He's running for mayor."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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DeRay Mckesson

Age: 30

Job: Protester

Experience: Former middle school teacher, New York City; special assistant to the chief human capital officer, Baltimore Public Schools; senior human capital director, Minneapolis Public Schools; co-founder of the Protestor Newsletter and Campaign Zero

Education: Catonsville High; bachelor's degree, Bowdoin College.

Home: North Roland Park

Family: Single

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