Alan Walden smokes a cigar as he distributes gold-and-black fliers advertising his underdog mayoral campaign on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in Fells Point.
The 80-year-old Republican seeking to lead staunchly Democratic Baltimore is at a street festival, jawing about improving public transit and cutting property taxes. A '90s alt-rock anthem hums in the background.
"I'm an unapologetic Baltimore booster," Walden tells Paul Arnest and his wife, Tracy Miller, in a voice honed over a half century in broadcasting.
The couple is from Towson and can't vote for him. But they recognize Walden from his days on WBAL radio and are happy to talk. After about five minutes, the trio reaches consensus: Baltimore needs a "healthy two-party system."
Translating such sentiment into votes on Nov. 8 is Walden's challenge.
No Republican mayoral candidate in Baltimore has garnered even a third of general election votes over the past 30 years, but Walden argues he can win. He faces Democratic state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, Green Party nominee Joshua Harris and several write-in candidates, including former Mayor Sheila Dixon.
"I didn't get into this campaign any more than Bernie Sanders did to be the old white guy challenging the establishment," Walden said, referencing the Democrat who challenged Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary.
"I got into it because I really care. I believe I can win. I am competitive."
Walden said he reached a point in his life that just talking about the issues facing Baltimore did not feel like enough. If elected, he said his first action would be to forgive all outstanding parking violations. He called it a gesture to demonstrate his desire to offer the city a clean slate.
He wants to take greater control over Baltimore schools, including creating more robust skills training for students and cutting down on the number of administrators by restructuring the system into primary and secondary schools, eliminating most middle schools.
He says he would consolidate "virtually all" of the city's more than 50 agencies and cut the city's property tax rate to under $2 for every $100 of assessed value, bringing it more in line with neighboring jurisdictions. Currently, the effective tax rate on owner-occupied homes is $2.12.
Walden also says he would focus on ways the community can "stop treating the police department like an occupying army."
"They are guardians of the city," he said.
His main campaign strategy is to show up, attending as many forums and events as he can. His campaign schedule listed a happy hour, block parties, media interviews and community association meetings with stops in Locust Point, Mount Washington, Ten Hills, Pigtown and elsewhere.
He has about $6,300 in what he called a "shoestring" campaign account, according to his latest finance report. By comparison, Pugh reported about $300,000 on hand. Harris has about $1,000.
Walden has paid for radio advertisements, yard signs and hundreds of postcard-sized fliers. The literature calls for "more user friendly mass transit," "more job-oriented public education" and "a business friendly administration that redefines Baltimore as the great place it is to live, work and visit."
"If you're a Baltimore city voter, pay attention, analyze what I am saying and remember the following: It is unreasonable to expect the same people, doing the same thing in the same way, to produce a different outcome," he said.
Joe Cluster, director of the Maryland Republican Party, said Walden is one of the best Republican candidates for Baltimore mayor in recent memory. Cluster said Walden would be a force in City Hall, breaking up the monopoly Democrats have held for more than 50 years.
"His ability to articulate the Republican message in the city is good for the party. He can communicate how, as Republicans, we can change Baltimore City," said Cluster, who is a newly appointed Baltimore County delegate. "He is a well-known celebrity —that helps, too."
Dick Fairbanks, a 77-year-old retired federal intelligence official from Baltimore's Ten Hills neighborhood, said Walden has his vote in November. Walden's integrity sets him apart, he said.
"He would demand accountability and honesty. That is in short supply," said Fairbanks, who volunteers for the campaign. "He has a breadth of background and he would be superior. He has a lot of energy and fire."
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said Walden's chance of winning is slight. Theodore R. McKeldin was the last Republican elected Baltimore mayor, in 1963.
Walden received about 3,100 votes in April's Republican primary. Pugh won more than 48,700 votes in the Democratic contest, followed by roughly 46,300 for Dixon.
In the last mayoral election in 2011, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who did not seek re-election, received about 40,000 votes. Her Republican challenger had 6,100. The closest the GOP came to winning the city's top elected office in recent decades was in 1991, when Mayor Kurt Schmoke's challenger, Samuel A. Culotta, took 28 percent of the vote.
Though Walden's campaign faces long odds, Crenson said the crusade is good for the city.
"There is somebody out there who is going to raise issues that are not normally going to be discussed," Crenson said. "This whole election cycle has been pretty sleepy. Catherine Pugh is fond of saying she will take the city 'forward, not backward,' but forward to what?"
Walden, who lives in Cross Keys with his wife of 37 years, Jeannie, said his time managing employees and budgets for radio news divisions gave him the administrative experience needed to run the city. He said two decades on Baltimore radio have given him a knowledge of the city's history and entrenched problems that further qualify him.
In radio, Walden worked as an anchor, news director and foreign correspondent, among other positions. He is perhaps best known for his "Walden Ponderings," a broadcast essay feature on WBAL radio that ran for 18 years.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who moved to Baltimore in 1988, Walden said he is an "unvarnished patriot" who wants to confront today's politically correct culture that he thinks has "reached the point of absurdity." For instance, he prefers the term "illegal alien" to "undocumented worker."
Walden, who served in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserve, said he is a "historian by avocation." He is a longtime volunteer at Fort McHenry, where recordings of his voice are used to guide visitors at the military shrine.
Walden was diagnosed with cancer in late May and underwent an eight-hour surgery to remove his prostate and bladder in July. He said he is cancer-free and requires no further treatment.
He has never before run for, nor held, elected office.
As a Republican, Walden tried to disassociate himself with his party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump. He often repeats variations of the same thought: "There are Republicans and there are Republicans. I don't equate myself with any other Republican, state or national. I am a Constitutional conservative. I am not a right-wing nut job."
Renee Tuma, of Brewers Hill, does not care what brand of Republican Walden is. She said she is a loyal Democrat who most wants the future mayor to address the proliferation of litter in the city.
She shook Walden's hand at the recent Fells Point festival and took his flier, and promised to consider voting for him.
Asked later if she will, she said, "Probably not."
Job: Retired WBAL news anchor
Experience: Not previously elected to office
Education: Attended Brooklyn College in New York City
Home: Cross Keys
Family: Married 37 years. Two children, one grandchild.