When DeRay Mckesson, a 30-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, filed at the last moment for Baltimore mayor, the city's political establishment was well justified in asking, is this guy for real? Is he going to run a legitimate campaign, or is he going to tweet a bunch and lap up the love in the national media?
Tweet a bunch, he has done, though one gets the impression that's like saying he's breathed a bunch in the last couple of weeks. Love in the national media? Check. Starting with a story in the New York Times and, an hour later, a beyond-fawning profile of his decision to run by a Washington Post reporter who had embedded with his proto-campaign, and then including accounts in The Atlantic, Slate, NPR, The Guardian etc., he's been everywhere.
But he's done something else, too, and that's issue an extensive set of policy proposals on education, economic development, public safety, health, the environment, arts and more that at least rival — and in some cases easily surpass — those from so-called mainstream candidates in their depth and scope. They are ambitious and leave gaps in some key points, particularly in terms of how the city is going to pay for them or get lawmakers in Annapolis and Washington to support them where necessary, though Mr. Mckesson is hardly the only candidate to be guilty of that sin. But what's surprising about the platform, given how recently Mr. Mckesson has arrived on the scene, is the depth of knowledge it displays about how things have been done in this city and how they could be done differently. His ideas aren't always the right ones or necessarily better than those proffered by other candidates, but they're no joke either.
Though Mr. Mckesson is running as an outsider, his proposals are in certain respects less radical than what other candidates are proposing. City Councilman Carl Stokes, for example, wants to require that all developments awarded incentives like a payment in lieu of taxes or tax increment financing include a community benefits agreement. Mr. Mckesson, by contrast, wants to encourage such agreements, not require them, while "rigorously" evaluating TIFs and PILOTs to ensure they are necessary and that their costs and benefits are clearly spelled out. He notes the limitations presented by the city-state co-appointment of city school board members, but unlike businessman David Warnock, he doesn't call a hybrid elected/appointed board, nor full mayoral control of the schools, as state Sen. Catherine Pugh suggests. Mr. Mckesson wants a $15 minimum wage — but on the state level, not just in the city.
As might be expected based on his activism since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Mckesson goes farther than other candidates in some of his ideas for police accountability. For example, he advocates eliminating the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights altogether — a goal that is unnecessary and probably counter-productive, in that it could foreclose the possibility of meaningful reforms. But in other respects, he doesn't. Like several other candidates, Mr. Mckesson advocates for beefing up Baltimore's Civilian Police Review Board, but he does not go so far as Councilman Nick Mosby to propose making seats on it elected positions. Mr. Mckesson wants to decriminalize certain nuisance crimes like spitting and open-container violations, and to shift the war on drugs to one centered on public health principles rather than criminal justice. But he doesn't suggest ending arrests for simple possession of marijuana, as attorney Elizabeth Embry does.
Mr. Mckesson's plans reveal a grasp of the minutiae of city government. His ideas for using city contracting to generate more jobs for city residents rest on detailed knowledge of how City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's local hiring ordinance works. He is clearly versed on the latest problems that have cropped up for Baltimore — for example, the unexpected impact of tax incentives for development on state school funding formulas — and on innovative strategies from other cities, such as an effort in San Francisco to seed college savings accounts for children.
By no means are we saying that Mr. Mckesson is necessarily the best candidate running for mayor this year. There are still plenty of questions about whether he has the experience necessary to manage an enterprise as sprawling as the Baltimore City government or whether someone who has risen to prominence as a protester can effectively build support for change from inside the political system. Unlike most of the other major candidates in the race, his experience and record have not been thoroughly vetted, and we don't know whether he will be able to run an effective campaign. Nor is the fact that he's issuing policy proposals exceptional. Mr. Mosby also has a wide-ranging platform, and other candidates are issuing proposals issue-by-issue — most recently, Ms. Pugh on public safety and Ms. Dixon on economic development. His plans will demand close analysis just like those of the other candidates.
But that's just the point: His platform is good enough, thoughtful enough and well enough grounded in the realities of Baltimore to warrant consideration next to those of much more experienced and better known candidates. It may be too soon to say whether DeRay Mckesson is for real, but his ideas certainly are.