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Businessman David Warnock says Baltimore's ready for 'a different kind of candidate' for mayor

One in a series of profiles of candidates for Baltimore mayor

The battered, beige pickup truck that has become a symbol of David Warnock's campaign for mayor pulls into Clifton Park on a sunny Saturday, the candidate emerging for his latest rally.

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That the Chevy, which needed a fuel line replaced to make it through the campaign, has become so central to Warnock's public profile is perhaps surprising. The 58-year-old businessman's other car is a Tesla, a luxury electric model that currently sells for about $100,000.

"Not used to driving?" one man jokes, pulling Warnock in for a hug.

Warnock's campaign has spent more than all of his opponents in the April 26 Democratic primary combined — dropping $1.6 million in the past two months, including nearly $1.5 million of his own money — to introduce him to the public. Rallies like the one in Clifton Park are part of the wealthy philanthropist's effort to convince voters he is a viable alternative to the politicians he trails in the polls.

The crowd gathered around Warnock is an unlikely mix for Baltimore: a handful of middle aged white couples with large, furry dogs; a group of young black men in leather motorcycle jackets, with patches proclaiming affiliation with the Kingdom Life Church in West Baltimore; children scrambling for Easter eggs.

It's a group brought together by relationships Warnock has built as a venture capitalist and charitable donor in Baltimore.

But it has been difficult for Warnock, a political novice who lived in Baltimore County for nearly 20 years before buying a $1.8 million Inner Harbor condo in 2014, to broaden that base.

His support has risen, with his strongest backing coming from white voters. But he remains a distant third behind former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Catherine Pugh, political veterans who led a poll conducted last month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.

"He still seems like a long-shot candidate," said Nina T. Kasniunas, associate professor of political science at Goucher College.

Warnock can be an uncomfortable campaigner, seemingly happiest at the Clifton Park rally when the crowd's attention focused on a talented 5-year-old dancer.

On the stump, he rarely strays from honed narratives about his arrival in Baltimore for a job at T. Rowe Price as a young man and how mentoring Wenzell Hinton, an East Baltimore youth who was arrested in 1995 as part of a major drug case, pushed him into philanthropic work.

His plans for issues such as education and infrastructure are vague. Instead, he emphasizes a few big ideas — automatic expungement of charges that don't lead to convictions, creating a partially-elected school board, and building a "modified Red Line" that turns Lexington Market into a transit hub.

"We are not going to govern our city with a series of hollow plans," he says.

Supporters describe him as genuine, pointing to his long involvement on the board of the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore nonprofit that serves more than 1,500 people a year through couples counseling, job placement programs and others.

In 2010, he co-founded Green Street Academy, a West Baltimore charter school with more than 600 students that recently moved into a newly renovated building on an eight-acre campus near the Gwynns Falls. He has given more than $3.5 million to those and other nonprofits through the Warnock Family Foundation since its start in 2012.

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"He's not a polished politician that can get up on the stump and capture your heart and mind that way. But when you do sit and talk with him … it's like, 'Ok this guy gets it,'" said Michael Phillips, 41, pastor of the 2,000-plus member Kingdom Life Church. He met Warnock when the candidate approached him about buying the church's building on Hilton Street for Green Street Academy. In an effort to win the pastor's trust, Warnock started attending services.

Phillips, whom Warnock consulted as he weighed a run, said Warnock sees his mayoral run as a "higher purpose."

'A different kind of candidate'

Warnock is from Michigan, the oldest of two boys born to a father who worked as an electrical engineer and bank portfolio manager and a mother who did a little bit of many things, including selling coats and real estate.

He majored in history and economics at the University of Delaware and earned a business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1982, arriving in Baltimore not long after.

He started his own firm with a partner in 1995, a contract from T. Rowe Price providing an initial boost.

Since then, privately held Camden Partners has raised five venture capital funds of about $125 million each, investing in about 20 companies each time.

Those investments are wide-ranging, including software and for-profit education companies; a manufacturer of oral care products, like toothbrushes; and firms focused on debt collection, jail management and ex-offender re-entry.

They have made him wealthy, and his prominence in Baltimore has risen in recent years, thanks in part to his radio spots on WYPR and his position as chair of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee.

Warnock denies that those endeavors were part of an effort to position himself for a mayoral run. He says the decision to enter the race came at the funeral of Freddie Gray last year, where a phalanx of national and local figures descended and spoke just a few hours before the city erupted in chaos.

"I'm sitting in that pew thinking to myself, 'Y'know, our city's in crisis and we need somebody that understands what's going on in the lives of the people at the Center for Urban Families,'" he said. "I thought about the god-given skill set that I've had and the experience that I've had and I thought, 'You know what? It's time for a different kind of candidate.'"

'Not a polished politician'

As Warnock's profile in the mayoral race has risen, his political sincerity and business career have come under attack.

In a recent candidates forum, attorney Elizabeth Embry pointed to a pay-to-play lawsuit in New Mexico, in which Camden is accused of funneling $1.25 million to a Texas-based fixer that paid kickbacks to win the state's investment business. Dozens of other companies also were sued. Camden has filed to dismiss the case, and Warnock said the company had done nothing wrong.

Baltimore Rising, a website run by Howard County resident Les Cohen, has asked why Warnock did not register to vote in Maryland until 1994. Cohen also questions the lack of diversity at Camden and whether Warnock's commitments there would keep his attention from mayoral responsibilities.

Warnock, who told investors last year he would run for mayor, said he plans to retain ownership of Camden but would leave day-to-day management to his partners if elected, as he has done during the campaign.

He dismissed questions about Camden's diversity, saying the firm has created thousands of other jobs through its investments. The firm established a fund in 2012 in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean territory famous as a tax haven. He said that's standard business practice when working with offshore investors.

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"If you go look at any venture capital firm, that's how they do it," he said.

Supporter Mary Miller, who met Warnock when they both started at Price in the 1980s and later became undersecretary for domestic finance at the U.S Treasury Department, said she's impressed by his business and philanthropic track record.

"I think he approaches it with the mindset of an investor, a problem-solver, a fixer and he's just got a lot of experience tackling some thorny issues," Miller said. Of the city's future, she said, "We can keep doing more of what we're doing and we'll keep going on the same trajectory or we can do something different."

At a recent rally, Janet Coppage, 61, said she is leaning toward Warnock because he is a political newcomer. But the retired city school teacher from Ednor Gardens said she wanted to see more detail in his education plan and wasn't sure a white candidate would be able to govern successfully in a majority black city.

After speaking briefly with Warnock, she was still weighing those pros and cons.

"It's still a lot of generalities, but I got a little more insight," she said. "We need to try something new."

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