Shannon Sneed is kneeling on an East Baltimore sidewalk, her campaign papers spread out in the dirt and grass. She's got voter registration lists, candidate fliers and write-in instructions — everything she needs to take on a sitting Baltimore City Councilman. Except money. And working vocal cords.
She identifies her next route and, seeing some people down the road, is off. "Vote for me!" she rasps, her voice struggling to keep up with her will. "Write me in!"
Sneed, a 30-year-old political newcomer, startled the establishment when she came within 43 votes of upsetting incumbent Councilman Warren Branch in last month's Democratic primary. Now she's challenging the conventional wisdom that Baltimore elections are over in September, knocking on doors with a cadre of like-minded upstarts in an effort to win East Baltimore's 13th District Council seat as a write-in candidate in the Nov. 8 general election.
Sneed, who formally launches her write-in campaign at an event Tuesday night, says she's running because the beleaguered neighborhoods of East Baltimore need more attention than they've been getting.
"We live around Hopkins, and some areas look like Baghdad," she says. "It's been that way for more than 10 years. We need change in the neighborhood. We need somebody who's going to work."
A native of Philadelphia, Sneed moved to Baltimore to get a master's degree in communications from Morgan State University. She launched a career in television news, eventually taking a job as a writer and assignment editor at WJZ-Channel 13, where she covered East Baltimore. The more she saw of the conditions surrounding her, she says, the more she realized she couldn't be a bystander documenting the decline. She began planting trees and cleaning up alleys. She volunteered with the nonprofit Banner Neighborhoods and began mentoring East Side kids, helping them with homework.
She says she called Branch to volunteer to help him, but never heard back. Finally, she says, she decided to run for office. "It was a choice between my job and my neighborhood," she said. "I chose my neighborhood."
Branch says he knows the district needs changes and that he's working to bring them about. He says Sneed backers falsely make him out to be an entrenched incumbent when he's just running for a second term.
"We've had 300 houses renovated," he says. "Those are vacancies changed to homeownerships. There are changes going on in the 13th District right now. I'm just a first-time incumbent. I haven't even had a chance to set out my agenda."
He won the primary with 1776 votes to Sneed's 1733.
Sneed has raised just $8,000 compared with Branch's $51,000. Her largest contribution of $500 comes from her husband, Ramond.
Sneed's campaign has become a magnet for other political challengers, people who want to shake up the status quo in Baltimore but fell short in their own September election bids. For them, Sneed represents the best hope of knocking off a sitting council member this year.
As Sneed campaigns door to door in Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore, down the street is Odette Ramos, who finished second of seven Democrats in the 12th District primary, now campaigning for Sneed. Across the street is Antonio Glover, who finished third behind Sneed in the the 13th District. He, too, is supporting her now. Finishing up a different block is Kevin Gillogly, field director for Otis Rolley's unsuccessful campaign for mayor.
Sneed's backers are hoping she can join Nick Mosby, who defeated council incumbent Belinda Conaway in the primary, in upsetting a sitting council member. (Conaway, too, is waging a write-in campaign.)
"If Shannon can win, it sends a strong message that we're watching," Ramos says of the city council.
Sneed and her supporters hone their campaign pitch as they move through the neighborhood, stressing an underdog theme. Most people they talk to don't know there is still another election. Many have to be shown how to cast a write-in vote.
The volunteers take their time. They explain the tasks in detail. They always come back to this theme: You only get change through hard work.
"When somebody contacts her, Shannon gets the job done," says Sneed's mother, Linda Miles. "She's the unofficial mayor of Fayette Street."
Many who answer their doors pledge their support.
Leola C. Myers, 62, tells Sneed her street needs the city to bring a Dumpster twice a year. Sneed pledges to get that done. Myers likes what she hears.
"You're a fighter," Myers says. "The election is supposed to be over and she's still out here pushing."
Not everyone is so easily won over.
Sneed stops Valerie Ford, a Branch supporter, as she's getting in her car.
"Warren Branch goes to our church. I grew up with him," Ford says, resistant to the pitch. Then, recognizing Sneed, Ford's face turns to a smile. "Are you Shannon Sneed? You were so close!"
Sneed launches back into her message. She speaks of change and hard work and cleaning up neighborhoods. The two part amicably, but later Ford says she's still for Branch.
"I don't blame her," Ford says. "If I came that close, I would be doing exactly what she's doing."
Sneed does not disparage Branch as she goes door-to-door or even use his name, but instead stresses how hard she will work. Her supporters are more direct about Branch's perceived lack of constituent services.
"Branch is not a good council person," Ramos says. "He's not a presence in the community," says Glover.
Write-in campaigns are traditionally tougher to win, and Sneed says she knows she's facing up an uphill battle. She spent much of the weekend knocking on doors. Though she was recording a radio spot Monday, she knows she's at a disadvantage financially.
But, she observes, "prayer is free."