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KEIFFER J. MITCHELL JR.

The Baltimore Sun

He stood on a West Baltimore corner, a hulking man looming over a black podium on a corner that like so many in this city was the site of a recent homicide.

There was no raucous applause, no flurry of "Mitchell for Mayor" signs, no clutch of supporters circling City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. as he hammered away at crime, the cornerstone of his campaign.

"Enough is enough," the mayoral contender boomed into the microphone.

The television cameras zoomed in on Mitchell. Alone.

By all accounts, Mitchell, a three-term councilman, has run an aggressive campaign in his bid to become the city's 49th mayor. But it is one he has had to wage largely alone, without the resources and support of either the political powers-that-be or his longtime council colleagues.

The 39-year-old said he has been disappointed in the process, even admitting he thought of dropping out at one point. To rally support, Mitchell has tried to capitalize on his underdog status, portraying himself as the candidate for reform, who as mayor would break the status quo, do away with business as usual.

Easygoing and affable, Mitchell - a man who used to serve fresh-squeezed orange juice at the city's weekend Farmers' Market and has recently taken to wearing Timberland boots as a symbol of all the "you-know-what" his campaign has slogged through - says he's used to being the underdog.

"Growing up I was always counted out," said Mitchell, who lives in Bolton Hill with his wife of seven years, Nicole, and their two young children. "When it came to applying for colleges, when it came to participating in sports. I was diagnosed as dyslexic back when it was an unknown and some people thought that I shouldn't be in a regular school."

Here again, Mitchell believes he has been counted out. But despite all the setbacks - being forced to take a leave from his job at Harbor Bank, losing his committee chairmanship on the council, and a campaign spending controversy involving his father - Mitchell insists he's in this to win.

"There was a point where I just thought, 'Why am I doing this?' Then I thought about all the people that have come on board on my campaign and all the people that have reached out to say we're in your corner. This campaign has taught me about loyalty and friendship and the whole political process."

Running second

In polls and fundraising, Mitchell has run second to Mayor Sheila Dixon. The two are among a field of seven running in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

The third generation of a well-known Baltimore political family, Mitchell is regarded by those who know him as fun-loving and easy to get along with, independent and attuned to the needs of his constituents.

As the councilman of the 11th District, he has represented some of the city's most affluent communities - the business district downtown, the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill - as well as more challenged West Baltimore neighborhoods.

He has a strong relationship with the business community and at times has come down on its side. He was criticized by preservation groups for pushing through a bill that allowed Mercy Medical Center to demolish several historic rowhouses.

Mitchell's record does not include getting many blockbuster bills approved, though the council rarely approves such legislation. Much of his work has been done through negotiations and amendments.

His most substantive accomplishment was shepherding through the council the $42 million bailout of the city school system in 2004, a plan that prevented the city from being dependent on a state loan.

"When then-Mayor [Martin] O'Malley was having trouble getting the help he needed from the state, Keiffer suggested that we go it alone and use our rainy day fund, which was a risky suggestion," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has not endorsed anyone in the mayor's race.

"I thought that was a very significant suggestion and that it worked out very well. He's a very creative thinker and has come up with a lot of good ideas for saving the taxpayers money and keeping the city whole."

Baltimore native

Mitchell was born and raised in Baltimore, living in the Northeast first and then Guilford, the son of Nannette and Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr., a social worker and physician active in the community.

He was exposed to politics from the beginning. Mitchell's grandfather is Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., a leading figure in the civil rights movement and a lobbyist for the NAACP. Mitchell's great-uncle was the late Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland.

Mitchell attended public schools until his dyslexia was diagnosed and his parents decided it was better to send him to Boys' Latin, a private school.

He was an "average student," he says, active in basketball, student government and tennis. Always a jokester, Mitchell was known for cutting up in the classroom and outside of it, something he's still prone to do. (The "missing" mail cart riding up and down in the elevator in City Hall? Mitchell takes credit.)

After graduating from Boys' Latin in 1986, Mitchell earned a political science degree from Emory University in Atlanta, also working on several campaigns and as an intern with the Democratic National Committee's Black Caucus.

He was active in his fraternity, well-known and -liked on campus, recalls Dr. Raymond Pla, a former roommate. "You couldn't walk across campus without people stopping Keiffer," said Pla, now a physician in Virginia. "Keiffer had something in common with everyone. So a 10-minute walk would take 30 minutes."

After graduation, Mitchell was a summer intern with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He was so diligent that when the committee went to New York for the Democratic convention, Mitchell was one of the few interns brought along, said Thomas J. Lehner, who oversaw the intern program.

"He understood the importance of what we were doing," said Lehner, 46, of Virginia. "I used to joke with the interns that they need to recognize all 100 U.S. senators because you never knew who was going to walk in the door. Most of them didn't do it, but Keiffer did."

Mitchell went on to obtain a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia law school.

He never passed the bar and he returned to Baltimore, teaching history at Boys' Latin. In 1995, at 28, he won a spot on the City Council in what was then the 4th District, on a ticket with Dixon and City Councilwoman Agnes Welch.

"At that first term I came in there with a feeling that I was going to change the world," he recalled. "You learn very quickly that it's the mayor that controls the council."

Mitchell said he learned the importance of constituent services in his first term and cites his main accomplishment as securing more money for computers in classrooms.

In his second term Mitchell started bringing his office's resources - such as information on substance abuse and employment programs - to various corners known for drug activity.

Mitchell was so committed to constituent service that if a resident of East Baltimore mistakenly called his office, he demanded that his staff help, said Leon Pinkett, his former chief of staff.

"It didn't matter if a person called from even Baltimore County, if we could figure out how to help them, we would," said Pinkett, 39, of Baltimore. "He didn't want people to call his office and feel like they were just being passed on to someone else. He set a standard of excellence that he expected from his office."

In his second term, Mitchell was tapped to chair the Taxation and Finance Committee. During that time, he saved the Hedwin Corp., a Medfield plastics manufacturer that was about to be taken over by a foreign business. Mitchell says he worked with the state's Republican administration to ensure that the company remained in his district, saving about 100 jobs.

It was in his third term that Mitchell helped orchestrate the $42 million city loan that bailed out the school system. "I led that effort by adding that amendment and going around and talking to each of my colleagues to get it done," said Mitchell. "It actually saved the city from state takeover and the insolvency of a school system."

Mitchell also cites as accomplishments bond bills passed through his committee for capital improvements to the schools, parks and libraries, and a bill getting a partial exemption for the transfer tax.

Mitchell has sought to be a champion of fiscal conservativeness, albeit unsuccessfully, calling for lowering the city's property tax rate by 5 cents and eliminating the city's energy tax.

Mitchell often cites his public denouncement of the city's decision to publicly finance a convention center hotel as an example of his independence. "I looked at it as an issue and I just think that the city getting into the hotel business is a risky business," said Mitchell. "I wasn't going to be anti-administration just to be anti-administration. If you look at my record, it's based on issues."

Obstacles, setbacks

Since announcing in January that he was jumping into the mayor's race, he has suffered a string of setbacks. Within days he was stripped of his Taxation and Finance Committee chairmanship, a move he blames on "petty politics."

That same month, the president of Harbor Bank told him to take unpaid leave from his job as a business development officer after "people" who held campaign accounts in the bank objected to a perceived mix of banking and politics.

Since then, his family has had to rely on his salary as a councilman and his wife's work as a part-time consultant. She recently started teaching full time at Boys' Latin to boost the family's finances.

Last month, Mitchell suffered a severe blow when his campaign aides discovered that his father - a well-established doctor who served as his campaign treasurer - had authorized $40,000 in questionable expenditures, an amount that increased to $56,000 weeks later.

The elder Mitchell subsequently resigned as treasurer, and this week his attorney sent a letter to the Mitchell campaign ordering it to vacate his office building because of unpaid rent.

Mitchell has responded to the controversy openly, always emphasizing that he loves his father and that they have continued to talk through it all. "You only get one father," he says with a slight shrug every time he's asked.

Mitchell has received virtually no support from the political establishment, with the exception of the endorsement of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

"Keiffer Mitchell was the only person in Baltimore who could look past geography and demographics and support me believing that I had the best qualifications," said Gansler of his race last year. "Most politicians stayed out of the race or took the easy route out and endorsed the local guy without really looking at who had the best vision. Against the conventional wisdom Keiffer went ahead and took a risk. That shows a lot about his willingness to take a stand and his loyalty."

Gansler said that, on a broader level, he believes Mitchell has the leadership skills needed to guide Baltimore through its current crime problems.

"There clearly needs to be somebody here who is willing to scrap all the old methods and think in a new way about what the city needs," said Gansler. "Keiffer clearly has the best vision in terms of how to deal with the crime problem."

Though Mitchell has not received the fundraising dollars and union support that Dixon has, he has received the endorsements of the city's three public safety unions.

Still, his campaign has struggled to gain the momentum needed for an underdog candidate, despite a series of detailed platforms on everything from schools and public safety to ethics reform and economic development.

Pointed ads

In recent weeks his campaign has sharpened its attacks on Dixon through automated calls and television ads. "I think that unfortunately he's had to go negative too strongly and I think too deceivingly," said Anthony J. Ambridge, a developer and former city councilman who is supporting Dixon.

Still, like many others who are supporting Dixon, Ambridge has nothing but positive things to say about Mitchell. "He is a man of his word, which is a very honorable trait in a political leader," said Ambridge. "I admire him, he's a fine young man. I'm sorry the council will lose him."

For Mitchell, the race continues. Yesterday he was stumping at the Waxter Senior Center, Northeast Market and the area around Chinquapin Park.

He continues to wear his Timberlands, boots from college he dug up the day that O'Malley and former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume endorsed Dixon.

His staff was upset by the endorsement news when he walked into campaign headquarters that day. He told them: "For the rest of this campaign, we're going to be going through a lot of you-know-what and these are my you-know-what kickers."

His dress shoes, which he threw into the trash, are now nailed to the wall at campaign headquarters.

On Wednesday they'll come down, win or lose, and Mitchell will walk on, with new shoes, of course.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

Date of birth: Sept. 28, 1967 Job: City councilman representing the 11th District, which includes downtown and neighborhoods north and south of downtown. He is in his third term. Before starting the campaign, Mitchell was a business development officer at Harbor Bank. Personal: Married; two children. Lives in Bolton Hill. Education: Boys' Latin, 1986; Emory University, B.A., 1990; University of the District of Columbia, J.D., 1994. Election history: Elected to City Council in 1995, 1999 and 2004. Chaired the Education Committee his first term. Chaired the Taxation and Finance Committee his second two terms until January 2007. Campaign Web site: www.keiffermitchell.com

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