DeRay Mckesson's Baltimore mayoral run brings praise, skepticism

Can DeRay Mckesson translate 300,000 Twitter followers into actual votes?

He's discussed white privilege on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert, talked about institutional racism with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central and is one of just 10 people Beyonce follows on Twitter.

With the national attention that civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson can garner, his surprise entrance into the Baltimore mayor's race is likely to ensure that issues of racial inequality and police reform are one focus of the campaign, political analysts say.

But Mckesson's candidacy also represents a political challenge: With nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, can he translate a passionate social media audience into votes?

"I think this will be a competitive race," Mckesson said Thursday. "I've talked to so many people who are looking for a different direction. The traditional politicians haven't gotten us the results we need and deserve."

Mckesson, 30, a Black Lives Matter activist who lives in North Baltimore, gained widespread attention during protests after the police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

Among 29 mayoral candidates, Mckesson was the 13th and final Democrat to jump into the race, and he did so just minutes before the filing deadline Wednesday evening. In deep-blue Baltimore, the Democratic primary has determined the winner of the general election for half a century.

With Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declining to run for re-election, the leading candidates to replace her include former mayor Sheila Dixon, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick J. Mosby, lawyer Elizabeth Embry and businessman David L. Warnock.

In less than a day since filing to run, Mckesson had raised about $40,000 through the crowd-sourcing platform Crowdpac — putting him seventh in fundraising in the crowded field.

"Obviously, he'll bring a national spotlight on the Baltimore mayor's race," said Charles D. Ellison, a veteran political analyst. "That's good for the campaign. It forces them all to step up their game."

But Ellison, who hosts "The Ellison Report" on WEAA radio, said he's skeptical Mckesson will gain much traction in Baltimore.

"I'm curious to see whether what he's done in social media will translate to the ground," Ellison said. "Baltimore voters want to talk about fixes beyond just police reform. There are real economic fixes folks want to hear about."

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Mckesson's candidacy will cause candidates to focus more on younger voters instead of the older, "super voters" who traditionally decide Baltimore's elections.

"This is somebody who is exciting, and young voters like to coalesce around someone who is exciting," Kromer said. "He speaks their language, and he organizes through a medium that young people use. If he engages a younger voting bloc, it will force other candidates to make sure they are engaging in that demographic."

A Baltimore native, Mckesson is a former public school administrator here and in Minnesota. He is part of the initiative Campaign Zero, which seeks to end police killings in the United States.

Among Baltimore-based activists, responses to Mckesson's candidacy were mixed.

Tawanda Jones, who has held weekly protests for years since her brother Tyrone West died in police custody, said she believed Mckesson's candidacy would shine a light on police brutality in Baltimore.

"I'm very excited," Jones said. "He's really been in the movement, and he's used his voice to talk about the real issues. I'm going to support him 100 percent. I feel like he would make an awesome mayor."

But Dayvon Love, co-founder of the black empowerment group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, sees Mckesson as an outsider who hasn't supported grass-roots activism in Baltimore.

"He doesn't have the political infrastructure, relationships and machine you need for an effective campaign in order to be successful," Love said.

Mckesson, who previously worked on state Sen. Bill Ferguson's successful 2010 campaign, said his local bona fides are strong.

"I'm from Baltimore. I opened an after-school center on the west side of Baltimore. I trained and supported teachers," he said. "There are many ways to engage in the work."

Mckesson's candidacy comes as the mayor's race ramps up with less than three months to go until the April 26 primary.

On Wednesday, Pugh delivered Maryland Democrats' response to Gov. Larry Hogan's State of the State address, decrying a state reduction in funding for Baltimore's schools.

Thursday morning, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which represents about 50 churches in the Baltimore area and some 20,000 churchgoers, announced it was endorsing Mosby in the race for mayor.

Later that day, Warnock — who has been advertising heavily on television — kicked off what he's dubbing a "turnaround tour" during which he plans to visit each of Baltimore's 276 neighborhoods.

And Thursday evening, Dixon, Pugh, Stokes, Mosby and Warnock took part in a voter forum in West Baltimore.

Former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, the host of a talk show on WBAL radio, said he believed Mckesson's entrance into the race wouldn't make a big impact against more seasoned opponents. He said Mckesson should have run for a lower office first — such as City Council — before seeking the mayor's seat.

"When you immediately go for the top prize, it looks self-serving to most voters over the age of 30 — and that's most of the voters," Mitchell said. "You can be a very well-known national entity, but if you do not have a local base when you try to run for office, you will have your feelings tremendously hurt."

Other Democrats running include engineer Calvin Allen Young III, former bank operations manager Patrick Gutierrez, Baltimore police Sgt. Gersham Cupid, author Mack Clifton, former UPS manager Cindy Walsh and nurse Wilton Wilson.

Republican candidates are Armand F. Girard, a retired math teacher; Chancellor Torbit, the brother of a slain police officer; Brian Charles Vaeth, a former city firefighter; Alan Walden, a former WBAL radio anchor; and Larry O. Wardlow Jr., who filed late Wednesday.

The Green Party will hold a primary election between community activist Joshua Harris, Army veteran Emanuel McCray and Marine David Marriott.

Candidates have until Friday to withdraw from the ballot. Citizens have until Feb. 12 to challenge the residency of any of the candidates. The general election is Nov. 8.

There are 369,000 registered voters in Baltimore, including 288,000 Democrats, 47,000 unaffiliated voters and 30,000 Republicans. There are about 1,200 Libertarians and 1,100 Greens.

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