In terms of media, Baltimore's mayoral election went from boring to potentially one of the most fascinating local races in the country with the last-minute entry of civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson on Wednesday night.
The Black Lives Matter member, called a "social media emperor" by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, became the 13th and final Democratic candidate in the primary race that has traditionally determined the winner in the general election.
With only two candidates on TV with traditional ads — businessman David L. Warnock and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh — and others online with videos that mimic television ads, such as Councilman Nick Mosby — the media campaigns were looking same-old, same-old. Like the old joke featuring two picky diners complaining about the food being "terrible" and the "portions so small," there weren't many ads to be seen.
Actually, Warnock is the only candidate to have established a sustained TV presence. So far, Pugh has one ad on TV in a $3,000 buy that put it on 11 cable channels here, according to Anthony McCarthy, a campaign spokesman. By comparison, Warnock has spent $381,900 for ad time on Baltimore stations WJZ, WBFF and WUTB from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2, according to Federal Communications Commission documents. The big buys were $197,200 on WJZ and $175,100 on WBFF.
The most clever ads to date were two that appeared on social media in December and January attacking front-runner Sheila Dixon over her conviction for stealing gift cards intended for poor children. She was forced to leave office and was succeeded by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has now decided not to seek re-election.
But with Mckesson's entry, Baltimore could well become a test case for old media versus new media at the local level. Given Warnock's wealth and $1.3 million campaign treasury, and Mckesson's social-media savvy and grass-roots effectiveness, Baltimore's mayoral race during the next three months could provide an illuminating snapshot of where American politics are today in the media evolution from TV to digital and social media.
TV has dominated American politics since the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. By 1964, when Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson was challenged by Barry Goldwater, TV ads were at the heart of campaign strategy and spending. Remember the infamous "Daisy" anti-Goldwater ad with its image of a little girl plucking petals from a daisy as prelude to a nuclear explosion? (It actually aired only once.)
Team Obama showed how powerful social media could be in the 2008 presidential race. And by the re-election campaign of 2012, the president's social media team was so polished it could drive the news cycle across all media during key moments of the campaign. Think of how the #KillBigBird and #Bindersfullofwomen hashtags took off and framed the characterization of remarks by GOP candidate Mitt Romney in his second debate with Obama.
While billions are still spent on TV ads in national elections, that's not the case yet with digital media. With money much tighter for some candidates in an election like Baltimore's, however, social and digital media could be game changers — especially for candidates not independently wealthy or backed by big donors trying to buy influence.
Mckesson came to media prominence with his tweets during protests in Ferguson, Mo. Wouldn't it be something if the 30-year-old Baltimore native and former school administrator started gaining traction in this election without ever buying a TV ad?
We already have a national model with GOP candidate Donald Trump, who has spent months at or near the top of the GOP presidential race without buying an ad. He essentially replaced TV ads with Twitter. He is, however, heavily dependent on "free" TV, calling into cable news shows relentlessly.
Mckesson has a much easier media field to navigate in Baltimore. Even though Warnock has already started to establish a TV presence, it does not strike me as particularly compelling.
So far, the businessman is linking his identity in two TV ads to a pickup truck.
"Thirty-three years ago," he says in the first ad, as viewers see him driving through the city, "I drove into Baltimore in this old truck. "In the front, a dream of a better life. In the back, a load of student loan debt I never thought I'd be able to pay."
Baltimore gave the young Warnock the "one thing," he says in voiceover, that "we all deserve" — "opportunity."
"I worked hard. I built a business, and now I'm running for mayor, because this city needs a leader — not a politician — one who's created real jobs and opportunities. That's how we're going to turn Baltimore around."
That's a solid introduction of Warnock to voters who might not know him.
But I don't know about the truck. I can accept that it has great meaning to him, and the narrative of arriving in a new town after school and starting a new life is a potent one for many college graduates. But pickup trucks have a lot of cultural baggage and different meanings to different people, depending on their histories. Tying one's image to it so closely is a gamble.
His second TV ad, "Crossroads," also opens with him driving in the truck. As he tells viewers in voiceover that the city is at a crossroads, the screen shows a woman of color standing in the middle of a street and looking left.
"In one direction, the same politicians, the same broken promises," Warnock says.
And what viewers see on the words "same politicians" is the bottom half of the face of what appears to be a woman of color with her lips moving.
"In the other direction, a different leader and a different path," he says as a woman of color looks right. And what viewers ultimately see in that sequence is Warnock purposefully striding toward the camera, saying he's not a politician. He says he's a "businessman, who believes that together we can turn Baltimore around."
Visual imagery has a language of its own. And, again, different people can read the same images differently. Maybe the image of those moving lips is supposed to suggest Dixon. But Martin O'Malley, a white man, also led the city in recent years. I would have gone with a different image on the words "same politicians" if I were editing the ad.
We will subject other candidates' ads to the same kind of analysis applied to Warnock as they commit to a sustained TV, video or social media identity
In coming weeks: Pugh and Mosby. At the moment, Mosby, the father of two girls and husband of State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, has perhaps the most consistent media message in terms of presenting himself as a man raised and surrounded by women he loves and respects. It seems like a wise strategy, considering the power of the women's vote in Baltimore politics. I am eager to see how he sharpens and incorporates that message in his media strategy during the next three months.
But there is no media effort in this campaign that bears closer watching than Mckesson's. This is someone who could change the relationship between media and politics in Baltimore for the better, and forever.