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How an independent candidate for Baltimore mayor is trying to persuade a deep-blue city to vote for him

Bob Wallace is running for mayor in a deep blue city, without “Democratic” printed underneath his name on the ballot. He’s campaigning at a time when voters are distracted by a conjoined health and economic crisis and figuring out what that means for their families.

So how is Wallace, the independent candidate for Baltimore mayor, supposed to get his message to stick? He argues that he’s got a compelling pitch — and it helps that he has enough money in his campaign bank account to market it.

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“If you look at our city and say, ‘We’re heading in the wrong direction,’ then I think you can look at Bob Wallace and look him over carefully and give him a shot,” the businessman said in a recent interview.

He’s up against City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee who is widely presumed to be the next mayor, and Republican nominee Shannon Wright. Baltimore has only elected Democrats to lead it for nearly 60 years.

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Wallace believes residents are ready for change. In the crowded Democratic primary, several candidates painted themselves as “political outsiders” who would shake-up the status quo. It was Scott, who has spent roughly a third of his 36 years in City Hall, who edged out a victory.

In a quieter field for the Nov. 3 election, Wallace, 64, hopes to bring those exasperated with current leadership together on his team. He argues a businessman-turned-mayor is uniquely suited to create more jobs in the city, recruit companies and investors, and make basic city services work efficiently.

But it’s an especially hard year to mount an independent campaign in a city where roughly 80% of eligible voters are registered Democrats, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

Not only does the coronavirus pandemic hamper traditional campaigning, but Democrats are expected to show up in huge numbers to vote against Republican President Donald Trump.

“They’re going to vote for Joe Biden and go straight down the line,” Kromer said. “For Bob Wallace, the challenge is how to convince enough Democrats in a Democratic wave year to not vote for their party’s nominee."

While he used to be a registered Republican — and brought in some high-profile Republican donors — Wallace said he stands behind Biden.

Wallace is hoping to appeal to the large swath of voters who feel Baltimore is heading in the wrong direction by reminding them Scott was in City Hall through years of record violence and corruption.

“He’s had a front-row seat to all the dysfunction,” Wallace said of Scott at a recent campaign event.

Some of Scott’s primary opponents made the same argument, but it didn’t stick. The council president campaigned on ushering in a “new generation” of city leadership, marketing himself as a change agent with government experience. A Black man and a product of the city’s schools, he was viewed by many as a son of Baltimore.

“We are extremely proud of the inclusive coalition we’ve built over the course of this campaign,” Scott campaign manager Marvin James said in a statement. “Since the primary, we are excited that more and more people are galvanizing around the council president’s vision for a new way forward and commitment to building a safer, more equitable Baltimore.”

Though Scott only won about 30% of the vote in the primary, polls indicated he was a popular second choice among Democratic voters considering who to pick.

“Among rank-and-file Baltimore City Democrats, he’s not a very divisive figure,” Kromer said.

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Wallace has been crisscrossing the city each day of September to spread his message, trying to hit every ZIP code in Baltimore.

On a recent Tuesday, he stopped people on their walks near Patterson Park and popped into restaurants in Canton Square. He was joined by a small team of volunteers and former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the Democratic primary and has joined the Wallace campaign as a paid adviser.

Wallace stopped to talk with Matt Lasinski, who owns the Southern Provisions restaurant. “I’m a businessman, like you,” Wallace told him.

He ticked through his life story — a Black boy growing up poor in Cherry Hill before graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and heading to the Ivy League. He explained that he could’ve chosen anywhere to headquarter his technology company, but he picked Baltimore.

“If we don’t hold on to guys like you, man, we’re dead as a city,” Wallace told Lasinski, whose industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. “People like Brandon Scott don’t understand. They’ve never started a business."

Scott, meanwhile, is campaigning from his seat in the city’s second-most-powerful position. Based on the anticipated outcome, his team asked agency heads to put together transition memos.

Scott, who benefits from free media as council president, hasn’t taken out TV ads for the general election. Wallace, meanwhile, is starting to be a presence on voters' screens and radios.

His latest ad focuses on his family and on crime, the issue city voters care about most. He tells the story of marrying his college sweetheart, raising their five children and growing their family with eight grandchildren. He says he understands the feeling Black parents have when their son walks out the door and says, “Dad, I’ll be right back.”

Wallace is trying to show voters he’s not a Johnny-come-lately to Baltimore. He grew up here, and his businesses have been based here since 2005.

Still, he’s faced questions about his residency. Wallace shares a house with his wife in Howard County that’s listed in state property records as his principal residence. He said he moved his primary residence last year to Baltimore City in anticipation of his run. He is registered to vote at that Mount Vernon address in central Baltimore, a multistory building that also houses his business offices.

Based on his walks through town, Wallace said he thinks his commercials are helping boost his name recognition. As he made his way through Canton Square, a man on a park bench called out: “You look familiar from television! You’re the independent!”

Wallace is pouring his personal wealth into his campaign. He and his wife together have lent the campaign $343,000, according to his latest financial disclosure form. The campaign also has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of outside donations.

Wallace has deep ties to the business and academic communities. He’s a member of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s board of directors alongside leaders of the region’s leading universities, hospital systems, law firms and sports franchises.

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David Nevins, head of Nevins & Associates, which is handling the campaign’s marketing and communications, recently hosted a Zoom fundraiser for Wallace. In attendance were about 30 people, including former University System of Maryland chancellor Bob Caret, who worked with Wallace while he was on the Board of Regents, and area business executives.

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Wallace talked to the potential donors about needing to change Baltimore’s narrative. He said that, as mayor, he would like to reduce the city’s high property tax rate. He brought up the need to get “squeegee boys” off the streets and back into classrooms.

As he signed off the fundraiser, Wallace said he was undeterred by the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic registration advantage. He argued there’s a “current” flowing through city neighborhoods toward him that’s not yet detectable.

In the next month and a half, he’ll face the uphill task of peeling a significant number of voters off Scott’s base of Democratic support as well as from the Republican nominee. David Harding of the Working Class Party is also on the ballot.

“When independents win at all‚ it’s when you have a Republican and Democrat battling it out,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

That’s just not the case in the city, he said.

After meeting Wallace, Southern Provisions owner Lasinski said he’d keep an open mind. He said it’s hard to disagree that city government as it is now is inefficient, and Wallace struck him as compassionate and reasonable.

“I don’t think there’s many societies in the world who have benefited from one voice, one choice,” he said of Democrats' power in Baltimore.

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