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On Policing In Baltimore, Activist DeRay Mckesson Gets Retweets. Can He Get Votes?

Celebrity activist DeRay Mckesson is running for mayor of Baltimore.
Andre Chung for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Celebrity activist DeRay Mckesson is running for mayor of Baltimore.

If you don't live in Baltimore, but you know anything about the mayor's race, it's probably that an activist with Black Lives Matter is running. He's known as the guy in the blue vest, but he also goes by DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson is the city's highest-profile mayoral candidate, but one of the lowest in the polls.

The race for Baltimore's next mayor was shaken up a year ago, following the death of Freddie Gray, the young black man fatally injured in police custody. After violent protests, current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would not run again. Now, well over a dozen candidates are competing, and because of the city's past voting record, the winner of this month's Democratic primary will almost certainly become the next mayor.

Although that probably won't be 30-year-old Mckesson — he registered less than 1 percent in a recent poll by the University of Baltimore and the Baltimore Sun — he has been fielding a steady stream of national interviews. I find him working out of a trendy coffee shop, where he has run into some former colleagues.

"Woo!" His friend cheers, as they pose for a selfie that Mckesson posts online.

Mckesson has about as many Twitter followers — more than 300,000 — as there are registered voters in Baltimore, and he sneaks peeks at his phone throughout our interview. It's a following built since August 2014, when he heard about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"I packed three T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, one pair of socks, and like, I was there," he says.

Mckesson ended up leaving a six-figure job as a school administrator in Minnesota to protest police brutality full time. After the death of Freddie Gray, this mission brought him back to his hometown of Baltimore. Mckesson, the son of two recovering drug addicts, grew up in Baltimore until he went to middle school. Now he says he wants to shift his focus again from staging protests to bringing concrete change to people's lives.

"We can make a strategy to address adult literacy today," he says. "We can change the way that we police and think about safety today. And the local level is where, most often, those changes have the most impact."

Mckesson has gotten props for his detailed policy papers. But it's his activism that has drawn national attention, from a White House meeting with President Obama to an appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, with his trademark smartphone in hand. He's trying to leverage this attention and his social media savvy to amplify traditional retail politics. Mckesson says people will direct message him on Twitter to say they'll gather 50 friends at their house if he shows up.

"When I Periscope house visits or house parties, when I do Facebook Live, we average a few thousand people who look at all of that every time," he says.

But the vast majority of his followers are not registered Baltimore voters.

"Can he take all that social media and fame nationally, and turn it into a ground game?" asks Roger Hartley, who is dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. So far, the answer is a resounding no.

Hartley says that for one thing, Mckesson entered the race at the last possible moment — months after the others. What's more, his many rivals are also talking about policing and inequality.

"And they have served," he says. "They have a record. They have won elections in those districts."

The front-runner is state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who has touted her role on state and national police reform commissions.

"Working with the state is really important in terms of how we reform the police department, how we create opportunities, and how we lift some of the issues that are painful in this city," she said during a March 22 debate on Baltimore affiliate WJZ.

Behind her in the latest poll is former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose experience cuts both ways. Dixon has faced jabs over a 2009 embezzlement conviction, though in the WJZ debate, she said that doesn't define her.

"My plans are very clear," she said in the forum. "I can hit the ground running the first day in office."

In a gentrifying midtown neighborhood, 23-year-old business student Becca McKenny is excited to vote. But she's been looking to social media to research candidates and is frustrated there's not more information out there.

"I mean, hey, make a YouTube video," she says. "Make a short, do a skit. People are very artsy here in Baltimore."

I am totally expecting McKenny to say she supports Mckesson. But I am wrong.

"Sheila Dixon has been out there, she's been hitting the streets," she says. "She even visited my apartment complex." That was late last summer. McKenny says she was impressed by Dixon and considers her embezzlement conviction small potatoes.

McKenny was among those who protested after Freddie Gray's arrest and death last April, and says it feels as if not much has changed in the year since. "I got pulled over by the police," she says. "Coming home from school, 10 at night, with — you see my pink neon backpack. And why?"

A short drive away, near Gray's neighborhood, Brian Mcalily wants a new mayor to change the way police treat people.

"Do like we used to do in the old days," he says. "The police need to come out here and shake hands with everybody, get to know the neighborhood."

Political analyst Roger Hartley says there's widespread frustration. With a lame duck mayor and at least a third of the City Council also set to change, he says it has left a vacuum.

"Not a lot has been done and it's almost like there's been a hold button placed right now, to see who's going to be the next leadership," he says.

The Democratic primary is April 26, and Baltimore's next mayor may face a leadership test soon after. The trials of the police officers charged with Freddie Gray's death have also been on hold and are set to start again next month.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.