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Black Lives Matter Activist Enters Baltimore Mayor’s Race

DeRay Mckesson joins a crowded field at the last minute, but there's no doubt he's a serious contender to replace the outgoing mayor.

DeRay Mckesson
DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and prominent member of the national Black Lives Matter group, announced his candidacy for mayor of Baltimore Wednesday night.

Though Mckesson enters the race at a relatively late point -- he filed at the actual last minute ahead of the deadline -- he has more than 298,000 followers on Twitter and national celebrity status from his involvement in the police brutality protest movement.

The city’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, decided last September not to seek re-election in the wake of the Baltimore riots over 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. 

Mckesson joins a crowded field in the Democratic primary in late April, including former Mayor Sheila Dixon, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, and City Council members Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby, among others. 

Mckesson, a Baltimore resident, made a name for himself in the last couple of years as a community organizer protesting the deaths of Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He has never been elected to office, but he has some experience in the public sector, having worked as a human resources administrator in the Minneapolis and Baltimore public school systems.

In an essay published on the website Medium, Mckesson framed his inexperience in political office as an asset:

"I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs. [...] It is true that I am a non-traditional candidate  --  I am not a former Mayor, City Councilman, state legislator, philanthropist or the son of a well-connected family. I am an activist, organizer, former teacher, and district administrator that intimately understands how interwoven our challenges and our solutions are."

McKesson's announcement drew immediate national attention, prompting stories in national publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Vox and Gawker. The Post’s Wesley Lowery, who was himself arrested along with another reporter while covering the protests in Ferguson, wrote that Mckesson is “armed with a deep Rolodex of media contacts built during the Ferguson protests -- there are likely few national reporters or television producers without one of his several cell phone numbers.”

"He can win," tweeted David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and screenwriter who co-created "The Wire," an HBO series that focused on the city's problems. He also tweeted that Mckesson was a “facile, thoughtful communicator. At ease with rhetoric and ideas. And yes, nothing to lose politically.”

Mckesson has yet to release a detailed platform, but overhauling Baltimore’s police department is likely to be a major aspect of his campaign. He has been involved with Campaign Zero, a national group that aims to prevent any fatalities by police officers. The group calls for civilian oversight of law enforcement and limits of the use of force by police.

In his Medium essay, Mckesson also alluded to his interest in tackling job development, job access, grade-level reading, transportation and college readiness. Lowery, the Post reporter, noted that in a closed-door meeting in January, Mckesson and his supporters spent most of their time talking about issues other than criminal justice and policing, such as education, public health and housing.

The April primary will be the decisive election, as Baltimore is a liberal stronghold where the vast majority of registered voters are Democrats. The city hasn't elected a Republican mayor since the 1960s.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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