Ready for New Leadership in Baltimore
December 16, 2016
In April 2015, John Bullock and seven others made the trip from Baltimore to attend Camp Wellstone in Richmond, Virginia. That weekend, back at home, people began taking to the streets demanding justice for Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man killed in police custody.
“I saw this as a touchpoint for inequalities that were under the surface,” John says. As organizers, they asked themselves the question, “How do you show up in a moment like this?”
Their answer was to organize. Power in the city has been stagnant; with a high percentage of long-serving electeds, change happened slowly and many communities felt ignored.
Over the next few months, Wellstone heard from alumni, donors, and partner organizations about organizers and candidates in Baltimore who represented the chance for a new kind of leadership for the city: “We want to create training opportunities for them!”
Open races for several city council seats in 2016 helped to create momentum for this new leadership. “This was a moment of opportunity,” says Public and Political Leadership Director Kara Hollingsworth. “All of the factors that lead to a moment of ‘we need something different’.”
Transforming the way Baltimore Campaigns
Our work in Baltimore began with Maryland Working Families (MDWF): “We had two fundamental goals,” explains Executive Director Charly Carter. First, to identify, recruit and train progressive leaders to run for office. Then, they hoped to create a shared progressive vision, at the state and local level.
In September 2015, Wellstone partnered with MDWF, Emerge and a committee of Baltimore leaders and Wellstone alumni to hold a candidate and campaign management training in Baltimore. “We went to every advocacy group that was doing work around the city and asked them to identify five people to come to the training,” explains Charly. RSVPs flooded in.
30 candidates and 44 campaign volunteers and managers spent a packed weekend learning how to run a campaign the Wellstone Way — with grassroots organizing at the heart. Every campaign worker from that training went on to work on a campaign, and nearly all of the candidates went on to run for office in 2016.
In a city like Baltimore, the big fight is in the primary. Every city council race had at least one Wellstone alum running. Two ran for mayor.
“Having Wellstone's model about community engagement changed the way that campaigns were run in the city” Charly explains. “It’s very hard now for someone to run if they're not engaged on that level. What’s important about that is it changes the way people approach governing. More than it ever was before — it's about organizing their communities.”
Preparing to Govern
In the summer of 2016, after the primary, Wellstone and Working Families MD partnered with Local Progress to offer training and support those progressive candidates who had won the primary and were on the ballot in November. The five candidates who signed up became part of a New Leaders Cohort that participated in monthly governance trainings.
“The goal of the governance training was to give them the knowledge and skills they needed so they could be effective, and could start legislating on their very first day in office,” says Charly. This included building trust with each other and learning to lean on their individual strengths and leadership styles. “They knew they couldn’t solve the city’s problems until they could get the council to work together as a unit.”
Kara remembers helping the cohort dig into how the city council operates and how that might change, “There were 20,000 'aha!' moments a day, as they learned the actual rules and the aspects of governing that don’t have to stay that way and represent real opportunity for change.”
“It was helpful to think through how to accomplish our goals.” John Bullock (District 9) says. “To think backward, about the steps along the way in order to get something done.”
The group worked on building relationships within the community, reaching out to organizations that are working within their districts. And, they are working on policy, thinking long-term about a shared vision for Baltimore.
Hope for a Better City
Eight new council members were elected to the Baltimore City Council in November. Six of those were Wellstone alum.
“From the moment they became candidates, they were learning how to govern the Wellstone Way,” says Kara. “These folks are different. They have a fundamentally different approach to how they come at governing and being in office.”
Their approach is changing how the council operates. “People now see the work that these leaders are doing in the city and building that community,” Charly says, “The people of Baltimore have hope for the first time in a long time.”