By Jessica Grimshaw
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
As top Democrats begin lining up for a chance to replace outgoing Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in next year’s election, a little known 28-year-old from West Baltimore is hoping to shake up the race and gain voters’ attention as an unaffiliated candidate for the city’s top job.
Connor Meek, who has lived in the city for five years, has collected 100 signatures so far as part of his effort to petition his way onto the November 2016 ballot.
He is a one-man operation, traveling throughout Baltimore as he tries to meet residents, learn about the issues and convince voters to sign his petition before the August 2016 filing deadline to be included as a mayoral candidate in the general election.
“The current government doesn’t communicate, isn’t transparent and isn’t accountable,” Meek said in a recent interview. “They don’t know what’s actually going on.”
Meek does not look like the typical mayoral candidate, dressed in a suit and tie, while shaking hands and kissing babies. His slender frame, frayed jeans and worn-in Orioles’ baseball cap hints that Meek does not come from a background of money and corporate boardroom meetings.
Born in New Jersey to working class parents who divorced when he was around 3 years old, Meek spent much of his childhood moving up and down the East Coast before settling in Baltimore in 2010.
After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in philosophy, Meek said he grew tired of the lack of job opportunities in the current economy and realized that he could get by just fine living a modest lifestyle.
He works mornings as a corporate caterer for $200 a week and says he dedicates his evenings to reading voraciously about Baltimore and city politics. Meek said that if he were to win the election, he would give over half of his salary as mayor to the citizens of Baltimore in need and would only be interested in keeping $10,000 a year for himself of the $83,000 pension he would receive.
Meek is trying hard to relate to city voters and believes that in Baltimore’s post-riot political climate, he may be exactly what the city needs.
“Everyone that has known him has always joked since we were kids that one day he would be a lawyer or politician, so what is happening now is not a surprise,” said long-time friend Dan Heck.
According to the Maryland Board of Elections, Meek needs one percent of Baltimore’s 411,147 voters, approximately 4,111 signatures, on a petition to appear on the ballot for mayor. He has decided that he will be his own chairman in the election and is relying on his own hard work to gain the petition signatures needed.
He said his plan isn’t to get people’s attention through campaigning efforts but rather by “organically” participating in civic engagements such as City Council panels, neighborhood association meetings, and his own informal political discussions like one he held last week at Zella’s Pizzeria and Bar in Hollins Market.
“I hate asking people for anything,” Meek said only half joking as he searched his backpack for the petition clipboard. “But the more events like this that we have, the bigger the turn out is each time and it just gets easier each time and more signatures will continue to roll in.”
The event Wednesday was attended by citizens, business owners, members of the West Baltimore neighborhood association Selfless Partnership, Democratic mayoral candidate Mack Clifton and Council member Carl Stokes.
Fifteen people sat around large wooden tables in the corner window of the restaurant for more than two hours. The groups discussed a laundry list of issues facing Baltimore as well as possible solutions to ongoing problems.
Meek said he is examining all issues at the moment and trying to learn everything he can. The discussion focused on finding jobs for disenfranchised Baltimore residents, improving education and skilled labor programs, and improving city transportation.
He said more efficient public transportation is needed so that people can get to their jobs, adding that he recently had to jog 3.5 miles to get to work because of poor bus service.“The least reliable thing in the entire world,” Meek said.
Meek also discussed the need to provide basic city amenities like much needed trashcans, using city funds more efficiently and re-branding Baltimore’s lackluster image.
He faces an uphill battle. Even if he receives enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, Meek will be running as an unaffiliated candidate in a city where an estimated 90 percent of voters are registered Democrats.
Jeff DeMarinis, the director of the Candidacy and Campaign Finances Division of the state Board of Elections, said that unaffiliated candidates “hopefully bring more participation into the election.”
Meek is not accepting campaign donations because he would rather see people give their money to Baltimore residents in need. DeMarinis said that it is the candidate’s decision how to run his or her campaign but that success will depend on citizen’s awareness and if they respond to Meek’s position.
“I definitely think that people should be open to other opinions and viewpoints rather than always voting Democrat,” Kyle Espenshade, a 23-year-old senior at Towson University, said during an interview about Baltimore’s current political climate.
Meek first gained attention in July when the Baltimore Sun published his opinion piece in which he criticized the police department’s lack of concern and availability after he was mugged in South Baltimore in June. The article led to changes in police policy and to keep station lobbies open to the public 24 hours a day.
“That was great but that was just the beginning,” Meek said.
He decided to run for mayor when he came across the Board of Elections website while he was doing research for a second opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun. He said he was baffled by the obstacles the city puts up for those who are applying for municipal jobs but how easy it was to become a potential candidate for mayor.
“I couldn’t believe how easy it was,” Meek said. “I talked to someone from the state Board of Elections on the phone for about an hour asking questions and then just sat and really thought about it for six hours.
“I didn’t touch my phone or anything, just thought,” he continued. “I realized I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I couldn’t think of a single reason not to do it. They make applying to be a janitor the hardest process in the world, but all you have to do for mayor is fill out a form, pay $150 and, boom, the next day I’m in the news.”
The sequence of events from his Baltimore Sun essay to the meeting at Zella’s last Wednesday has been an Aha moment for Meek.
“I felt a calling,” said Meek, who feels like the whole undertaking has already been a success. He said for him, success is defined as bringing people together, starting a dialogue with voters, and changing his own life.
He hopes to show people that anyone has the ability to make a difference. He said he isn’t thinking about what happens if he loses the election. His only focus is to treat everyday like a learning experience.
“I’ve decided I’m going to die here,” Meek said when asked about the possibility of not winning the election. “I love this city and I’m not going anywhere.”