A powerful online presence can help even a local candidate crowdfund hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there’s no substitute for the power of door knocking. That’s what DeRay Mckesson said he learned from his recent campaign for mayor of Baltimore city.
When he launched his effort Feb. 3, McKesson said he spent the next 40 days attending public forums where he could make a pitch to potential supporters. “I hated the forums,” he recalled last week during a panel discussion at C&E’s CampaignTech East in D.C. “The payoff for that was actually really low. But I would knock on people’s doors and they would be like, ‘No one’s ever knocked on my door before.”
It was a striking lesson for the self-described “Twitter evangelist” who’s achieved prominence with the help of social media. Over the last two years Mckesson became a national figure in the Black Lives Matter movement and amassed a Twitter following of some 346,000 after joining the protests in 2014 Ferguson, Mo., which were launched in the wake of a local police officer’s killing of Michael Brown.
After he returned to Baltimore to launch his campaign, his history of activism and heavyweight social media following drew national attention. The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Mother Jones and the New York Times were among the outlets that covered his campaign — something most candidates running in a crowded mayoral primary could only dream of. But that attention turned out to be a mixed blessing.
“I would be knocking on doors and people would you be like, ‘You’re the guy I read about in the New York Times,’” Mckesson said in an interview. That kind of notoriety backfired in some cases.
“The national press who covered the race acted as if I’d never been to Baltimore and that didn’t help. I would read the articles and it was like, I was in Ferguson and I ran for mayor,” he said.
In fact, Mckesson was a math teacher in Baltimore and started an after-school center before helping launch the Black Lives Matter movement.
“They would write lines like, I was running a national campaign. What does that even mean? And they’d be like, ‘you did a fundraiser in New York.’”
As a result of those fundraisers, Mckesson said he was pressed to disclose his donors ahead of local reporting deadline. “No one else had to do that,” he said. “I’m never going to apologize for having friends outside of Baltimore city.”
Still, the national attention helped Mckesson raise some $300,000 from some 5,400 donors from all 50 states in 83 days for his mayoral bid.
Much of that money came through Crowdpac, a platform that helps candidates crowdfund their campaigns. Mckesson credits it with helping bring in a significant amount of money for a relatively unknown candidate with a limited run up. He also credits Twitter, a platform that some strategists are rethinking, with his fundraising success. “We raised a lot of money on Twitter,” he said.
But he admits there was a hurdle to overcome in order to ask donors personally for money. “It’s very different to ask for money than it is to ask for support,” he said.
Before he become a candidate, Mckesson, who also launched effort #CampaignZero, an effort to end police killings, said he asked a lot of former campaign staffers about fundraising, “but I didn’t talk to candidates about fundraising, or what it meant to do calls.”
Another hard lesson was that he needed to front money for his campaign expenses because under Maryland law campaigns must write checks and cannot use credit cards for purchasing goods and services. “We potentially could have taken different risks and just bet that we would raise the money in the end,” he said. “There are different kinds of challenges when you run a small-dollar campaign in terms of budgeting.”
Now, even big-budget national campaigns have trouble merging online and offline interactions. But Mckesson was able to do that by streaming his canvassing sessions on Periscope. Supporters would tweet at him and say he missed their houses and Mckesson could subsequently return to have a conversation. “I would talk to voters and they would say, I saw that live stream,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mckesson said one of the biggest challenges he faced as a first-time candidate was finding a lawyer who wasn’t conflicted by being retained by another campaign. “There was so many elections happening in Baltimore,” he said. “We probably went through three or four lawyers who were conflicted in some way. Feb. 3 was the day we found a lawyer.” The same day he hired an attorney, Mckesson launched his campaign.
Mckesson finished with 2 percent in the April 26 primary, which saw three-term state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh , a former Baltimore city council member, win the Democratic nomination (although that result may be challenged).
Mckesson declined to say if he would run again. But if he does decide to undertake a new campaign, he’s got 60,000 email supporter addresses to go with his Twitter following and hard-won appreciation for door knocking.