Laura Wexler stood on the steps of the Baltimore War Memorial auditorium, searching the street for her city’s mayor’s race. It was late arriving.
The campaign for Baltimore’s top job had been crisscrossing the city for months, and now the enormous field of 15 candidates was due on Wexler’s stage for her popular local storytelling series, “The Stoop.” Thirteen days before the April 26 primary, the candidates had agreed to pause their politicking in favor of telling a story, a five-minute personal story about their first jobs.
“NOT POLITICAL,” Wexler had hectored the campaigns in more than one email. “This is not a speech.”
But the audience of nearly 800 was taking its seats, and fewer than a third of the candidates had arrived. Wexler and Stoop co-founder Jessica Henkin were learning how hard it is to wrangle a pack of overscheduled pols.
Originally, they had asked all the candidates to arrive half an hour early and to stay for the entire two-hour show on Wednesday night.
“There was a universal scoff at that,” Wexler says. “So we changed it to ‘Just try to let us know when you’ll be here.’ ”
Henkin found Wexler at the top of the steps. “I just misidentified our first candidate,” she said, mortified. “I gave her some pizza.”
“You can’t give the candidates pizza,” Wexler said in alarm. “Does that count as graft?”
They are not political people. They are story people. Henkin works for the Baltimore school system, and Wexler writes for film and television. They started “The Stoop” 10 years ago to draw stories from a storied city.
The series and its podcasts have a sizable following. So two months ago, the pair decided to spend some of what Wexler calls their “cultural capital” on the mayor’s race. A year after Baltimore was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray, they think voters are hungry for a more authentic look at the mayoral contenders. The candidates agreed.
“Everybody said yes right away, but I’m still not sure the message that this is about storytelling and not campaigning came through loud and clear,” Wexler said.
The fringier candidates arrived the earliest. With audience members still in line at the Union Craft Brewing tent and the Crossroads Bistro food truck, Green Party candidate Emanuel McCray, 36, mounted the steps.
McCray, a big man wearing a “Straight Outta Baltimore” T-shirt who grew up in West Baltimore, said that his first job was at a Burger King but that he might talk about his Army days instead.
“I’m just going to wing it,” he declared, walking into the echoing hollows of the marble auditorium.
Wexler’s phone vibrated with the news that former mayor Sheila Dixon (D), who had been in and out of the lineup all day, would arrive by 8 p.m., an hour into the program.
Still a question mark (in fact, five questions marks on Wexler’s much-folded master schedule) was the Democratic front-runner, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.
“I don’t even know who’s texting me half the time, candidates, campaign managers, press people,” Wexler said.
At 7:20, Wexler and Henkin took the stage with a half-filled row of candidates off to the side and called on Patrick Gutierrez to lead off, although he was one of the last Democrats to declare. He told of getting a high school job as a Bank of America teller.
The story was personal, not soul-baring (Hardest truth: His brother was once caught shoplifting at Disneyland). But the theme — that he’d had the audacity to hold out for $8 an hour and went on to career as a problem solver for the bank — could have been printed on a campaign flier.
“A little political, but he showed moxie,” Wexler whispered. “Moxie is good.”
Next retired math teacher and Republican hopeful Armand F. Girard told of making 50 cents a day at a diner in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (in 1951 quarters, worth two movies and two rounds of pinball).
A few minutes later, Cindy Walsh, a Democratic candidate, was pacing the stage as she described becoming one of UPS’s first female drivers.
“It’s really better to stand still,” Wexler murmured as her iPhone stopwatch counted down Walsh’s five minutes. “You hold the space more powerfully.”
McCray, the Green Party candidate, went next. He mentioned his Burger King job but only to say that he had been fired the first week. Then he asked the audience to stand to learn about the Army.
“Whatever I do, repeat it: ‘I used to wear Tommy jeans; Now I wear Army green.’ ” McCray chanted in a singsong. The crowd matched the marching cadence gamely for several rounds. “I used to date a beauty queen; now I weigh my M16.”
Henkin and Wexler looked on wide-eyed. “Well, that was unexpected,” Wexler said.
Henkin, walking out to introduce the next speaker, gave McCray a hug. Wexler chastised her when she sat back down.
“Dude, you can’t hug some candidates and not others,” she whispered fiercely.
“Dude, it’s my hug,” Henkin answered.
Meanwhile, the top Democratic candidates had arrived. Pugh, who has a clear lead in recent polls, walked in with her campaign manager. Dixon, seeking electoral redemption after being felled in a gift-card graft case in 2010 and running in second place, sat down as two aides hovered nearby.
“I’m not worried about telling a personal story,” Dixon said, “but I am worried about getting out of here by 8:30.”
Wexler and Henkin feverishly went over their lineup, now badly wrinkled, trying to determine the order of speakers. There were big egos at play.
“DeRay wants to go more in the middle,” Henkin said, referring to DeRay Mckesson, who rose to national prominence as a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the mic, Alan Walden, a former anchor at WBAL radio, was artfully working the crowd with his practiced baritone and a story about trying to read commercials through his boss’s in-booth flatulence.
Walden’s voice was perfect, but his ears seemed to miss one, two, three raps on the bell — DING — signaling that his time was up. The audience laughed louder each time he plowed on.
“Pugh wants to go last,” Henkin said during the intermission.
“Pugh wants to go last? Dixon wants to go last,” Wexler said.
Pugh and Dixon had both bolted to other events, promising to rush back. Mckesson, after a polished reminiscence of his early days in the classroom, had left.
“I’m deferring to you,” Henkin said.
“No, you’re deciding about Dixon and Pugh,” Wexler said.
In the end, the protocol puzzle solved itself when Dixon never returned. Pugh did and sat quietly as the last candidates told their tales. She hadn’t written anything.
“I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to talk about,” she said. “I’ve had so many jobs.”
Community organizer Joshua Harris was up, describing his first job as a janitor. Investor David Warnock told of getting fired as an event bartender at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Del. (and parlaying it into an internship with DuPont). City Council member Carl Stokes delivered a rambling monologue that included a joke about missing pants.
Finally, Pugh took the stage and described her teenaged self walking into Bonwit Teller in Philadelphia and getting hired as a stock girl. Within days, she was dispatched to the sales floor as a living mannequin.
“I got to walk around the store every day for four hours dressed in clothes I wished I could buy,” she said.
And then her overnight shift in a nursing home and her mile-and-a-half walk to work to pay for college. And then, with no obvious segue, she was stump speeching.
“I tell you that story because this is the city that I love,” she said, revving up. “This is the city that has prepared me to do the dream that I would love to dream . . . of bringing this city together . . . of being the next mayor of Baltimore . . . ”
“She was campaigning,” she said. “But she did tell a good story.”