NPR logo Councilman's Star Rises Fast Amid Baltimore Unrest

Councilman's Star Rises Fast Amid Baltimore Unrest

Baltimore City Council member Nick Mosby spent a lot of time this week in front of the cameras, including an appearance on Sky News. Sky News via YouTube hide caption

toggle caption Sky News via YouTube

Baltimore City Council member Nick Mosby spent a lot of time this week in front of the cameras, including an appearance on Sky News.

Sky News via YouTube

It's really hard to catch up with Nick Mosby.

The young Baltimore Democrat walks fast, which I discovered when I finally managed to catch up with him. It was early Wednesday afternoon, and Mosby was in the lunchroom of Carver Vocational-Technical High School in West Baltimore, fresh from a TV hit on CNN.

Along with some of Carver's teachers and administrators, Mosby was joking and handing out slices of donated pizza to a stream of students. The pizza was a lure to keep the teenagers away from the uneasiness nearby. Carver was open again on Wednesday, after being closed for a day like all the city's schools, because of concerns about unrest. Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man whose death after an arrest set off waves of protests and unrest this week, had played for Carver's football team back in his school days.

Mosby burst into the national spotlight this week after a tense, on-camera exchange with a Fox News reporter. With unrest at its worst, Fox's Leland Vittert pressed Mosby: Was it right that looters had robbed and set fire to several stores in the neighborhood? Mosby kept responding that he thought looting was wrong, but that broader, historical realities — like a paucity of investment and counterproductive policies imposed on struggling inner cities just like his — were like kindling. They went back and forth like this for a few minutes until an exasperated Mosby finally had enough. "At this point, this is not productive," he said. "All you want to do is talk about this" — pointing over his shoulder to the liquor store that had been looted, and walking away from the conversation.

Just like that, Nick Mosby, a first-term City Council member representing Baltimore's 7th District, became something of a folk hero. He said what a segment of the Internet was feeling about coverage of the burning city. Video of the exchange, which documentarian Ricky Kelly posted to his Facebook page, has drawn more than 4 million views.

Back at Carver High on Wednesday, with two aides in tow, Mosby headed across the street to deliver the remaining pizza slices to the school baseball team, all suited up in blue uniforms even though they had nobody to play against; Northwestern High School, the scheduled opponent, decided to suddenly scrap its baseball team altogether. Coach Michael Rosenband said it was the second non-game his team had suffered this week; a game on Monday was suspended when one opposing player's mother, concerned about the violence bubbling up not far from the field, plucked her kid from the game, leaving that team without enough players.

Mosby had heard the story, and razzed the players when they huddled around him. "I heard y'all got saved, because Northwestern was gonna come in here and destroy you," he said. The players laughed.

Then he got serious. "I know you guys aren't part of the trouble," Mosby said. "When I look into your eyes, I see myself."

Mosby left them with an admonishment: Stay out of trouble, play the game, finish the pizza.

He walked with the last of the pizza to a busy neighborhood recreation center right by the field. Mosby introduced me to Zanes Cypress, the center's voluble director, who happened to be one of his college fraternity brothers. Cypress and I chatted for a moment, and when I looked up, Mosby was in the wind, off to the next thing.

* * *

The spotlight being shone on the police-involved killings of black men has made many of the victims in those incidents household names. But this meta-story has also given national profile to young community organizers and politicos — folks like Mosby — who were working the streets long before the incidents. They know who everyone is and where everything is, so they're indispensable to outsiders, like reporters who must catch up quickly. That was the case of Antonio French, a young, quotable St. Louis alderman. Before the Ferguson upheaval, he had about 5,000 Twitter followers. Today his list numbers more than 120,000. But French's higher profile has not come without critics. Other local officials suggested that French, who didn't live in the city of Ferguson, was an opportunist.

But in Baltimore, Mosby hasn't shirked media attention during his three years in office.

"If being a good politician means nurturing your personal brand, keeping your name out there, and promoting yourself as you propose solutions for your constituents' problems (and it does), then Nick Mosby is the exemplar," the Baltimore City Paper declared in 2012, when it dubbed him the city's best politician for his zeal for pressing the flesh and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Back at the rec center, I chatted with Demaune Millard of the Family League of Baltimore; he, like Cypress, had known Mosby for years before he ran for office. When I asked them if they were surprised by Mosby's political career, they shared a glance and a chuckle.

"I was," Millard said.

Mosby ran for office in 2007 and lost; Millard said Mosby's second, successful bid, was helped a bit by an adjustment of the borders of a neighboring district that happened to give Mosby a more favorable electorate in his own. Millard said Mosby was good on some of the issues, like pushing a bill that removed questions about a job-seeker's criminal history from job applications. But Millard said that politics in Baltimore is tough business, full of quagmires.

"As the issues become all the more complicated, like education issues, that will be where his bones are made," Millard said. "All the tough issues that are the third rail of Baltimore city politics are what will be the test."

Mosby ran, in part, on a vow for more police accountabilitythe city's police force has a well-earned reputation for excessive force. He tried to improve the relationship between the department and the folks they police.

The Freddie Gray case falls right at the nexus of those issues.

But Mosby has another important connection to the Gray case. His wife, Marilyn, was sworn in as the city's chief prosecutor in January. When police completed their investigation into the confusing particulars of Gray's death on Thursday, they handed their findings over to her. Marilyn Mosby will decide what happens next: whether to call for a grand jury to seek an indictment for a criminal trial. The Freddie Gray case has thrust the Mosbys into national spotlights.

* * *

There was little media presence on Tuesday at Matthew Henson Elementary School, where Mosby presided over a community meeting on the unrest. Indeed, Mosby's press aide expressed some wariness about the media to me and my Code Switch colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji, when we arrived. ("There was this guy from Fox News and ...")

About 50 people attended this meeting. Mosby dressed casually: sneakers, jeans, a zip-up pullover. As he moderated, he seemed to already know many names of folks in the audience.

A few people from the neighborhood lamented the destroyed or looted stores — and the many other stores that had temporarily closed to avoid the violence. This made it harder for residents to take care of basic household needs.

"Right now we have no place to buy food," one man said to knowing head-nods in the audience. "You can't even buy toilet paper in a 50-block radius."

The neighborhood was underserved by retailers even in times of relative calm, and when the CVS store burned down Monday, it left old folks without access to medication. There was real worry about whether the pharmacy might ever return. "This takes me back to the riots of 1968," Jack Young, the City Council president said. "We still have scars from '68."

(Martin O'Malley, the city's former mayor and Maryland's former governor who is thought to be mulling a run for the White House, dropped in briefly and met folks in the auditorium. O'Malley said he'd been overseas but came home after seeing what was happening.)

In this crowd, people were ready to help. A few wondered whether anything could be done to fix the big, underlying problems fueling the unrest — the same conditions Mosby had alluded to in his truncated Fox News exchange. Mosby tried to put the conversation on a more practical footing; he agreed that those issues were at the root of all this, but since violence just the night before had been the worst, the immediate focus had to be on reaching out to people in the streets and quelling the tension. He asked volunteers to go out that night and help keep things calm. He shouted out the elementary school's principal, Dave Guzman, for opening the auditorium for the meeting and handing out water in the neighborhood during the day. He told folks who were hungry that Whole Foods had donated meals.

Then he stepped outside to talk to some of the people who were still milling about. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, unremarkable except for the whir of three hovering police helicopters overhead and a line of police vehicles, including an armored truck, that had formed on the corner.

Mosby hung around for a few minutes — he gathered with a few of the folks who came to the meeting, put on a big, goofy grin, and snapped a selfie. Then he hopped in a car with his aides and headed out to the next appointment. It looked like it was going to be another long night of fast walking.

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