“I think my life is pretty boring if I’m not helping people.” – Dante C. Swinton
Last week, I shared the first part of my interview with mayoral candidate Dante Swinton (https://one-baltimore.org/2020/02/24/one-baltimore-38-dante-swinton-part-1/), in which we talked about the city’s shitty air quality, his work to improve it, and how transitioning to a zero waste and clean energy economy could create jobs and fight crime. This week, the second and final part of our interview (edited for length).
Abby: So, did you have an interest in politics previous to this race?
Dante: I ran the first time when I was 22, for the State House in South Carolina. That was inspired by the fact that there was an environmental committee and one of the Council Members on there, we were talking to her about how the majority of coal plants are located in communities of color and low-income communities, and she was unaware of that, and it just kind of blew my mind. I know that not everyone is always following environmental stuff, but you’re on the environmental committee, I would hope you know these things.
Then I moved to North Carolina for a little while, I started taking part in the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh.
Abby: What were those about?
Dante: Those were pushback against various voter ID laws and against an effort to curb abortion. There was a woman there I remember who was speaking to the fact that she, as an 80-year-old Black woman, did not anticipate having the same fight that she was having in her 20s and 30s.
So then I ran for Town Council in Chapel Hill in ’13, trying to push an enhanced response to sexual assault and domestic violence. We didn’t have a domestic violence shelter, even though it was supposed to be built in the 80’s.
I took a few years off from running and here we are, my next time getting involved. I’ve always loved the idea of finding the policy that actually does something to help the person who’s struggling most. I feel like there’s a lot of reasonable apathy and distrust of the electoral process, I have so many activist friends who would never wanna put their hat in the ring and I totally get that. I guess I’m willing to kind of do the outsider tactics but also the insider tactics too and recognize that, if you have people attacking from both sides, that’s even more powerful.
Abby: Had you thought about running for City Council before jumping into the mayor’s race?
Dante: Someone asked me that at the forum in Charles Village last week, and my answer is the same – City Council really doesn’t have a lot of power. The lack of being able to control the budget, it’s not something I really have interest in. I wanna be able to move the money into the Black butterfly, and to be able to do that, to be able to express my vision and execute it, you gotta run for mayor.
So, the follow-up question that person had was, “What about experience?” and I was like, well, right now, we have someone who is currently interim mayor who had been Council President for 10 years and had been in City Council for 13 before that, we’ve got someone who is currently Council President, we’ve got someone who had been mayor and had to resign, and other folks who have been in office. There are newcomers, but there are people with this quote-unquote experience who have overseen the same struggles that this city has dealt with for the last 20-something years. To make the suggestion that in order for us to be able to change things we need experience, I have to wonder what type of experience people are talking about when we’re sitting here with 76,000 households in this city making about $18,000 a year.
I think that this idea that you have to take these steps to get to this point, it’s not really something that we have time to wait on. I don’t think that revolution is going to wait for me or anyone else that has a progressive vision of the city to say, “Oh, let me be in City Council for 4 years, 8 years, but come 2030, alright, let’s do this!” I just don’t have time for that.
I want people to see that the homeless are being homed, I want people to see that we’re revamping vacant houses so that folks who make $14,000 to $32,000 a year can actually afford them, to build Black wealth with small business grants, to put $12 million into mental health facilities across the city. Just, actual community-building that needs to happen right now and not this reactive, “Well, we’re 500 officers short…” It’s still operating under the assumption that policing is the only way we’re gonna get a handle on everything and I’m tired of it.
No one else is willing to aggressively call out the police budget and how massive and unnecessary it is or say that they’re gonna move that money into these communities and make investments. That can’t happen as a lone City Council person, so I’d rather uproot and disrupt the system from the top down.
Not only that, I think no one else is really taking a stand on the fact that, yeah, the Mayor has way too much power. I wanna establish a participatory budgeting system. That includes getting rid of the Board of Estimates, replacing it with the entire City Council, the Mayor, and the Comptroller, so that’s seventeen folks instead of five having say over where that money goes. We put the budget together, and then from January to June the public can involve themselves.
Right now, Virginia Beach has a system called Balancing Act, you can log in and be like, “Oh, this is the city’s budget, where do you think the money should go?” People can submit their versions and then you can set it, like, “This can’t be subtracted past this amount,” but you can still move money around. And then every April, everyone gets to do an online vote on whether or not they wanna pass the budget, and if they vote it down, we’ve got to adjust it, and that gives them another two months before we pass it in June to say more about where this money should be going.
That’s just more power to the people, and I don’t think there’s any other candidate that’s openly saying “Please have power, I don’t actually want this.” So yeah, long story short, that is why I decided to go for the mayoral race first.
Abby: Yeah, on the crime thing, it seems so straightforward to me that tackling the causes is gonna be more effective than… like, if we could police our way out of this, we would have done it by now, we have certainly put enough resources into it that if that was the solution it would be solved, but self-evidently not. So I really appreciate that.
Do you think there is a pathway to victory for you here? It’s more than just trying to raise awareness by being in the debates and talking to people?
Dante: Yeah, I can’t stress enough that in 2017 we spent more per capita on policing than any city in this country, more than New York, more than Chicago, more than Oakland. And like, Oakland spends nearly 40% of its budget on policing and yet somehow we’re spending more per person. Whenever I think about that, it’s like, you get $722 of protection, you get $722 of protection… we can’t Oprah our way out of this with policing.
I do think there’s an avenue for victory. With so many candidates, especially candidates who’ve been in office for years, they’re gonna split the establishment vote, and I think the winner’s only gonna need maybe 33,000 to max 40,000. Last election, Catherine Pugh got 44,000, Sheila Dixon had 42,000, and that was the top two people, and now you’ve got a gajillion humans running and everyone’s fed up with everything.
I really am wary of folks being like, “Oh I’m gonna strategically vote, we really don’t want Jack to win, so maybe I’ll vote for Brandon just to make sure that doesn’t happen.” I get that, but I really hope people vote for the ideas and policies that will change the city immediately, and by being in these debates, doing a digital campaign, doing door-knocking and postcard dropping, I got a shot at it.
Whenever these forums have been, people have come up, they’ve been impressed, they didn’t know me before but now they do, they’re like, “Oh, you actually answered the questions, actually gave a vision and not just a generic thing.” I don’t believe that any other candidate, even if their hearts are in the right place, are going to bring that to it. Anyone who proclaims a crime plan that involves adding more officers or “Really get on these multi-offenders” or whatever, that’s not a crime plan, that’s just an expansion of what we already –
Abby: – it’s an incarceration plan.
Dante: Exactly. I put out on my Instagram page, “People can put out these plans all they want, but if you’re not giving someone a job, then that’s not helping.” My worry is that if we go with someone that’s already been in office, we’re essentially gonna see that same mindset. The people want a candidate that has an aggressive plan to create that community that we always say we wanna build. Then go with the guy with the comprehensive jobs plan, comprehensive climate plan, comprehensive transit plan.
If we’re not gonna elect that type of person and give that person the opportunity, then it’s gonna be a while before we see the Baltimore we strive to have. I’m tired of seeing folks struggling living paycheck to paycheck, like myself. Not only am I a community organizer, I drive Uber and Lyft on the weekends. I know there are other folks having to work these second and third shift jobs just to make ends meet, and that’s ridiculous. That’s why I’d have a living wage of $18 by 2024, $15 is way too low at this point.
I’m just really excited about being that option for a true, sweeping shift in Baltimore. If people want that, people know that I speak to this, that I’ve always spoken to this type stuff. So here’s hoping.
Dante gave me LOTS more details about the changes he would make to better train the police department, use a combination of better transit and schools plus a commuter tax to draw people back into the city, lower property taxes, institute a gun buyback program, and quite a bit more. We also talked about how he was raised by a single mother who took in some of his cousins, about his experience volunteering in rape crisis centers, and had a fun “woo, we’re both bisexual!” high-five moment while talking about LGTBQ representation in the race. I wish I could’ve included it all, but suffice to say, he’s thought his stuff through.
Cultural Event of the Week: We all (I assume) love mac & cheese, and of course we all also love Moveable Feast, the awesome non-profit that delivers meals to people in need with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses. Combine these two loves this Sunday, 3/8 at the 7th annual Mac & Cheese Cook-Off Benefit at Peabody Heights Brewery, LLC. You can sign up by Friday at 5pm to submit your dish, or you can just sample, vote, and enjoy music by the excellent Nicky Stacy Live.
Green Event of the Week: 4 Alarm Artists (Lynne Parks, Bridget Parlato-Full Circuit Studio, and Blake Conroy) are organizing exhibitions around town this spring to highlight the climate crisis and what we can do about it, entitled Unnatural Causes: Art of a Critical Nature. The first of these will have its opening reception at the Creative Alliance this Saturday, 3/7, and will include conservationists and activists as well as the artists.