One Baltimore #41, Rikki Vaughn, Part One


COVID-19 or no (and there are some virus-related resources at the end of the column), the Mayor’s race continues, and the outcome will define our city for years to come, maybe decades. Last week, I sat down with Democratic candidate Rikki Vaughn to discuss his run.

I first met Rikki at West Wednesday, Tawanda Jones’s weekly protest for accountability for her brother Tyrone West and all victims of police brutality. He said a lot of good things, but I was a little suspicious of the fact that he was running for Mayor based on his experience as the owner of a large number of fast food franchises, for two reasons — 1) people like Larry Hogan and Donald Trump, and a long list of people before them, have made “I’m running on my record as a businessman” code for “I’m going to screw you over,” and 2) I’m not usually a big fan of fast food in terms of how workers (and our guts) tend to get treated.

But Tawanda enthusiastically called him “Mayor Rikki,” and he kept on showing up week after week to stand with us, which I wasn’t seeing a single other candidate do. So I got more curious, and I’m glad I did. Rikki’s is not the typical businessman’s story, he wasn’t born into privilege by any means. And of course we all know you should never actually TRUST a politician… but I’ve come to believe in Rikki’s credentials to lead, his sincere commitment to his hometown, and his drive to pour himself into the job.

We met up at a Dunkin Donuts that he operates in Federal Hill, which happened to be across the street from another of his establishments, the Light Street Cafe. Both were well laid-out, clean, and orderly. When I walked up, Rikki was sitting with a laptop, notebook, and several large stacks of paper-clipped receipts, the picture of the executive who still gets his hands dirty and works on the details.

Below is the first part of our interview, lightly edited for length.


Abby: Rikki, thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

Rikki: Thank you for having me.

Abby: We got a chance to speak at the City Council President forum the other week, you were telling me a little about your background, let me see if I can get it right. You were raised in East Baltimore, you moved around to West, South, things were pretty rough. You dropped out of school out of fear of violence and also out of being bored and wanting to be grown.

You got in trouble, got a felony conviction — you can speak to what that was or not, up to you — but you ended up not able to get a job because of that. So you moved out of the state. Was it to one of the Carolinas you moved to?

Rikki: I moved to South Carolina.

Abby: That must have been a real culture shock.

Rikki: It was one of those… you roll out a map, see what’s there. I like the beach and warm weather, so I picked the Carolinas. My felony was common robbery in Baltimore County when I was 17.

Abby: Understood. And you did well there, you got a job at a McDonald’s, and I guess you were promoted to manager eventually?

Rikki: I actually started my career at McDonald’s in Baltimore, Howard Street. I was 14 years old when I started, I worked at McDonald’s up until I started getting into trouble. Then, once I was convicted, of course, trying to go back, they do background checks. So I wind up going to the Carolinas and I was able to go back to McDonald’s because they didn’t do state to state background checks.

I left Baltimore as a Store Manager, I went to Carolina as a Store Manager, and then I was promoted to a District Manager, a Director and then ultimately I left as Vice President. I was overseeing what they call the Raleigh region, which is North Carolina, South Carolina, and parts of Georgia. I was responsible for 342 locations.

Abby: Wow, so… what does that entail?

Rikki: That entailed two divorces. Not seeing my kids a lot. My divorces were based off of, “I never see my husband. He doesn’t put his hands on me, he doesn’t cheat, I just never see him. So, when I don’t see him, I’m not in a marriage.” And missing a lot of birthday parties. I had to travel to Chicago for corporate meetings, I sat on different boards within McDonald’s, I chaired the People’s Department Board, so I would have to go to New York a lot, a lot of overnight travel.

But you know what, it made me who I am today. It helped me with managerial skills. It gave me the skill set from a people standpoint of listening and understanding different perspectives, because when you’re in leadership and management, you’re not only managing and leading your employees, you got other personalities coming in that door from the customer standpoint. So if you’re not able to balance that and juggle that, you won’t be successful.

Abby: What were some of the most important things you learned?

Rikki: To be humble. I believe if you forget where you come from, you don’t know how it is to fall down and get back up, then you’re gonna be challenged when you try to lead others. A lot of people I see in leadership, when I go as a customer to other restaurants or retail stores, I see managers disrespecting their employees, not jumping in to help out, not really engaged. So for me, I learned really how to be humble, how to not forget that at one point I was that cashier taking orders on the register, I was a cook.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of that, you don’t really know how to effectively lead and I would say balance leadership as well. A lot of people can lead, but they don’t have the balance there, they don’t understand that sometimes in order to lead you also gotta follow. You gotta be more of a servant leader.

Abby: And let me ask, the places that you oversaw, I assume they kept that same policy of not hiring people with certain backgrounds? I don’t know if there was anything you could do about that to help people who were in your situation.

Rikki: Now they’re a little bit more open-minded. A lot of franchisees actually overlook that, that’s why I’m so grateful to independent operators. They’re governed by their own standards, especially when it comes to HR, so I found a lot of franchisees who do hire individuals who were convicted of felonies, whether it was one time or three times. I’ve seen in many cases, not only hire them but actually promote them and give them leadership roles in their establishments.

Abby: That’s great. I never understood the importance of “ban the box” type stuff until I was involved, in one of my first jobs, with hiring 20 people to do simple jobs, planting trees, picking up trash. It was through stimulus money and it was like 300 applications that we had for these 20 jobs. So you’re looking for any reason to cut people out, anything that’s a demerit, y’know.

Rikki: And I’m the opposite, I look for reasons to bring them in. I’ve always been one, if we got job opportunities — and of course, you can’t, unfortunately, help everyone, because money plays a role in everything — but we’ve over-hired in some of our restaurants just based on like… “No, no, that’s a good guy, that’s a good young man, bring him in.” And my managers are like, “that’s gonna cut into my bonus,” and I’m like “don’t worry about the bonus, I’ll take care of the bonus,” and they’re like, “alright man, you say that now, I’m gonna keep my eye on you!”

But a lot of times, that’s the mindset that we have to change, is that we always find ways to say no. “Ban the box,” I’m grateful, I think that was a great step forward. But as a business owner, I talk to other business owners who try to get around that, like, “Oh get on social media and just look ’em up.” So I say, “Do you have a background? Do you have a record? I know I do — I was caught. Everyone’s made some type of mistakes but some get caught and some don’t.”

Abby: Yeah, if I’d been caught for things I’ve done in my life, I would have a background too — I didn’t get caught.

Rikki: Many times, when I see folks get caught up in the system, they’re still going through a growing state.

Abby: Mmhm. 17 is a child.

Rikki: And people disagree with me, but I even stretch that a little further. I see some people at 28 years old still growing up. If you haven’t had a role model in your life, male, female, whomever, if you’ve never had someone to walk you through different stages of life and to be there to support you, to criticize when you’ve made a mistake but still help to get you to the next level, then some folks you still find making mistakes, getting caught up in the system at 28 years old, because they’re still learning as they go on their own.

Give you a personal example, I didn’t really know about financial management until I was in my junior year of college, when most other countries, they’re teaching kids in the sixth grade financial management. And I wasn’t a traditional college kid, remember, I dropped out of high school, I didn’t get my GED until I was 24. Now, I’ve had some experiences with McDonald’s management and all of that, but from an educational standpoint, I didn’t learn that until I was 26 years old. So you have some adults still learning —

Abby: Oh certainly.

Rikki: — and making mistakes, because they didn’t have that foundation growing up.

Abby: What did you get your degree in?

Rikki: I have two undergrads, my first is in Criminal Justice from the University of South Carolina, my second is in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science from Hampton University, Magna cum Laude. Then I have my MBA. I went to law school for two years, and I am Dr. Rikki Vaughn Jr. this year, I will be confirmed with a PhD in Public Policy Administration.

Abby: Congratulations, oh my god! I’m so excited to call you Dr. Vaughn. So, when did you come back to Baltimore?

Rikki: I’ve been back over 10 years, I came back to Baltimore when I was 29, that’s when I had my first restaurant in Baltimore.

Abby: Were you thinking then about running for office at some point?

Rikki: I’ve always been interested or involved. My political interest started when I was 14 years old. I was a member of the Baltimore City Youth Council.

Abby: Oh cool.

Rikki: I was under, at that time it was Councilman Carl Stokes, because each Youth City Councilman reported to a City Councilman. I did that for two years, at 16 years old I was appointed as Vice-President of the Youth Council. I held that office for a year and then I transitioned over into Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke’s office, I sat on his Youth Advisory Council.

So I’ve always had an interest in politics. I didn’t like how young folks weren’t included in a lot. I always said, “One day I’m gonna go into politics.” It’s funny, growing up, everyone was like, “Oh yeah, he’s gonna be the mayor.” I was that 14, 15 year old kid wearing dress clothes to Southern Senior High School and looking at the news on my phone, so I always had an interest in it and now I’ve just finally crossed over.

Abby: So this is your first time running?

Rikki: It’s actually my second time running. I ran for United States Senator. Everyone was like, “Uh, what? Your first time running for office is running for United State Senator against Ben Cardin?”

Abby: Ambition!

Rikki: Ambition, determination. I was like, “Look, I’m not happy about –” My whole political career started around youth. We keep saying we need to have the next generation step up. Well, you have the next generation step up, but then you push ‘em back. So I’ve always done what I’ve done, from a political standpoint and business, based off of youth initiatives in the city.

I suspended that campaign shortly after I launched. That year, I lost my brother. My brother was murdered in East Baltimore.

Abby: Oh! I’m very sorry.

Rikki: Yeah, he was coming out of a corner store, and two blocks up they were rolling dice and they started shooting, he got shot twice coming out of the store. It made the news — a young lady walking in the store was carrying her infant, she was shot in the leg, dropped her baby.

Abby: I think I remember that.

Rikki: That was on East Lanvale Street, around the corner from where we grew up at.

Abby: There’s nothing I can say, but I’m real, real sorry.


#OneBaltimore #RikkiVaughn #BaltimoreMayoralRace

Rather than sharing arts and environmental events this week, since they’re pretty much all canceled, instead I’m debuting —

COVID-19 Resources of the Week:

– Free meal sites while schools are closed, including at schools (10am-2pm), rec centers (2-7pm), and faith congregations (click on the site for hours):

– Baltimore Neighborhood Response Teams sign-up form, for things like dropping off food to the elderly, walking dogs for the sick, etc. Some are already established or there’s resources to create your own:

– Brandon Scott put together a good list of info, including what’s closed, how to access resources in alternate ways, and important contacts:

– People looking to provide childcare services:

Stay safe, y’all.

Rikki at the Light Street Cafe, to which we relocated for the second half of our interview.

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