On the campaign trail, Shannon Sneed has occasionally invoked an inspiration of hers, borrowing a slogan from the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm to let voters know that in City Hall she’ll be “unbought and unbossed.”

The invocation of Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, serves as a reminder.

Not only is Sneed the only woman in the race for City Council president, she’s also the only candidate who has rejected support from corporations, labor unions and political action committees. When Baltimore implemented a public financing system this cycle to amplify the small-dollar donations of city residents, Sneed was the first candidate to qualify.

“We want politicians, public servants who will walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Sneed of her decision to finance her campaign solely on small-dollar donations, “and not just say, ‘Oh, it’s good for you but not good for me.’”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

While Sneed has confined her campaign to small-dollar donations and taxpayer support, her opponents, Council President Nick Mosby and Councilman Zeke Cohen, have attracted heavy-hitting donors. When she jumped into the race last October, she entered as an underdog into a contest that already pitted an embattled incumbent against a formidably financed council colleague.

Sneed, though, is no outsider to Baltimore’s political scene, nor is she a stranger to grassroots success.

A Philadelphia native, Sneed came to Baltimore to pursue a graduate degree at Morgan State University before spending more than a decade working as a local television journalist. In 2011, she challenged City Council incumbent Warren Branch in East Baltimore’s 13th District, coming up just 43 votes short, before continuing her campaign as a write-in candidate that November, narrowly losing out to Branch. She was vindicated in 2016, though, unseating Branch to represent the 13th District for four years.

In 2020, Sneed vacated her district seat to run for the open council president’s office, losing to Mosby by about 15,000 votes and then going to work in the office of Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

A survey earlier this month by The Baltimore Banner and Goucher College Poll suggested Sneed has drawn support from some residents dissatisfied with their other options, but still found her 10 points back from Cohen, the apparent front-runner.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

From left, Baltimore City Council presidential candidate Shannon Sneed, incumbent Nick Mosby, and candidate Zeke Cohen participate in a televised debate hosted by WBAL in Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

For Baltimore to elect a publicly financed candidate like Sneed to office would be a “momentous statement,” said former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, while knocking on doors with the former councilwoman on a recent Sunday in Greektown. Perez, who tapped Sneed as his running mate in his unsuccessful 2022 bid for Maryland governor, lauded her legislative record and credited her with delivering much of the vote share he pulled in Baltimore in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

“People wonder why stuff doesn’t get done on the council,” said Perez, now a senior advisor to President Joe Biden. There’s often a pretty easy answer to that, he said: A lot of people have invested a lot of money into the council to keep the status quo. In Sneed, Perez said, Baltimore would get a council president who is beholden only to her voters.

While both Mosby and Cohen have run traditionally financed campaigns, accepting maximum donations from unions and influential developers, Sneed is among the first crop of candidates to take advantage of the new Baltimore City Fair Election Fund, which multiples small-dollar donations for candidates who cap contributions at $150 and eschew support from labor unions, corporations and political action committees.

Both Sneed and Cohen were on the council when the body voted unanimously in 2018 to establish a public financing program, and the former councilwoman is quick to note that of everyone on the council at the time, only she has opted to use the system now that it’s in place.

Cohen, who endorsed Sneed in her bid for council president four years ago, has vastly out raised both of his opponents, reporting over $480,000 on hand at the early April reporting deadline, despite more aggressive spending. Sneed reported about $237,000 in the bank at the time, thanks largely to matching funds she’s received from the city’s public finance fund, compared to around $230,000 reported by Mosby, whose April campaign finance reports were riddled with errors.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

While Cohen has steered clear of addressing a tumultuous year in Mosby’s personal life — the council president and his ex-wife, former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, divorced last year, and in January in U.S. District Court he took the blame for the couple’s delinquent tax returns — Sneed has been more willing take the offensive against both of her opponents.

An online ad funded by Sneed accuses Cohen of being funded by “developers and bankers” and states that he “votes their way.” A similar attack on Mosby lists headlines about the council president’s error-filled campaign finance reports, his unpaid water bills and accusations that he committed perjury on his federal tax returns. “Baltimore can’t afford more corruption. We can’t afford Nick Mosby,” a narrator says.

In a television commercial launched last month, Sneed takes a lighter approach, pledging to focus on “Baltimore’s problems, not my own,” while her young daughter opens a closet door and declares, “No skeletons here!”

Watch on YouTube

Sneed has received just shy of $60,000 in direct, small dollar donations, the vast majority coming from Baltimore City residents, her campaign manager Kevin Gillogly said.

Still, the Sneed campaign has not disclosed much of its recent campaign spending, Gillogly acknowledged. The Sneed campaign has disclosed a total of about $38,000 in spending this cycle, and the campaign’s latest report lists no new expenditures despite the recent advertising blitz.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The campaign had spent a total of about $136,400 ahead of the April 26 reporting deadline, plus around $100,000 since then, Gillogly said. He said the campaign had staffing challenges leading up to the recent reporting deadline and plans to file an amended report.

During her previous term on the council, Sneed developed a strong relationship with Scott, then the body’s president, and she argued she would have a more productive working relationship with the mayor’s office than Mosby has had. She has also touted a record of introducing progressive legislation on the council, such as a bill co-sponsored with Scott to end gag orders for victims of police brutality, another to bar the city from screening job candidates for marijuana, policies to require that top City Hall officials live in Baltimore, and another mandating lactation accommodations for working mothers.

The Democratic primary will be held on May 14, and the winner will face Republican Emmanuel Digman, who is unopposed, in the general election. A Baltimore Banner poll conducted last September, when only Cohen and Mosby had announced plans to run for the council president’s seat, found more than a third of likely Democratic respondents weren’t satisfied with either of their options, preferring “some other” option.

For at least some Baltimore voters, Sneed has filled that gap.

In front of a stoop in Greektown, Sneed delivered her pitch to a pajama-clad resident named Robert Miller, who, it seemed, didn’t require much persuading.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The 80-year old resident told Sneed that he’s tired of the leadership in City Hall today. Once a politician has been in office for a while, Miller said they begin to lose touch with what their constituents really want — a problem he thinks Sneed’s publicly financed campaign would help address.

“You’re a newcomer. You’ll get my vote,” he told her. Miller doesn’t support incumbents on principle, and he added that, “the longer they’re in office, the more corrupt they get.”

This semi-newcomer status, though, hasn’t always played to Sneed’s advantage. In outreach to some labor unions in the city, she said, she’s sometimes struggled to get a meeting scheduled, despite credentials like formerly chairing the City Council’s labor committee. Like Chisholm, Sneed said she feels she’s been underestimated at points because she’s the lone woman in the field.

“I’ve had union members tell me that this race is a two-person race,” she said. It’s a disappointing response, she said, but “they’ve made their decision, and I still have to make sure that I’m talking with voters and getting my message out.”

Also accompanying Sneed in Greektown was Ashley Esposito, one of two elected members of the Baltimore’s Board of School Commissioners.

People are underestimating this race, Esposito said. A lot of Black women are told to wait their turn, she said, but she appreciates how Sneed has already helped pave the way for other women like her in Baltimore politics. As for the “Shirley Chisholm vibes” of the Sneed campaign, Esposito said, “I’m like, ‘Yes.’”

A self-described progressive, Esposito said she’s found herself in disagreements lately with like-minded friends. Some of them support Cohen and have wondered why Sneed decided to jump in and “ruin the race” — apparently tightening margins with the more moderate Mosby.

“I’m like, ‘ruin the race?’” Esposito has told them. “Shannon is the true progressive candidate.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

More From The Banner