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Josh Kurtz: Mystery Man Returns to Baltimore

Kahan S. Dhillon Jr. Photo courtesy of Kahan S. Dhillon Jr.

We’ve been here before. Not literally, but psychically.

This is the third time in the space of about two and a half years that I’ve sat in a coffee shop, waiting for Kahan Singh Dhillon Jr. to arrive. He’s late, once again.

The name may ring a bell. Dhillon appeared in Baltimore a few years back, almost out of the blue, peddling a redevelopment plan that he grandly called The Baltimore Renaissance. It would, he promised, transform the city.

More on Dhillon and the plan and my lamentable history of sitting around coffee shops waiting for him to turn up in a minute. But first, the news: Dhillon has filed to run for mayor of Baltimore, as an unaffiliated candidate.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Dhillon has no shortage of self confidence. He is either the world’s greatest salesman or a total fraud. Or maybe, he’s something in between. Maybe he’s just a man with a plan, with endless enthusiasm, even if, by most appearances, he lacks the wherewithal to pull it off.

The onus is on Dhillon to convince the skeptics.

‘Mt. Vernon to Mt. Vernon’

So we’re sitting in a coffee shop on Main Street in Annapolis the other night. Dhillon was three and a half hours late. Not that I was waiting the whole time; throughout the day, he rescheduled our meeting three different times.

He blamed traffic from Baltimore, even though I was under the impression he was going to be having meetings in Annapolis all day.

Dhillon says he is running for mayor because he has the “unique combination of skills” needed to fix the city’s problems.

“It’s going to have to take a change from the outside,” he said.

He also cited a recent poll that showed 77% of Baltimore voters have no faith in their government leaders. “That statistic to me was really earth-shattering.”

How will Baltimore voters regard Dhillon’s candidacy, if it registers at all? Probably with the same sort of bewilderment with which those who were paying attention regarded his campaign for the currently-dormant redevelopment plan.

Question one: Does Kahan Dhillon live in the city?

Yes, he insists, producing a temporary driver’s license issued in October, showing his address as 24 E. Madison St., which he says was a short-time residence he rented, then producing another, showing his address as 1209 N. Charles St., a condo he says he only recently bought to establish a full-time residence.

A cop or a bouncer at Seacrets in Ocean City might be able to tell whether the driver’s license is legit; I could not.

Dhillon says he’s delighted to be living in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

“It’s in the heart of the city,” he says. “It’s between the haves and the have-nots.”

What’s more, Dhillon reminds, he grew up in Mt. Vernon, Va., a stone’s throw from George Washington’s home. “The story here is Mt. Vernon to Mt. Vernon.”

It occurs to me that the first two times we met, it was at coffee shops in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon — both times at my suggestion.

1,017 meetings

What the hell is Kahan Dhillon up to?

Only Kahan Dhillon knows.

Dhillon burst on the scene with his Renaissance plan in 2016. He wasn’t from Baltimore. Nobody knew who he was.

He came to know and love the city, he said when asked, through a long-extinguished romance with a Baltimore resident. “I stayed in Baltimore because I was charmed by Charm City,” he said.

Through the force of his personality — or maybe because city residents are so understandably desperate for something, anything, to reverse the city’s tragic decline, Dhillon’s plan started to attract notice.

Although details of the proposal were scant, he held stakeholder meetings around the city to promote the idea — 1,017 in all, he told me the other day, with notable specificity. He attracted media attention, and by the summer of 2017 he won a coveted opportunity to present his plan to the City Council.

At that meeting, Dhillon was accompanied by about 50 T-shirt wearing fans — just a fraction, he told lawmakers, of the support he had around the city. A few Council members expressed skepticism about Dhillon’s plans and questioned him sharply. Others were generally supportive.

The Renaissance, as Dhillon outlined it, was a $10 billion plan that involved the city making available dozens of abandoned properties in all 14 City Council districts to his development company, which would then seek developers to build mixed-use projects. Dhillon wouldn’t actually do the building. As he envisioned it, the city would contract with him and a nonprofit he’d set up to lead a citywide master planning process that could take about three years. Oh, and he wanted the city to kick in $3.5 million to pay for the planning efforts.

People wondered: Where would the money come from? Who were Dhillon’s backers? Who was he working with? And, more to the point, who was this guy?

Dhillon provided few details. Journalists started trying to follow paper and electronic trails, and didn’t get very far, because so little was publicly available. (Ultimately, in early 2019, a five-part investigative podcast was released about Dhillon, called “Town of the Big House.” It’s interesting and worth a listen and raised a zillion legitimate questions — but didn’t quite come up with bankable answers, despite the reporters’ best efforts.)

Then a rumor started that Dhillon was an FBI informant. He tried to laugh it off. “Sure I’m FBI,” he would say — “For Baltimore’s interests.” (He’d later write a commentary for Maryland Matters in the fall of 2017 with the same theme.)

The posse

By the time I met Dhillon, it was late summer of 2017. We got together at the suggestion of a journalist who only recently had entered the world of PR. The ex-journalist, who I did not know well, couldn’t say enough about the guy. I didn’t know what to expect.

So Dhillon and I set a time to meet in Baltimore. I suggested a tiny coffee shop in Mt. Vernon, a place I like very much. He was probably an hour late — a flat tire on Interstate 95 while coming up from Virginia, an assistant informed me by email. No problem, I could do work while I waited.

I was completely unprepared for what was to follow. Dhillon pulled up in the alleyway where the coffee shop is with an entourage — two beefy guys, one black, one white, who looked like a security detail; a well-dressed, bookish-looking African-American woman, and at least another guy who looked like security who remained outside. Unfortunately, their names are lost to history.

Dhillon and his posse totally overwhelmed this tiny coffee joint. I was kind of embarrassed.

Then Dhillon started in on his pitch, as one of the guys with him opened an i-Pad and showed a very short slide show about the Renaissance plan. It would transform empty lots into thriving neighborhoods, Dhillon boasted. He intimated that former mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore Ravens Hall of Famer Ray Lewis were about to come on board in some capacity. The whole thing sounded too good to be true.

The main point Dhillon wanted to get across was that he was being stymied in his efforts to meet with then-mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) to pitch his idea — resistance he attributed to corruption and Baltimore’s pay-to-play culture. That part sounded plausible. But the simple fact was, I didn’t have the bandwidth to check out his claims — or to check him out. I figured I would get around to writing about Dhillon some day.

Months later — I don’t recall exactly when, though it was cold outside — Dhillon asked for another meeting, and while I was skeptical that it would lead to much, I agreed. I had learned my lesson and suggested a different coffee joint in Mt. Vernon, one considerably bigger than the last one.

Again, a late arrival. Again, the entourage. Again, the rant about municipal corruption. And this time, two new declarations — one, complaints that a reporter who had been interviewing had turned on him; the other, though the election was two years away, that he was thinking about running for mayor.

Once again, I filed it all away.

‘The most historic campaign in modern history’

After a while, Dhillon faded from public view. The city became consumed by its depressingly persistent high murder rate and the scandals swirling around Pugh. But now Dhillon is back, readying an improbable independent campaign for mayor.

He contacted me because he wanted to talk about the campaign. He asked to meet at a particular day and time in Baltimore. I said I couldn’t do it, I was hunkered down in Annapolis. He said no problem, I’ve got to be in Annapolis anyway, in just a couple of days. I said OK.

This time, Dhillon came alone. He pulled up in a red Mercedes sports car.

Dhillon said the final decision to run for mayor came after U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) died in late October. He started thinking about Cummings’ words and legacy.

“He said, ‘If you see others hurting and you can do something about it, do it. Don’t wait.’ That was a calling to me,” Dhillon said.

He says he’s superior to the leading Democratic candidates: “Which one of them doesn’t have some kind of issue that has been brought to light or is about to be brought to light? Me entering the race, I’m the only one that’s not a Baltimore politician. In the modern-day history of Baltimore politics, I’m an enigma.”

Dhillon said he’s poised to make history.

“The citizens of Baltimore have never had another option,” he said. “It’s arguably the most historic campaign in modern history, in the city’s history, because it’s never been done before.”

Why run as an unaffiliated candidate in Baltimore, a city with such strong Democratic leanings?

“I’m running as an independent voice for the people,” Dhillon replied. “I’m not going to be run by the party bosses. My ‘bosses’ will be the people themselves, and I’ll be bringing my resources, my experience, my plan to the table…I’m not going to be influenced by a few people sitting in a cigar room in the Inner Harbor.”

(It’s worth pointing out that other independent candidates may be eyeing the race, depending on how the Democratic primary shakes out.)

Over the course of the next hour, Dhillon barely took a breath. He talked about President Trump’s attacks on the city. He talked about his faith (he is a practicing Sikh). He talked about the city’s failing schools. He talked about offering to fix the city’s problems after last year’s ransomware attack, “using my connections,” but being rebuffed by government leaders. He talked about the relationship between Baltimore and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). He talked again and again about political corruption in the city.

Asked for details about the mechanics of his campaign — and where the money would come from — Dhillon said he would raise cash rather than self-fund, and predicted he would attract contributors from all over the nation.

And, he said, if he is elected mayor, he will be uniquely equipped to revise the Renaissance Plan, by creating a nonprofit “that’s representative of the citizens.”

Dhillon says he’s weighing campaign slogans, but likes this: “Expect more.”

But really, he said, it’s up to the voters: “If you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to keep getting the same result.”

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Josh Kurtz: Mystery Man Returns to Baltimore