As a young man Sen. Cory McCray was headed for a prison cell not the Maryland General Assembly.
McCray, a teenage drug dealer, was repeatedly arrested on the streets of east Baltimore, including an arrest while in possession of a handgun. His life, however, changed direction when he found an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Now, 37, married, and a father of four, McCray wants all Baltimore’s children to have that same chance. As a senator representing much of east Baltimore, and as a member of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, he said he’s working to provide those opportunities.
McCray spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
The Daily Record: As someone who was born and raised here, tell me a little bit about how you view Baltimore, and how your experiences as a black man have shaped that view?
Sen. Cory McCray: I faced many of the same challenges that a lot of young men (and) young women across the city of Baltimore have faced.
I went to a number of schools. … The most challenging year that I had was my 12th grade year because I actually failed that grade. …I always say by the grace of God I was able to find the IBEW Local 24 apprenticeship program.
It’s funny because my mom actually called the Department of Labor and said, “Send me every apprenticeship program that you have in the state,” and told me to go fill out applications.
What that did was it took me out of the four-by-four-block radius that I was so familiar with, and so limited to and opened up a vast amount of experiences … while also giving me an education, and also teaching me a trade.
I look at Baltimore city as a place to be able to raise a family with so much opportunity from an economic standpoint, from an educational standpoint… and just a place that’s on the rise.
TDR: Tell me a little bit about the role you think (trades and organized labor) can play to broaden the economic (opportunities) that people are clamoring for here in the city?
McCray: So I think it’s important to understand the opportunity that we have, currently, with our youth. They have such tremendous talent.
Just look at our “squeegee kids” who are hustlers. Look at our young people that are probably in and out of the juvenile justice system because of acts that they shouldn’t be committing, (but) trying their best to elevate within a space at a challenging time.
Look at the folks selling bottled water (at intersections)…or just look at the young people that’s doing the right thing in reference to participating in Youth Works (summer job program).
So all of these young people, they’re all hungry and they’re a workforce that’s readily accessible.
I think that the unique opportunity for the trades specifically … is that you have a workforce that is diminishing over a period of time because we don’t have enough folks in the trades, whether you’re talking about electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters, fitters, so on, and so on.
So there’s an opportunity for our building trades to increase the (number of new workers)…
TDR: Tell me about how you bounced back from (failing your senior year of high school)? What can you tell people about how that shaped how you lead, and what you learned from that experience that helps you as a leader?
McCray: So the challenge is that our young boys don’t always have the people around them, and the influences around them, just the scenes around their neighborhood to kind of thrive and grow up. Keep in mind that I grew up in a single family household with my mom. My mom was raising myself, and my little sister, and when those young people, especially our young boys, see our moms struggling you want to do something about it.
Many people, and not many people, know that I was in and out of the juvenile (justice) system.
(I was) incarcerated every year of my teenage life for a handgun starting at the age of 13 … and would spend two times over the Baltimore City Jail as an adult…
A lot of folks ask the question, “Why am I committed to (improving opportunities for youthful offenders)?” Because I know that there were many times where people gave up on myself, and told (me), “I just can’t see you being anything in his life. I just can’t see you moving forward.”
I think that it is equally important to let them know that “Yes, you can come out of these circumstances.”