Can a Blue Wave in a Blue State Make Ben Jealous Maryland’s First African American Governor?

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s fall 2018 magazine.

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Thirty-six governor’s mansions are up for grabs this November, and Ben Jealous, the 45-year-old former president of the NAACP turned venture capitalist, is on a mission to reclaim Maryland’s for the Democrats. In theory, this shouldn’t be such a heavy lift. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state, and Hillary Clinton swept it in 2016 by 26 points. The election carries some symbolic weight as well: If Jealous won, he would become the first African American governor of this former slave state where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman once toiled. Like his fellow black gubernatorial nominees, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, Jealous could make some history this November.

But the media and most political observers remain skeptical of Jealous’s prospects. His opponent, Republican Larry Hogan, who previously worked as a real-estate developer, has governed as a centrist, avoided major scandal, distanced himself from President Trump, and boasts a 70 percent approval rating. Hogan’s fundraising haul also dwarfs that of Jealous. Pundits say his popularity and available resources should insulate him from any sort of blue-wave midterm.

But Jealous, a towering six feet, four inches, isn’t fazed—and certainly isn’t running to the center. He’s convinced that the path to victory doesn’t require courting the moderate Democrats in Hogan’s camp, but galvanizing the many thousands of Democrats who stayed home on Election Day four years ago.

Running on Medicare for All, ending mass incarceration, fully funding public schools, legalizing marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, public infrastructure investments, universal pre-K, and tuition-free college, Jealous’s platform is a grab bag of unabashed progressive demands. “If we’re unafraid to be Democrats, we will win,” he told me in August.

Jealous’s campaign presents an interesting test case, not only for the Old Line State, but for the Democratic Party writ large. Though he failed to win the endorsement of much of the statewide liberal elite during the primary season, he ended up carrying 22 of the state’s 24 counties, beating out the presumed frontrunner by 10 points in a packed field of nine candidates—all while refusing corporate contributions, something no other gubernatorial candidate in Maryland has ever done.

“We won overwhelmingly in a very crowded primary by a big margin precisely because Marylanders are eager for us to solve problems at scale,” he says. “They want us to stop nibbling around the edges.”

In 2016, Jealous endorsed Bernie Sanders for president early on, quickly becoming one of Sanders’s most vocal and important surrogates during the primaries. Now in 2018, Jealous has chosen as his lieutenant-governor running mate Susie Turnbull, a party insider and 2016 Clinton supporter, in the hope that the Bernie-Hillary divide can be overcome with the right team, attitude, and message.

For Jealous, Election Day will be a referendum on incrementalism—and a measure of just how potent the state’s progressive movement really is.

JEALOUS’S STRATEGY IS ROOTED in the numbers. The Democrats project that the state’s electorate will hit 2.1 million voters this November, and “if we turn out one million voters to the polls, we win,” he says. Republican gubernatorial candidates, he likes to remind the public, have never secured more than 900,000 votes in this blue state, and in 2014, a cycle with markedly low turnout, Hogan won with only 884,400 votes, beating out his Democratic opponent by a 66,000-vote margin. Four years earlier, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley sailed to re-election with more than a million ballots cast in his favor. Democrats are banking on 2018 looking a lot more like 2010 than 2014.

What went wrong four years ago?

“There just didn’t seem to be as much at stake,” says Mark McLaurin, the political director for SEIU 500, which endorsed Jealous in the primary. “In 2014, we still had President Obama, most core Democratic constituencies considered 2016 in the bag, there wasn’t a sense of urgency, and the Democrats just didn’t have a very robust field operation.” McLaurin, an operative who has worked in Maryland campaigns for the past 20 years, says he “never saw a quieter Election Day in Baltimore City than in the 2014 general.”

The Democratic contender that year was former Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, a relatively uninspiring candidate who waged a muted campaign. He still won Baltimore City and other reliably Democratic counties, but the number of votes was way down. Baltimore City was down 13 percent from 2010, Prince George’s County was down by 5 percent, and Montgomery County dropped by 9 percent.

“In certain parts of Maryland, there’s a feeling that the real race is the primary,” says Roxie Herbekian, president of the UNITE HERE local in Baltimore City. “With Anthony Brown, we worked really hard to get him to be the nominee, and after that everyone kind of relaxed, his campaign relaxed, and then it wasn’t until the last two weeks that we were like, ‘Oh shit, what the hell is going on.’” Herbekian says this year, “no one is taking anything for granted.”

Aside from awakening from 2014 complacency, the other major difference between that midterm election and the fast-approaching one is a man named Donald Trump. A poll released in June found that 46 percent of Maryland Democrats ranked “removing Donald Trump from office” as their number-one priority. While Hogan has tried to walk a careful tightrope as a centrist Republican who distances himself from the president or stays quiet on federal policy, November is the first opportunity most voters have to voice their opposition to the nation’s historically unpopular president. That, combined with the looming 2020 census and the fact that half of all legislators drawing the congressional redistricting maps in 2021 will be elected this year, makes this a higher-stakes midterm than the last.

Beyond riding the blue wave, Jealous’s campaign is banking on two strategies to improve Democratic margins: progressive policy solutions, and an aggressive voter turnout effort.

In 2014, the Democratic-coordinated campaign in Maryland had a total of 15 field organizers on the ground. This year, 27 Democratic organizers were hired by August, with near 70 active across the state by September.

Jealous also points to the political team he has assembled, which produced the turnout that led to O’Malley’s 2010 victory. In that year, Turnbull, Jealous’s running mate, was the chair of the state Democratic Party; his campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar, was executive director of the state party; and David Sloan, who is now running the statewide coordinated campaign for all Democratic candidates, was the state party’s political director. “The NAACP was involved too, and together we turned out more than a million voters,” says Jealous. Turnbull, Tazelaar, and Sloan pointedly did not lead the 2014 political effort, and Jealous had also left the civil rights organization by that time.

His team also hopes for some help from the many resistance groups that have sprung up since 2016.

Chris Pickett, a science policy analyst in Montgomery County, joined the national grassroots organization Indivisible after Trump won. He founded Indivisible Montgomery in December 2016, and says his group grew from 15 friends to 1,400 members in just six weeks. (With “Indivisible MoCo” and “Indivisible Montgomery County,” Pickett’s county actually boasts three separate Indivisible chapters, a reality he chalks up to people wanting to focus on different things, and a lot of natural leaders in the region.)

“For the vast majority of our members, this is their first time being an activist,” Pickett says, noting that he’s a newcomer to activism, too. Indivisible Montgomery generally steers clear of Maryland Senate and House of Delegates races, but has focused its energies on flipping Congress and the Maryland governor’s seat. “We sent a bunch of people down to Virginia for Ralph Northam; we had people go up to Pennsylvania for Conor Lamb; we phone-banked for the special election in Ohio,” he says. “We want to put a check on the federal government, and we recognize voting is the biggest way we can make our voices heard.” While Pickett’s chapter did not make an endorsement in the Maryland gubernatorial primary, he says his members have been eager to dive into the general.

The story is similar across the state. In Baltimore City, an Indivisible chapter formed after Trump’s inauguration and has met every two weeks since. In the beginning, according to member Jennay Ghowrwal, they focused almost exclusively on federal issues. But as time went on, Indivisible Baltimore decided to get involved in the Virginia election, and targeted a Republican state delegate seat in a district that Clinton won in 2016. “We organized carpools down there, knocked on 10,000 doors, and when the Republican lost in 2017, we all just realized how energizing that was,” she says. In 2018, they focused on passing automatic voter registration—something Indivisible Baltimore and other chapters managed to achieve in Maryland’s latest legislative session. (The policy will go into effect in 2019.) Now Ghowrwal says her group is ready to elect Jealous, someone they feel will do a better job than Hogan at standing up to Trump.

Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based strategist working to elect Jealous, put it this way: “It’s not that I automatically think people are hooked into the governor’s race, but there’s a level of civic engagement in Baltimore and statewide spurred by the Trump administration and the school shootings and the Annapolis shooting that is very different than it was four years ago,” she says. “In a way, people have been feeling very anxious. The issues in communities feel scarier, more intense, and in many ways more political.”

BUT CAN JEALOUS, A first-time candidate who ran as an outsider, get the insiders in his camp?

In the primary, most of the state’s Democratic establishment lined up behind Rushern Baker, the outgoing county executive in Prince George’s County, who ran a campaign premised on the idea that he could win back some Hogan voters in 2018. Baker, a Clinton supporter in 2016, claimed endorsements from former Governor O’Malley, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and State Attorney General Brian Frosh. (The Baltimore Sun endorsed Jealous, while The Washington Post backed Baker.)

Jealous, on the other hand, says he’s not wasting his time trying to win back the moderate Democrats who will vote for Hogan, arguing that there’s simply not that many of them. (Although, exit polls found that 23 percent of Democratic voters cast their ballots for Hogan in 2014, and a poll released in early June found that 24 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they planned to vote for Hogan in November.)

In June, a few dozen Maryland Democrats came out with endorsements for Hogan, though most were older white men who hadn’t served in office for years. Others had received political appointments from the governor, or had records of supporting Republican candidates in the past. The only statewide elected Democrat to back Hogan was 84-year-old Melvin Steinberg, who served as lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1995. In 1998, Steinberg endorsed Republican Ellen Sauerbrey for governor, a candidate opposed to abortion rights and gun control.

“We’ve seen this before,” Jealous says dismissively when I ask him about Democratic endorsements for his opponent. “There’s literally nothing happening in the Hogan campaign that wasn’t happening in the [Robert] Ehrlich campaign, and Ehrlich was a one-term bird, and Hogan will be a one-termer, too.” Ehrlich served as Maryland’s Republican governor from 2003 to 2007, and lost his re-election campaign to O’Malley by 6.5 points despite commanding a 55 percent approval rating at the time. Jealous’s team says Ehrlich’s defeat is instructive, and should give confidence to those who hear about Hogan’s high approval rating. The 2006 election also featured the last Democratic wave, as popular disapproval of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq swept the Democrats back in control of Congress.

After the June primary, all the gubernatorial candidates quickly came together to back Jealous, though some other state Democratic leaders have been slower to voice their support. The long-serving state senate president, Mike Miller, initially offered only mild enthusiasm for Jealous, having praised Hogan for his bipartisanship work. The outgoing executive of affluent Montgomery County, Isiah Leggett, said Jealous’s support for a millionaire tax and redistributing more state funds to poorer school districts left him ambivalent about an endorsement. Senator Cardin and Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch gave Jealous their blessing, but made a point to highlight their disagreement with him on such issues as single-payer health care.

“We have to be clear about what happened here,” says Bob Muehlenkamp, chair of Our Revolution Maryland, the group that formed out of the 2016 Sanders campaign, which backed Jealous early on. “Not a single elected Democratic official came out for Ben in the primary, which means we defeated the established Democratic Party of the state of Maryland. What does it say about a party that will not unequivocally work now to throw out a Republican governor in the era of Trump?”

Muehlenkamp chalks the electeds’ reticence up to “how miserably corporate” the Democratic Party is in Maryland. “It’s a corporate-controlled party, and they can use all the dog whistles they want about how they think his policies can’t win, or he’s too far out on Medicare for All, or we can’t do $15 minimum wage right now, but the truth is they want Ben Jealous to lose, because he would disrupt their nice little in-crowd club, and they’d rather make peace with whatever governor there is—even in the age of Trump.”

McLaurin of SEIU 500 says the recent primary suggests it’s not that important how quickly or slowly the stragglers from the Democratic establishment decide to get on board, because the primary results indicate a new generation of progressives are poised to disrupt the party. Not only did Jealous sweep the state by a considerable margin, but a number of progressive challengers down-ballot also defeated longtime Democratic incumbents. Among those unseated were the chair of the state Senate Finance Committee and the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “This is the kind of year where voters just aren’t taking the normal political cues,” McLaurin says.

JEALOUS ISN’T CAMPAIGNING on “making Maryland great again,” but he does talk a lot about “restoring the promise of Maryland.”

Jealous describes the promise of Maryland as one where his grandfather could attend a year of law school at the University of Maryland in the late 1950s for $200 in tuition. Today, Jealous says, if tuition had kept up with inflation, the cost for students would be about $2,600. Instead, it’s more than $31,000. “There’s nothing outlandish about saying we want millennials to get the same deal the Greatest Generation got,” Jealous said to a crowd of young political activists this summer.

The promise of Maryland, Jealous also likes to say, is one where a guy like him could have a mother born and raised in Baltimore public housing, who one day sends her son off to Columbia University and then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Jealous has long been an activist. In college, he led protests, boycotts, and pickets for such issues as preserving financial aid and homelessness rights. He was ultimately suspended for his rabble-rousing, and moved down to Mississippi to work as an organizer, later becoming a local reporter in Jackson. When he eventually returned to Columbia, he graduated with a political science degree, and went to study comparative social research at Oxford. He spent the decade after that leading an association of black community newspapers, directing the U.S. human rights program at Amnesty International, and doing a one-year stint training to be a priest.

In 2008, at age 35, he became the youngest person to ever take the helm of the NAACP. This was a controversial pick given his youth and lack of close ties to the movement. But Julian Bond, the longtime chair of the organization, pushed hard for Jealous, believing in his potential.

Under Jealous’s half-decade of leadership, the NAACP, headquartered in Maryland, helped pass the state’s DREAM Act, its referendum on gay marriage, and the abolition of Maryland’s death penalty. The Baltimore Sun named him “Marylander of the Year” in 2013 for his accomplishments.

Some analysts worry about Jealous’s uncompromising platform, which says Democrats can do it all, Democrats can do it soon, and Marylanders can afford it. (He regularly reminds crowds that Maryland has the highest median household income of any state in the country.) “This campaign is fundamentally about big ideas versus small ideas,” he tells me. “When times were darkest in this nation, FDR called on us to think big. He understood that we need whole solutions to whole problems.”

I asked McLaurin of SEIU if he’s worried that Jealous’s emphasis on issues like single-payer health care and ending mass incarceration might turn off white, moderate voters.

“What I will say is that most statewide officials—even your progressive ones—are very pragmatic, institutionalist,” he answered. “Even O’Malley was just an innately cautious politician who really wanted to put his finger to the wind, and he was not going to move on an issue until it was shown it would not be fatal to his own ambition.” To an extent he has never seen, McLaurin continued, Jealous has been “forthright in what he believes, even if it’s not always the safest thing. I think that authenticity is something the electorate is looking for.”

FOR ALL HIS BREAK-the-mold leftism, Jealous has consistently identified himself as a venture capitalist, touting his belief in market-driven social change. In the five years since he left the NAACP, Jealous worked at Kapor Capital, where he led investments in small businesses that target underserved communities. (One of his favorite companies, Pigeonly, slashed the costs of making phone calls home from prison.)

Jealous emphasizes his opposition to “crony capitalism” and to big corporations, those that pour their profits back into dividends and buybacks for shareholders. He’s criticized the way Maryland leaders have tripped over themselves with tax breaks to entice Amazon to build its new headquarters in their state. Jealous’s economic vision, he explains, is built on taking risks on entrepreneurs and small business owners, what he calls “community-based” capitalism. Early this year, Discovery Communications, a Fortune 500 company, announced it was relocating its Maryland headquarters to New York. Jealous pointed to this as evidence of the dangers of relying on big companies for economic security. Figuring out how to help small businesses thrive, like those at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, he says, is where there’s untapped potential for prosperity and job growth.

When I asked Jealous what he makes of the recent Gallup polling that showed 57 percent of Democrats viewed socialism positively, and whether he’s creating space for those who don’t see “socialism” as a dirty word, he didn’t directly answer.

“I’m just not interested in parlor debates about what we call ourselves,” he said. “I’m very intentional about building a big tent, and bringing in people who voted for Bernie, for Trump, for Hillary.”

But sometimes Jealous’s efforts to dispel notions that he’s a tax-and-spend radical can seem over the top. Over the summer, Hogan called Jealous a “far-left socialist” in a New York Times interview. A Washington Post reporter followed up by asking Jealous if he identified with the socialist label. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he responded brusquely. (He later apologized for his language.) And when the Republican Governors Association funded a TV ad featuring Jealous on MSNBC saying, “Go ahead, call me a socialist” but cut off the rest of his sentence where he had said, “it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a venture capitalist,” the Jealous campaign demanded that local stations pull the ad for being too false and misleading. (Stations refused.)

These sometimes too-rash reactions to conservative provocation hark back to an incident from 2010, when, as NAACP head, Jealous called for the firing of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, after a viral Breitbart video showed her talking about discriminating against a white farmer. When it became clear the Breitbart video had been highly edited to misrepresent Sherrod’s remarks, Jealous apologized and retracted the NAACP’s statement. It was an embarrassing moment and he calls the episode the lowest point of his professional career.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Hogan has accused Jealous of trying to “nationalize” the governor’s race. Critics also blasted Jealous during the primary for taking some $600,000 from wealthy liberals in California and New York, a level of outside spending typically unheard of in a Maryland gubernatorial election. Jealous dismisses both criticisms, noting his campaign had more Maryland donors, and smaller donations on average, than any of his primary opponents’. “To the extent that we had out-of-state donations, they tended to fill the hole that we created when we refused corporate contributions,” he says, adding that it’s Hogan who has nationalized the race, by failing to stand up to the Trump administration.

These rebuttals can land fairly awkwardly at times—Hogan has made more efforts than other Republicans to distance himself from Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, and Jealous is running on a platform based partly on standing up to both.

But it’s true that Hogan’s distancing has also been inconsistent and sometimes tepid. When he failed to denounce the Muslim travel ban at the start of 2017, hundreds protested outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. Hogan dismissed the pressure at the time, saying he didn’t see protesting Trump’s policies as “his role.” Over the past year, however, as Trump’s polling hit the skids, he changed his tune. By June 2018, Hogan recalled Maryland’s National Guard unit (all of four soldiers) from the U.S.-Mexico border in protest of the president’s child separation policy.

Jealous is confident that as the general election heats up—as the spotlight starts shining more brightly on Hogan’s record, and voters get a chance to hear Jealous’s message—his campaign will grow more powerful. His campaign’s internal polling showed that as of July, one-third of Maryland voters, and one-quarter of the state’s Democratic voters, still did not know who Jealous was.

Some local political experts caution against reading too much into Republican Bob Ehrlich’s 2006 loss when it comes to analyzing the tea leaves for November. Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor, pointed out that Hogan’s lead over his Democratic challenger is much higher than Ehrlich’s was at the time, and that Ehrlich was also much more closely tied to President Bush and the national Republican Party than Hogan is to Trump. Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political science professor, adds that Ehrlich was considered both a more confrontational and a lazier leader, a politician who made many unforced errors.

Does that mean Hogan is invulnerable? Polling has consistently shown the number of people who approve of the governor exceeds those who plan to vote for him. And the Trump factor could be very real. In 2016, Anne Arundel County, a longtime red region of Maryland, went for Clinton, the first time a Democratic contender won the county in more than 50 years.

In his own way, Hogan, no less than Jealous, senses that Maryland is moving left. This past July, he announced a new student debt relief plan, and declared he would not accept donations or an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He took the NRA’s money and endorsement back in 2014, a year the group gave him an A- rating.

“I honestly don’t think Jealous could have won a Democratic primary four years ago,” says McLaurin, who describes Maryland as a wait-your-turn kind of political state. “With Ben Jealous, it was not his turn by any measure. He’s never been elected to anything ever, his running mate has never been elected to anything ever. But they say in politics, a lot of it is timing, and I think 2018 is the pairing of the right man for the right moment.”

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