By Brooks DuBose
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Ben Jealous is exhausted but optimistic.
The Democratic candidate for Maryland governor conceded as much in an Oct. 15 interview with Capital News Service.
“You can see I’m a little weary after 500 days of … campaigning, but I am extremely optimistic that we’ll win this general the same way we won the primary,” Jealous said. “We’’l defy every pollster and every pundit. Then we’ll win.”
Jealous–former NAACP president and biracial son of two Maryland school teachers–was an unlikely winner of a packed Democratic primary race this summer, despite polls showing him trailing by double digits.
He now faces an even steeper test in November as he seeks to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a popular incumbent with sky-high approval ratings, to become the first African-American governor in state history.
Though Maryland Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one, a Gonzales poll in October showed Hogan with an 18-point advantage; and another this month by The Washington Post and University of Maryland showed him ahead by 20.
“It makes it a really tough time for anybody, particularly someone who really has not been on the airwaves at all” to reach voters, said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. “He’s still unknown to a lot of voters.”
The Democratic Governors Association placed their first ad buys of the general election in late October while pro-Jealous political action committees have begun releasing ads as well.
Jealous’ journey since he declared his candidacy in May 2017 has been an uphill battle.
Jealous and his running mate, Susie Turnbull, the former chair of the Maryland state Democratic Party from 2009 to 2011, won the primary election by more than 10 percentage points among nine candidates, including the presumed favorite, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.
Soon after, the former NAACP president was beset by Hogan’s cash-rich re-election campaign which, along with the Republican Governors Association, has spent millions on political ads relentlessly defining Jealous as an out-of-touch socialist whose campaign promises would ruin Maryland’s economy.
At times, Jealous has not helped himself on the campaign trail. In August, he used an expletive in a response to a reporter’s question. And his campaign inexplicably vetoed another reporter from participating in the lone debate of the race. He reversed his position after significant public backlash.
Jealous acknowledged the difficulties that come with facing a popular incumbent but said he takes pride in running a clean campaign–taking no money from pharmaceutical companies or corporate political action committees as well as investing in few if any negative ads against Hogan. This strategy appeals to independents and undecided voters as well as working-class voters, he said.
“Too long our party has allowed corporations to have too much influence on its agenda,” Jealous told Capital News Service. “And frankly to mute the voices of working people in the working people’s party. It’s important that we increasingly move towards a place where we center (on) the demands of working people.”
Despite the more than 500 days that have passed since Jealous, 45, declared his intentions to run for governor in Maryland, the former president and CEO of the NAACP hasn’t stopped sharing his personal story to connect with voters on the campaign trail.
He is a storyteller; he’s good at it, and he clearly enjoys it.
No Jealous rally or stump speech is complete without mention of his parents or the time his grandmother, Mamie Todd, a Baltimore native, taught a young Barbara Mikulski, the former Maryland U.S. senator, a lesson in self-confidence.
“My story is a very Maryland story,” said Jealous, who lives in Pasadena, Maryland. “I am the father of two Maryland public school kids. I’m the son of two Maryland public school teachers who fell in love 52 years ago when their marriage was against the law because he’s white and she’s black.”
Jealous’ mother, Ann, and his father, Fred, hid their relationship because mixed-race marriages were illegal in Maryland until 1967. They got married in Washington, D.C., and soon left to raise their family in California.
During his childhood, Jealous’ parents would send him to stay with his grandparents in Baltimore.
“There is no place like home and for me, that’s Maryland,” he said.
Jealous is a lifelong civil rights activist. While earning a political science degree at Columbia University, Jealous worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as an organizer and led protests against the closing of historically black and colleges and universities in Mississippi. He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at St Antony’s College in Oxford, earning a master’s degree in comparative social research. He then worked for the human rights organization Amnesty International advocating for prison reform.
He married Lia Epperson, a former NAACP lawyer, in 2002 and had two children who now attend Maryland public schools. The couple divorced in 2015.
In 2008, Jealous was elected president and CEO of the NAACP at age 35. As the youngest NAACP head ever, Jealous championed issues like ending mass incarceration, expanding voting rights and passing marriage equality.
Jealous is quick to mention he was awarded Marylander of the Year by The Sun in 2013 for his work abolishing the death penalty, contributed to passing the Maryland DREAM Act, same-sex marriage and expanding voting rights among minority voters. He said those accomplishments are what Maryland voters look for in a governor.
“Fundamentally people expect the governor to lead to get big things done,” Jealous said. “That’s my track record.”
One of his notable accomplishments is registering 375,000 voters through the NAACP and helping turn out more than a million new voters nationwide for the 2012 presidential election.
He is hoping to ride a similar “blue wave” in November by establishing a network of campaign volunteers and turning out a million Democratic voters in Maryland. His campaign intends to have more than 50 organizers stationed across the state on Election Day compared to the 10 employed in 2014.
“We’ve built a massive army of volunteers across the state now operating out of 25 offices … and we are staying focused on a very positive message,” Jealous said.
Jealous has received a slew of high profile endorsements, including national Democratic leaders like former President Barack Obama, past Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) among others.
“It sends a signal that I am a Democrat who can unify our party,” Jealous said of his impressive list of endorsements. “I’m also a Maryland leader who can get the attention of national leaders when we need their help.”
Booker has campaigned for Jealous in recent weeks.
“Ben Jealous is the better candidate,” Booker said to the college-aged voters who packed a bar in College Park, Maryland, in early October, urging them to turn out in support.
Some state Democratic leaders have been less enthusiastic about endorsing Jealous’ campaign, either abstaining from endorsing anyone in the race, like Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, or, in the case of a few others, like state Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), crossing party lines and endorsed Hogan.
When he’s not sharing his personal experiences on the campaign trail, Jealous is highlighting his progressive platform.
As governor, Jealous said, he would seek to reduce Maryland’s prison population by a third, an initiative he championed at the NAACP. This would free up revenue for affordable college for students who for too long have been saddled by crippling loan debt after graduation, he said.
“You all are getting ripped off,” Jealous said of college students. “And every family I’ve met wants you guys to get a better deal.”
Jealous has also proposed greatly increasing school funding, giving teachers a 29 percent pay raise and paying for universal pre-Kindergarten by legalizing recreational marijuana, generating $350 million in annual tax revenues, he said.
“We need to make sure every kindergartener shows up ready to learn, and that means we need universal, full-day pre-K for every four-year-old in Maryland,” Jealous said.
Hogan has exceeded school funding quotas during his first term, but Jealous points to Maryland’s slip in national rankings as a reason to place more money into the education system.
“The reality is that we could be doing a lot better than we’re doing right now and it’s also true that Governor Hogan has a plan for improving none of this,” Jealous told Capital News Service. “You would think he might have a plan (to improve the state’s education system), getting them back to first in the country–he couldn’t do it.”
When the two debated in September, Jealous criticized Hogan for not having a plan to improve Maryland’s education system, even ceding the floor to the governor so he could articulate his plan.
And while Hogan and a bipartisan group of state legislators worked in the 2018 General Assembly session to stabilize the state’s healthcare market, Jealous has campaigned on moving to a Medicare-for-all system to control healthcare cost increases and prevent additional long-term spending.
“We’ve got Republicans to come over (to my campaign), especially small-business people, who are concerned about healthcare costs,” Jealous said. “And they’ve figured out that we need to do just like any other industrialized nation does and that means moving to Medicare for all.”
Though voters may approve of Jealous’ progressive proposals–a Goucher poll from September found that the majority of those polled approved of higher minimum wage, Medicare for all and marijuana legalization–they may balk at how much it would cost. Maryland is more moderate than the 2-to-1 Democratic advantage would imply, said John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“I think people agree with Jealous’ ideas,” he said. “The problem is, they don’t agree about where the money is going to come from and it’s going to come from tax dollars.”
With less than a week until Election Day, Jealous knows he will need all the help he can get if he is to unseat Hogan, but that isn’t shaking his optimism.
“We’re going to contest this right up to the last minute and stay focused on making sure that people know who I am and what I’m fighting for,” Jealous said. “I’ve fought a lot of tough fights in my life and I’ve won a lot more than I’ve lost and I only know how to plan for a victory.”