Q&A: Ben Jealous talks universal health care, weed, his progressive roots and more

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Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Jealous might just be the only gubernatorial candidate for 2018 who could bolster his run by getting handcuffed at the White House.

A Rhodes Scholar who served as president of the NAACP from 2008 to 2013, Jealous has built his resume with a blend of experience in scholarship, civil disobedience and, more recently, social impact investing. Last August, he made the news for getting arrested outside the White House with 26 others rallying against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. He’s also appeared alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at rallies this year and earned endorsements from the progressive darling politician and others early on in his campaign.

Jealous grew up in California, but his Baltimore blood runs thick. He spent his summers in the Ashburton neighborhood with his grandmother, a social worker, and grandfather, a probation officer who served the city for 30 years. His parents, a white father from New England and a black mother who grew up in West Baltimore’s McCulloh Homes, were trained organizers who fought segregation around the city.

Seated at a booth inside Roland Park’s Evergreen Café, Jealous explains to Baltimore Fishbowl how his roots inspired his progressive platform for Maryland – universal health care, cannabis legalization, 100 percent reliance on renewable energy included – and his plans to beat eight other Dems to try to unseat Gov. Larry Hogan.

Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

Baltimore Fishbowl: As a progressive political outsider, how do you plan to distinguish yourself from your more established Democratic challengers in a blue state?

I’ve spent my life puling people together to get big things done. We’ll win this primary, we’ll win the general, the same way that we’ll govern afterwards. We’ll build a bigger, more robust coalition of Marylanders than most think is possible.

I was named the Marylander of the Year by The Baltimore Sun five years ago because the year before, 2012, I led the successful campaign to abolish the death penalty, just a couple years after the then-governor [Martin O’Malley] had tried and failed. I co-chaired the successful effort to pass the DREAM Act. We put organizers on the ground to pass marriage equality. In each case, they told us there was just no way that we would succeed at any of those. And we got all of them done.

BFB: What would you say to critics who might slight you for a lack of experience serving in elected office?

I have as much or more executive experience than anyone in this race. I’ve been a CEO or a partner in a small business since I was 26 years old. When you’re trained outside of politics as an executive, when you’re trained to lead in the real world, you learn quickly how to have tough conversations with love, and pull people together to make hard decisions about budgets and priorities.

When you’re trained in politics, oftentimes your incentives are misaligned. You’re told, “Hey if you have that conversation you could lose your job.” But when you’re trained in the real world, if you don’t have that conversation you could you could lose everything – the organization, the business, your livelihood, everything.

Voters will find in me someone who speaks plainly, and who, like them, knows how to treat everybody as an adult, have an honest conversation about the budget and priorities, pull folks together to make the decisions that need to be made so that we can all move forward together. A classic example: We’ve been stuck for decades with chronic underfunding of our public schools. The state portion of the underfunding, according to the Kirwin Commission consultants, is approximately [$2.9] billion. That’s less than 5 percent of our state budget.

In two decades of being an executive or being a CEO or business partner, I’ve never met a budget I couldn’t optimize by 5 percent. You talk to budget experts down in Annapolis, they’ll tell you that the money’s there. We ask them, “Well if the money’s there, why aren’t we doing the right thing and fully funding our schools?” They’ll tell you, “People are afraid of making tough decisions.” I’m afraid of not making tough decisions.

BFB: Gov. Hogan has generally avoided criticizing or praising the Trump administration, sort of keeping his hands off. Would you approach the job differently?

[Laughing] I’m the only candidate who’s gone to jail outside of Trump’s White House, protesting his mistreatment of our DREAMers. I went because DREAMers in Maryland asked me, and just two weeks earlier one of them had been found dead in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Texas trying to get back to see his family in Maryland after having been deported to Mexico.

I have a long history of standing up to bullies like Trump, just as my parents did. My dad was one of the few white guys in Baltimore to go to jail repeatedly in the protests to desegregate our downtown. My mom’s 77 years old, she desegregated Western High School for girls when she was 15.

Trump is hellbent on destroying what’s left of our public health safety net. I’m the only candidate who’s put out a plan to make sure everyone in Maryland has health care, no matter what happens in Washington.

Hogan has joined Trump and Attorney General Sessions in calling for a return to the failed War on Drugs. I’ve spent a quarter century fighting for criminal justice reform that actually makes us safe. I’ve successfully worked with governors from Georgia to Texas to California and Iowa to downsize their state’s prison systems, increase employment for formerly incarcerated people and embrace proven, smart and safe strategies for criminal justice reform.

BFB: Specifically for Baltimore, what would you do to address crime, and to handle police and sentencing reform?

Those of us who live and work in Baltimore can be much safer than we are right now. It starts by embracing what works and resisting the urge to return to failed policies that might make us feel tougher but ultimately make us less safe.

We need to rapidly expand the Safe Streets program. Here in Baltimore, wherever the Safe Streets program operates, shootings fall on average 26 percent, and yet historically it’s been acting in about four neighborhoods. I think recently, we’re expanding it slightly. It needs to be at least in every police precinct, and ideally in every neighborhood that’s struggling with violence – dozens of neighborhoods, not a handful.

What we’ve learned from violence interrupter programs is that folks in the community can often do a better job in stopping the next killing than the police can. We need to give them the respect and the resources that they need and deserve to do that across the city.

We need to make sure that the police are properly trained and resourced to succeed at their jobs. I’ve had two family members shot in Maryland in the past 10 years. When your family is grieving because someone’s been shot, your first emotion is you never want this to happen to us again, and the second is you don’t want this to happen to anybody else.

What it teaches you is you have to embrace everything that works. It starts with violence interrupter services, changing how we do victim services so that every crime victim gets the help they need regardless of whether they’ve yet reported the crime or not. You take the wisdom of the Safe Streets program, you apply it to victim services, and you employ people from the community to serve people in the community who have been victims of crime and help them navigate their next steps.

With regards to the police, we need to adopt best practices for recruiting officers, for testing officers and, frankly, weeding out candidates who might be prone to unnecessary violence, and training them and retraining them at least every six months as they do in other western countries in the use of force and in de-escalation. We also have to make sure that they’re properly staffed, especially in the special victims unit, the homicide unit, the crime labs and those that support them.

It’s time for us to get back to putting first things first, to focusing on solving the most serious crimes first, to moving away from the “broken windows” strategy.

BFB: How would you expand Maryland’s reliance on renewable energy as governor?

When I’m governor, making Maryland 100 percent reliant on clean and renewable energy will be our moonshot. Approximately two-thirds of that will need to come from offshore wind. We will therefore focus on becoming the regional center for the production of wind turbines and related equipment so that our state’s economy can benefit fully from our investment in wind and solar energy.

BFB: Do you envision cannabis becoming a major issue in election season? What’s your stance on the evolving medical scheme, and potentially full-on legalization?

I support the legalization and taxation of adult use of cannabis. Folks have begun to talk about and understand the high level of racial discrimination in the enforcement of our cannabis laws. We need to move beyond college students’ lives being shattered because they were in possession of a small quantity of marijuana, and they were black or brown. And, unfortunately, it’s just that simple…The use is almost constant across racial groups, but the enforcement is hugely disproportional in black and brown communities.

Weed is weed. Drug entrepreneurs find it very easy to source, and they end up encroaching on each other’s territory. At the same time, the profits go into the street gangs that are involved in a range of horrific activities, including sex trafficking.

It’s time for us to have an adult conversation about cannabis and how we regulate it in a way that stops the patterns of abuse and violence that’s associated with the status quo. When you look at cities and states where it’s been legalized, what you see is that violence goes down. There’s reason to believe that the use of opioids may go down as well, and tax revenues go up in ways that help us better serve addicts, and better fund education and infrastructure. I look forward to a robust, reality-based, evidence-based conversation about cannabis policy in this election season.

BFB: What’s the best advice you’ve received regarding running for office?

The best advice I received about leading came from my grandmother. My grandmother’s 101 years old, she was a social worker in the city for decades….My grandma would always tell me a few basic things: 1. Listen before you lead; 2. Plan your work and work your plan; and 3. You can never half-solve a problem. You’ve gotta solve the whole problem. And that’s what I’ve sought to do in this campaign. We are running a disciplined campaign that’s very much fueled by real experiences of real people across out state. And we’re absolutely committed to providing real solutions, whole solutions to whole problems.

You won’t find me peddling a public option to solve our health care woes. We’re out here calling for health care for all and providing a plan to do it. You won’t find me out here suggesting that we deal incrementally with stemming the deaths occurring from homicides or from drug overdose. We need to act decisively and holistically in a way that makes all of our communities safer.

You will find me out here doing what my grandma taught me to do, which is to pull people together across lines of region and religion and race, income levels; get everybody to a table, figure out how we move forward together.

BFB: What’s your strategy to fight opioid addiction with the Baltimore City Health Department?

When I’m governor we will make sure that Baltimore City, and every county, is fully supported in stemming the tide of heroin and opioid addiction. It’s a scandal that this governor has required our city to ration naloxone. And it’s unacceptable that the state has only funded one of the dozen rapid response teams that we recommended for the city.

This epidemic, like the student debt crisis, like mass incarceration, unfortunately unites every county in our state in urgent struggle to improve people’s lives…I’ve stepped out of my office on E. Redwood Street one morning and looked to my left and saw a guy who, like me, appeared to be in finance, stumbling out at 7 o’clock in the morning, appeared to be on a heroin binge all night at his desk – and to my right, a homeless person nodding off.

We can do better, we must do better. Hogan’s hallmark has been avoiding doing much. On some issues, there’s not much damage to be done by maintaining the status quo. On this one, he’s allowed an epidemic to spiral out of control that has killed thousands of people across our state. It’s absolutely unacceptable, and that’s why it was the first policy platform that I released.

BFB: What’s your favorite place in Baltimore?

St. James Episcopal Church, the middle pews to the pastor’s left. They’re the same pews that my great grandma sat in, my grandparents sat in, my mom sat in and that I sat in. Our congregation was founded in 1848. Slavery was still very much alive in our city. It’s a place that reminds me that not only can we move forward, but we have moved forward. It’s a place of great hope and strength for me.

BFB: If you don’t get the nomination, who are you backing?

I’m very optimistic about our chances in the primary. I’m fully committed to ensuring that Hogan is a one-term governor, no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Associate Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan is Baltimore Fishbowl's associate editor. He previously covered Baltimore-area news as a web producer for Fox45/WBFF-TV. Before arriving in Baltimore, he worked as an assistant editor for CQ Researcher in Washington D.C., and a reporter for Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Look for his freelance bylines in Baltimore City Paper and DCist.
Ethan McLeod
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