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From tragedy, Valerie Ervin's Democratic campaign for Maryland governor emerges

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of profiles of Democratic candidates for governor.

Three months ago, Valerie Ervin was happily out of the political game in Maryland, working for a national organization that promotes progressive policies such as a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave.

Now she’s running for governor.

The change began when Democrat Kevin Kamenetz asked Ervin, a former Montgomery County councilwoman, to be his running mate in his gubernatorial campaign. Then, unexpectedly, Kamenetz died May 10. A week later, Ervin announced she would join the field seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

It’s all been a whirlwind stretch of mourning, strategy-setting and decision-making for her.

“I feel very, very fortunate, but at the same time very sad,” says Ervin, 61. “I find myself trying to hold it together because in Kevin’s passing, the grief has been very deep.”

“But I’m doing what I think, if the tables were turned, he would have done.”

Though Ervin often mentions her former running mate, she makes one point quite clear: She is not Kamenetz and this is her campaign.

In choosing her, Kamenetz had devised a ticket with geographic, racial and cultural diversity. Ervin is a progressive African-American woman from the Washington suburbs; Kamenetz was a moderate white man from the Baltimore suburbs. Kamenetz was careful to stay on message; Ervin is more spontaneous.

In her nascent campaign, Ervin is stressing a progressive platform of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, requiring 100 percent renewable energy in Maryland and expanded child care and preschool.

She named Marisol Johnson, a former Baltimore County school board member, as her running mate — making their ticket the second in the race featuring two women of color. Johnson, 37, was born in El Salvador.

“People have said, since Kevin’s passing: Aren’t you afraid?” Ervin says. “It never occured to me to be afraid, not once.”

She has faced a hurdle in waiting for the state election board’s decision on how her name will appear on ballots. The board repeated Thursday that there isn’t enough time to print new ones. It wants to place signs at polling places telling voters that a vote for the Kamenetz-Ervin ticket will count as a vote for her. She said Thursday evening she’s exploring a potential legal challenge.

Elections officials also have said Ervin can’t access the $1.4 million in Kamenetz’s campaign account. And it appears unlikely that Ervin can use the more than $1 million worth of TV air time that Kamenetz had bought for campaign commercials before his death. Ervin had a little more than $164,000 in her own account as of last week.

Without Kamenetz’s money and statewide campaign infrastructure built over a year, Ervin faces a challenge of introducing herself and sharing her policy ideas with prospective voters in the few weeks until the June 26 primary, says Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College.

“Her biggest challenges are the intersection of money and time,” Kromer said.

Fundraising has been a problem for Ervin in the past. In 2015 she ended a congressional campaign because she could not raise enough money. Ervin is no longer working with Kamenetz’s fundraising consultant or his campaign team, so she’s been building a campaign operation from scratch.

“How do you engage those donor networks in the state in a relatively short amount of time?” Kromer said. “You have to print out campaign signs, you have to engage volunteers, you have to cut web ads and television ads if you can afford it.”

Even as she tangles with legal and logistical issues, Ervin says she can draw attention to her campaign through news coverage and what she believes is a growing interest in electing black women to political office.

“We know in Maryland that African-American women hold up the Democratic party and actually carry it over the finish line,” said Ervin, who often wears a “Black Girls Vote” button on her lapel.

She points to the excitement generated by the victory in Georgia this week of Stacey Abrams, the only other African-American woman running for a Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the nation this year.

“There’s still a lot of undecided voters and what they’re looking for is somebody different who could excite the base,” Ervin said.

Born in New Mexico to an Air Force family, Ervin moved around frequently as a child. She attended the University of Baltimore, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in labor studies and a master’s degree in public administration.

Most of her career has been centered around labor organizing while raising two sons as a single mother. Working for the United Food and Commercial Workers, Ervin organized workers in the South who processed poultry and catfish.

When her two sons entered public schools in Montgomery County, Ervin got involved in educational issues, first with PTAs and later helping start two advocacy groups, the Montgomery County Education Forum and Blacks United for Excellence. Both focused on closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

In 2004, Ervin made the decision to run for school board and won a seat among a crowded field of candidates. Meanwhile, she had been working as chief of staff for County Councilman George Leventhal. The two shared an interest in addressing racial disparities in education, Leventhal says.

“She had a very clear-minded approach to policy analysis and was concerned about social and racial inequities in a matter that was very practical,” said Leventhal, a Democrat who is now running for Montgomery County executive.

In 2006, Ervin won a seat on the County Council, the first African-American woman elected to the council. Five years later she became the council’s president. It was a challenging time as the county faced a $250 million budget shortfall and had to make cuts.

“We were able to come out of that year without having to furlough any employees, without having to raise any taxes,” Ervin said. “But of course, I got a lot of political blowback.”

Leventhal says the council couldn’t honor all of the union contracts that year, a difficult but necessary choice. Under Ervin’s leadership, the council’s decisions “enabled us to get through the downturn,” he said.

That tough budget year helped Ervin earn a reputation for sometimes having sharp elbows. “That taught me a great deal about how you don’t get into politics to make friends,” Ervin said. “You run for office and get elected and serve. And sometimes serving and making decisions does not make you popular.”

Ervin left the council in 2014, several months before the end of her second term, to take a position as executive director for the Center for Working Families. All was well when suddenly she read a blog about Kamenetz considering her.

“Until that moment, I was perfectly fine with the life I had,” Ervin says.

But Kamenetz’s offer was too good to pass up.

Kamenetz often introduced Ervin to prospective voters by saying he had confidence that, should something happen to him, she was capable of governing Maryland. And then something did happen to him.

“I feel like we have this one shot. We’re taking it. We’re going to work hard,” Ervin says. “I think people will hear me and say, ‘That woman is different from what I thought. She knows some stuff. She has a little bit of moxie. And maybe she can pull this thing off.’”

Valerie Ervin

Age: 61

Profession: Union organizer and policy advocate

Home: Silver Spring

Family: Two grown sons

Running mate: Marisol Johnson, former Baltimore County school board member

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, University of Baltimore

Experience: Former member of the Montgomery County Council and Montgomery County school board

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