Maryland’s Ben Jealous joined forces Thursday with two other candidates of color who won Democratic nominations for governor in their states to call on progressives to throw out the old political playbook and take bold stands to win elections in majority white states.
Jealous, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, appeared at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference with Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida for a sometimes raucous panel discussion that did not shy away from racial themes.
Like Jealous, Abrams and Gillum ran as progressive candidates and won contested primaries in states south of the Mason-Dixon line. If elected, each would be the first candidate of African-American descent to serve as governor of their state.
Despite some recent stumbles by his campaign in Maryland, the mostly African-American crowd in Washington treated Jealous as a rock star among rock stars. Audience members reveled in the history of seeing three gubernatorial nominees who look like them sharing a stage.
“You have three black candidates who were told they could not win,” said moderator Angela Rye, a CNN commentator. “Who were told they did not have enough money.”
Gillum said it felt “incredible” to be on stage in such talented company.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t think we deserve to be here, and some of that is our pedigree and some of that is a little bit of something else,” Gillam said. The Floridian said he wouldn’t talk about that something else, but Rye immediately said, “Yes, we will.”
And they did. Gillum discussed his white GOP opponent’s warning to voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum. Abrams described her opponents’ use of “tap dancing” imagery in advertising to characterize her.
“Their goal is to get us to go low when they go low. But we have to go high,” he said.
Gillam questioned a convention that a Democrat seeking election in the South needs to run as “Republican Lite.”
“What we’re trying to prove in our races is you can talk about poverty, criminal justice reform, and paying teachers what they’re worth, and corporate tax rate and all those other issues that frankly matter,” Gillum said. “Guess what? You give voters a reason to go out and vote for something, not just against something.”
Rye kicked off a discussion African-American politicians seldom engage in before majority white audiences — about skin color.
Abrams remarked she has “a very rich brown hue” — something some people felt would hold her back in her campaign. Gillam quipped that “it’s the only thing I’m rich in.” Jealous, who is biracial and much lighter-skinned, deadpanned: “No comment. Let’s just go on.”
Though they share many of the same progressive policy positions and fierce opposition to President Donald Trump, the three nominees come from diverse professional backgrounds.
Jealous, 45, is a Rhodes Scholar who spent five years as president of the NAACP before becoming a venture capitalist. He won Maryland’s June primary in a crowded field with 40 percent of the vote.
Abrams, 44, is a Yale Law School graduate and former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. She won a landslide victory in her May primary against Stacey Evens, a white member of the Georgia House.
Gillum, 39, has been mayor of Tallahassee since 2014. He was elected to the Florida capital’s city commission at 23. Gillum won a narrow come-from-behind victory against former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who is white.
Both Abrams and Gillum face Republican candidates who won their primaries in large part thanks to Trump’s support over party establishment-backed rivals. RealClear Politics rates their general election races as toss-ups, with Abrams running even with Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Gillum slightly ahead of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.
In contrast, Jealous faces a centrist Republican incumbent who has distanced himself from Trump. Hogan leads Jealous by 14.5 points in the RealClear Politics average of Maryland polls, and the race is rated as “likely Republican.”