Ben Jealous is a man with plans.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate has released more than a dozen detailed proposals in his quest to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan: Medicare for all. Free college tuition. Universal prekindergarten. Ending what Jealous calls mass incarceration. Cutting the state sales tax.
What Jealous says about Hogan’s performance as governor speaks to what Jealous sees as his own strength.
“He’s failed to provide the people of Maryland with a plan on how to move forward on education, health care and the economy,” he said. “The guy literally doesn’t have any plans. It’s a fundamental failure to lead.”
Critics have pointed out that some of Jealous’ plans could be expensive. Some contend his numbers don’t add up. There are Democrats surprised to hear their candidate propose things that are already being done as if they are new ideas.
But Jealous has a strategy for victory: Turn out a million Democratic votes through Election Day on Nov. 6 by the force of his ideas and Marylanders’ antipathy to Republican President Donald Trump.
Jealous points out that Maryland Democrats hit that turnout milestone in 2010, when Martin O’Malley was re-elected governor. The former NAACP president says that this year — with a true progressive as the nominee — his party can do it again.
“Our job in this race is to turn out Democrats and like-minded independents,” he said. “If you look at voting numbers, the big question is, ‘How can we lose?’ ”
A recent Saturday on the Eastern Shore raised a question about the campaign’s turnout-related strategy. At a Democratic campaign office in Easton, a Democratic summit in Salisbury and an NAACP dinner in Chestertown, Jealous received enthusiastic reactions. But at each of his stops, he was preaching mostly to the converted few. He did not mingle with the general population in a region where Hogan is expected to run up huge margins.
Jealous strategists say they are counting on drumming up Democratic votes in those jurisdictions where there are many to be had — including the city of Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County — while cutting into the GOP advantage in rural parts of the state.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, agrees turnout could be large.
“Certainly, there is a possibility that 1 million Democrats will turn out to vote,” she said. “The question is, ‘Who will they vote for?’ ”
Jealous has pulled off one surprise already this year. Running as a first-time candidate in the June primary, he emerged from a crowded field and beat his closest competitor by 10 percentage points.
Jealous won by mobilizing a coalition, including unions representing teachers and health care workers, while drawing in small individual contributions from around the country. Where his rivals failed to generate much enthusiasm, Jealous excited his base by advocating for progressive causes.
If he wins now, Jealous would become Maryland’s first African-American governor and the state’s first governor from Generation X.
But since his primary victory, Jealous has struggled to gain traction. His cash-poor campaign has been unable to come close to matching a richly financed Hogan media juggernaut. The Republican Governors Association had ads running to define Jealous as a socialist months before he could afford to go on the air. The Hogan campaign regularly crows about the governor’s endorsements from Democratic officials.
In addition to Jealous’ funding woes, he’s made a series of unforced errors. There was his use of an expletive in answering a reporter’s question about the Republican charges he’s a socialist. Then came the puzzling decision to agree to only one televised debate with Hogan, compounded by an attempt to exclude one of the questioners — a decision Jealous reversed after a day of being hammered in the media.
Later came his suggestion that as governor, he would ensure an all-Democratic congressional delegation; Jealous explained afterward that he planned to rally to elect more Democrats, rather than promise to further gerrymander the state.
Jealous used his debate appearance to tell his compelling life story, after Hogan questioned Jealous’ credentials as a Marylander. Jealous explained he was not raised in Maryland because state law at the time forbid his white father and black mother from marrying. Growing up in California, he came to Baltimore each summer to spend time with his extended family.
Rachelle Bland, Jealous’ cousin, said that from the age of 7, Jealous talked about becoming a civil rights attorney so he could help people. (He became a civil rights leader, but not a lawyer.) Bland, a West Baltimore florist, said that in family matters, as well as public life, Jealous has a way of bringing people together.
“Old, young, East Coast, West Coast, male, female, he’s a connector,” she said. “He’s a problem-solver.”
Stories about family are a big part of the Jealous campaign. He recounts his parents’ experiences in the civil rights movement and his struggles with childhood seizures, sleep apnea and stuttering — a disability that occasionally crops up as he campaigns. He speaks of having to bring bottled water to his two children in their Montgomery County schools because he isn’t sure the drinking fountains are safe. He talks about how his work at the NAACP contributed to the end of his marriage.
Jealous worked as a reporter for an African-American newspaper in Mississippi and as an organizer and human rights advocate. In 2008, he became president of the national NAACP, based in Baltimore. At 35, he was the organization’s youngest-ever leader.
In that job, Jealous threw himself into several Maryland causes, rallying public opinion and lobbying the General Assembly. He played an important role in the state’s abolition of the death penalty and was a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage and passage of the DREAM Act to extend in-state college tuition to immigrant students brought to the United States as children.
When O’Malley made his successful push for repeal of the death penalty in 2013, Jealous was a near-constant presence in Annapolis. Jane Henderson, then the executive director of Citizens Against State Executions, recalled he played a vital role in getting a commitment from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to bring the bill to the floor.
“As far as I know, Ben was the first person to actually get a meeting with Mike Miller about the death penalty in 10 years," she said.
Henderson said Jealous also used NAACP resources to set up a call center that helped shore up support for repeal among some skeptical African-American delegates.
“Ben really did lean in — not just personally, but organizationally,” she said.
When Jealous left the NAACP later in 2013, he was widely praised for re-energizing the civil rights organization.
He then joined the investment firm Kapor Capital. When confronted with questions about whether he is a socialist, he has pointed to his role as a venture capitalist.
Jealous re-emerged on the national stage in 2016 as a leading surrogate for the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist. Many of the campaign themes adopted by Jealous when he entered the governor’s race in 2017 come from Sanders’ playbook.
Jealous’ most ambitious goal is to extend health insurance to all Marylanders under a single-payer system — branded as “Medicare for All.” He said he wants to see such a system introduced at the national level, but is prepared for Maryland to go it alone if the federal government balks.
Donald Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said such a system will probably be adopted nationally someday. But he said the costs would be too great for Maryland to do it on its own. And Norris doesn’t see the issue driving the campaign.
“I don’t think it’s popular enough to knock off the governor,” he said.
Jealous insists it can be done and that Marylanders would save more money on premiums than such a system would cost them in taxes.
“The status quo is the most expensive option,” he said.
Bland said that when a problem comes to Jealous’ attention, his nature is to look for ways to fix it. And late in the campaign, he’s still seeing challenges and seeking solutions.
For example, when Jealous recently addressed the Kent County NAACP, he observed that the rate of suicides among white men 55 and older is as alarming as the rate of homicides among young African-Americans. Jealous said state government should step up and reduce the social isolation he believes is behind the problem.
“I’m the son of an old white guy. I’m the father of a young black guy. So, that issue hits me from both sides,” he said. “Too often in the Democratic Party, we weed white men out of our conversation. It’s not right. It’s not smart.”
Richard Vatz, a conservative professor of political communication at Towson University, said that while Jealous has put many plans on the table, he hasn’t defined himself in the eyes of voters.
“If you go up to 100 Jealous supporters and say what is is No. 1 issue, you’d get 100 answers across the board,” Vatz said. “I really don’t see that he has a path to victory.”
But out on the campaign trail, even in heavily Republican parts of the state, Jealous is finding voters who share his vision.
At the recent opening of his campaign office in Aberdeen, Jealous impressed bakery owner Wanda Boker with his plans for health care, the economy and cutting the sales tax.
“I think he’s inspirational. He speaks the truth,” the Havre de Grace resident said. “I want to put a Ben Jealous sign in my front yard.”
Job: Partner, Kapor Capital investment firm
Family: Divorced, a daughter and a son
Running mate: Susan Turnbull
Experience: Former president, NAACP; director, U.S. Human Rights Program, Amnesty International
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Columbia University; master's degree in comparative social research, Oxford University