Former NAACP president Ben Jealous said he is in the early stages of contemplating a Democratic challenge to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. (Baltimore Sun video)
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous has indicated that he will compete for Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial nomination and the right to square off against Larry Hogan in next year's general election. Mr. Jealous faces a daunting task. In order to take on the "deeply popular" Republican, he'll have to beat a slate of other Democrats while likely facing staunch opposition from Maryland's Democratic Party.
Mr. Jealous' decision to campaign for Bernie Sandersduring the Democratic primaries and serving as one of the candidate's surrogates cannot sit well with Maryland's Democratic leaders. When Maryland's current Interim Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews ran in the 8th Congressional District's Democratic primary last year, she received financial support from many of the same donors who contributed heavily to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. After Ms. Matthews lost to Rep. Jamie Raskin, heavy-hitters Rep. Steny Hoyer, Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen tapped her to head up the Maryland Democratic Party. All three men enthusiastically backed Secretary Clinton over Senator Sanders.
Last July, Mr. Jealous tried to mend fences with centrists at the Democratic National Convention by endorsing Hillary in a vigorous speech. For Mr. Jealous to win, however, he must re-embrace fully his former identity as an anti-establishment progressive and challenge Maryland's comfortable Democrats no less than the Republican governor.
Bernie Sanders is easily America's most popular politician. Surveys show him with an approval rating in the 60 percent range. Senator Sanders is beloved because most Americans share his populist economic views and agree that the system is rigged against average people. His call for universal single-payer health coverage received boisterous applause at a town hall recently in McDowell County, W.Va. , where voters preferred Donald Trump by a large margin over Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Jealous can win if he follows Bernie's script. He must forswear corporate contributions and fund his campaign on contributions of under $100 each. He should criss-cross the state with a focus on economically downtrodden communities. Inner-city Baltimore, hardscrabble Allegheny County and hard-hit neighborhoods in Prince George's County near the district line would all embrace a Sanders-style call for government to guarantee health care, to provide tuition-free public colleges and universities, to take a much greater role in creating jobs and to improve public transportation.
Mr. Jealous must insist that the truly affluent pay higher taxes to pay for these essential government services. He should point out that increases in top marginal tax rates might not be necessary but for the fact that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic legislators approved annual hikes in the amount of each estate that is exempt from state taxes. These hikes led directly to large cuts in the taxes paid by heirs to large estates while forcing local jurisdictions to raise assessments against middle-class property owners to cover the shortfall. Mr. Jealous must also be willing to call out Democratic executives who have vetoed minimum wage hikes —including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett.
To the extent that Mr. Jealous is the only true economic populist in the Democratic race, he will have a significant advantage over party-approved candidates. Working-class independents, millennials and progressive Democrats — all of whom favor a government fully invested in the fight against economic injustice — will rally to his cause. Conversely, more mainstream Democrats who have demonstrated an interest in challenging Governor Hogan, including Rep. John Delaney, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, may find themselves splitting the moderate to conservative primary vote.
In Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. Republican Larry Hogan nevertheless sleeps in Government House because in 2014 then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown ran an uninspiring campaign that presaged Hillary Clinton's failed presidential bid two years later. Rather than address directly the needs of Maryland's poor, workers and middle-class, Mr. Brown promised a third O'Malley term. He gave few speeches and failed to draw crowds to rallies.
For Mr. Jealous to garner the Democratic nomination and upset the popular Governor Hogan, he must avoid Mr. Brown's mistakes. He can do this via a small-donation funded campaign that targets head-on Maryland's problems and proposes bold but credible solutions to them. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, if Mr. Jealous runs in this way, he will provide a model on which Maryland progressives can build in the future.