Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profiles of Democratic candidates for governor.
If Ben Jealous is not elected governor of Maryland, it won’t be because he played it safe.
Consider: Jealous wants to make Maryland the first state to adopt its own single-payer health care system. He wants to reduce the state’s prison population by 30 percent. He wants tuition-free education at its public colleges and universities.
And that’s just to start.
The goals being set by the former NAACP president — one of seven major Democrats vying to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the fall — are daunting enough that detractors insist he’s over-promising. But Jealous, 45, says he excels at forging coalitions to achieve lofty, difficult goals.
“Folks will tell you a lot of the things I want to do are hard,” he said in an interview. “I specialize in getting hard things done.”
His vision for Maryland is notably similar to what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed on a national scale in 2016. With Sanders’ endorsement, Jealous is aiming to unite progressive Democrats throughout Maryland behind his candidacy in the June 26 primary — forgoing a strategy of trying to win specific regions, as some of his rivals are doing.
While Jealous’ program is ambitious, he can point to a track record of achievements that once seemed out of reach.
A decade ago, Jealous, at 35, became the youngest person to lead the national NAACP. He is credited by many with reviving a moribund organization.
As the group’s president, Jealous became a leading force behind three of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature legislative victories: legalizing same-sex marriage, repealing the death penalty, and extending in-state college tuition to students who are in the country illegally.
Like his Democratic rivals, Jealous is running far behind Hogan in polls. But despite having no experience in elective office, Jealous performs just as well in a hypothetical matchup against Hogan as more seasoned rivals such as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. That could bode well for him in the Democratic primary election.
Jealous insists he’s the candidate Hogan fears most because he is the only Democrat with a track record of turning out unlikely voters.
“I’ve been a turnout specialist since I was a 14-year-old precinct captain for Jesse Jackson,” he said, referring to the civil rights leader who twice ran for president.
Jealous had been a national figure in the NAACP for four years before he emerged as an important person on the Maryland political scene.
He became a regular figure in Annapolis as he pushed to permit same-sex marriage and pass the DREAM Act, both of which became law in 2012. And he was a high-profile advocate to repeal Maryland’s death penalty, which happened in 2013.
Success on those issues, he said, “showed me how much faster we could be moving forward in Maryland.”
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group CASA of Maryland, said that when he was fighting for the DREAM Act, Jealous called and volunteered the NAACP’s support.
“He was the guy who helped us connect with the African-American community around the state,” Torres said.
Jealous was born to an African-American mother and a white father five years after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriage. When his parents met in Baltimore in 1966 and decided to marry, they had to go to Washington to wed because Maryland had such a ban.
While he was born in California, Jealous said he spent many summers at his maternal grandparents’ home in Baltimore’s Ashburton neighborhood. He said he learned his lessons in the civil rights struggle early.
“My parents and grandparents didn’t just suffer through Jim Crow in Maryland,” he said. “They took real risks to tear it down.”
Jealous’ road back to Maryland took him through undergraduate studies at Columbia University in New York and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University in England. He became an organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and traveled to Mississippi to fight the closure of historically black colleges.
While in Mississippi, he took a job as a reporter at an historically black newspaper and eventually became managing editor. He later worked on human rights issues as a staffer with Amnesty International.
In 2008, civil rights icon Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, recruited Jealous to lead the civil rights organization. Bond, who died in 2015, introduced Jealous as “one of the best and brightest of his generation.”
Leon W. Russell, the NAACP’s national chairman and a board member since 1990, said Jealous’ tenure from 2008 to 2013 was a success.
“He left us a more energetic association,” Russell said in an interview at the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters.
Among other things, Russell said, Jealous pushed the organization to firmly support gay rights, to become more involved in criminal justice issues, to adopt climate change as a civil rights issue and to strengthen its outreach to the Latino community.
Jealous also emphasized electoral involvement and built up the NAACP’s political affiliate, Russell said.
“His strategies were definitely more political than the association had historically been,” he said. “He thought in terms of campaigns.”
Russell said the board had some concerns that Jealous was more effective at raising money for issue-related campaigns than at more mundane, operational matters such as keeping the nonprofit’s building in good shape. But by 2013, Russell said, the executive council had decided to extend Jealous’ contract.
Instead, Jealous stepped down and joined a venture capital firm.
At the time, the explanation was that Jealous wanted to spend more time with his family. Jealous, who lives in Anne Arundel County, told The Baltimore Sun that was part of the reason, but not all of it.
The other key factor: his health.
By the time he left the NAACP, Jealous said, his blood pressure was rising uncontrollably. This was terrifying, since his paternal grandfather had died of a heart attack at 43. Jealous was concerned he was headed in the same direction. He later was diagnosed with sleep apnea that was contributing to his hypertension.
Today, after surgery, he says his blood pressure is down.
“For the first time, I’m confident I won’t suffer the same fate as my grandfather,” Jealous said.
In 2015, Jealous and his wife, law professor Lia Beth Epperson, were divorced.
“I was focused on saving my life and saving my marriage,” he said. “I’m sad I was only able to succeed in one of those.”
Jealous says he’s now focused on raising his two children, whose custody he shares, and running for governor. He’s put together a formidable grassroots campaign with strong backing from influential labor unions and support from two national progressive stars: Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Both have visited Maryland to stump for Jealous.
Jealous says he’s prepared to go up against Hogan despite the Republican governor’s high approval ratings.
“He’s the most do-nothing governor we’ve ever had. He doesn’t even take a position on legislation,” Jealous said. On issues ranging from criminal justice to transportation, he said, Hogan “lives in the 1970s.”
Richard Vatz, a conservative professor of political communication at Towson University, says it’s Jealous who sounds out of touch.
Vatz views Jealous as “a compelling guy, a smart guy,” but doubts Maryland is ready for Sanders-style policies.
“I don’t think he offers anything practically that might make Maryland voters say, ‘That will make life better in Maryland,’ ” Vatz said.
Job: Partner, Kapor Capital, an investment firm
Home: Pasadena, Anne Arundel County
Family: Divorced, one daughter, one son
Running mate: Susan Turnbull
Past experience: President, NAACP. Director, US Human Rights Program, Amnesty International.