Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous won Maryland's Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, promising to deliver a progressive agenda that makes college free, legalizes marijuana and raises the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Bolstered by support in the Baltimore region, spending from outside groups and an aggressive union-backed turnout machine, Jealous emerged from the six-way primary as Democrats' bet to take on popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.
His victory over fellow front-runner Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who was backed by the state's political establishment, demonstrated the growing influence of the progressive wing of the Maryland Democratic Party. His win was part of a wave of victories against establishment candidates in state government.
"Our goal is to not just win an election but to build a movement, which will allow us to lead into law the new agenda that this state so desperately needs," Jealous told supporters at his Baltimore victory party.
"I know there is skepticism that Larry Hogan can be beaten. Well, we've got a message for those who think this race is already over. Larry Hogan will lose in November because he is not ready to run against someone who knows how to build a true people-powered grassroots campaign."
Maryland has never elected an African-American governor, and Jealous' victory is just the second time the state has nominated a black man for the job.
"I think he can get not just the state, but Baltimore City, back in line," said Damon Lann, a 46-year-old corrections office from West Baltimore who supported Jealous.
Baker, in a concession speech in College Park, said he was going to return to life as a private citizen after two terms as county executive and two terms in the General Assembly. Supporters were passing out signs that said "Vote for Democrats."
"I have nothing to be sad about. It is not a sad night for me," Baker told them. "I'm going to walk out of here very pleased with the career I have had."
In his victory speech, Jealous spoke of a young Baltimore boy who said he's seen too many people die, a teenage girl from the Eastern Shore who said she's buried three classmates from the opioid epidemic, immigrants whose children wake up in a cold sweat and workers with multiple jobs who fear economic insecurity.
"This campaign is about seizing the moment to build a movement to make sure that everyone moves forward, no matter what happens in Donald Trump's Washington," he said.
Jealous' campaign will provide voters with a stark contrast from Hogan in November, both in policy and style.
Hogan's enduring popularity makes him a formidable opponent, even in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. Recent polls show as many as a quarter of Maryland Democrats intend to support the Republican governor regardless of who won Tuesday night.
Some Democrats who voted for Jealous said they were considering crossing party lines to vote for Hogan.
"Like several Democrats, I don't have any real problems with Hogan," said Jo Willman, a 69-year-old from Gaithersburg. "He's proven himself to work on the issues and not the politics. He works across the aisle. If that's what we want people to do, who cares if it's a Democrat or a Republican?"
Hogan's campaign manager, Jim Barnett, took aim at Jealous' platform, calling it "risky" and predicting the Democrat would usher in "bitter partisanship."
"The choice before voters could not be clearer: In Governor Hogan, they find a steady hand who has worked in a bipartisan way to move Maryland in the right direction," Barnett said.
Jealous and his running mate, former Democratic Party chairwoman Susie Turnbull, cast themselves as community organizers and promised to aggressively turn out voters in November. Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings joined the Jealous victory party.
The election caps an unusual political season in which many voters were undecided about the governor's race until the final weeks of the campaign. The crowded field diffused interest in the race and ultimately splintered the vote.
The contest attracted a diverse group of Democrats. In addition to Baker and Jealous, the race featured state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., the state's first openly gay senator; Krish Vignarajah, an immigrant, new mother and former Michelle Obama policy aide; Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea, and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross.
One of the top contenders in the race, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, died suddenly of cardiac arrest on May 10. His name remained on the ballot, and Jealous remembered him fondly during his speech.
"We miss his wit and wisdom and we will never forget him," Jealous said.
Democrats promised weeks ago to support whoever emerged from the primary and have planned a "unity rally" for this week outside the governor's mansion in Annapolis.
Party leaders are planning an all-hands-on-deck effort to dislodge Hogan from office.
Analysts say they have reason for concern. Pollster Patrick Gonzales's recent survey, for example, showed the Republican governor led all his Democratic challengers by double digits.
"Hogan starts off as extremely popular and the favorite but by no means has put this thing away," Gonzales said.
Goucher College political scientist Mileah Kromer said the Jealous victory shows the more liberal wing of the party is ascendant. She said Jealous presents a challenge for Hogan because he can attract national attention and money.
"At a time when we're talking about 'resistance Democrats' being energized, Jealous is not wrong when he says people want a civil rights leader to challenge Trump," she said.
A decade ago, Jealous, at 35, became the youngest person to lead the national NAACP, reviving a moribund organization and reestablishing it as a national political force.
During his tenure, Jealous became a leading force behind referendums to uphold same-sex marriage and in-state college tuition for students who are in the country illegally. He helped persuade former Gov. Martin O'Malley to push to repeal Maryland's death penalty.
On the campaign trail, Jealous reminds voters of his Baltimore roots — his mother grew up in West Baltimore housing projects — and that his biracial parents had to move from Maryland because it was illegal for them to marry here at the time.
Jealous, now 45, is a Rhodes scholar and, for the past several years, has worked as a venture capitalist at Kapor Capital.
He 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, and wants tuition-free education at its public colleges and universities. He proposed a 29 percent pay increase for Maryland teachers — whose union endorsed him — plus legalizing marijuana and dramatically increasing spending on K-12 education.
His hefty list of expensive promises will be a key target of Hogan in November, analysts said. Hogan's upset victory in 2014 was built on pocketbook issues and a promise to reign in spending.
Jealous, at his victory party, told supporters gathered at The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture that his win was a referendum on GOP leadership.
"Today we have come together, from all corners of Maryland, to send a message to the Republican administration in Annapolis -- that their time in power is coming to an end," he said.
Nora King, 70, a city resident and retired special education teacher and administrator for Baltimore City Public Schools, said she's "elated" Jealous won.
"I want to start dancing, I'm so happy," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.