Former NAACP president Ben Jealous announced he will run for the Democratic nomination in the 2018 Maryland gubernatorial election. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, announced his candidacy for Maryland governor Wednesday outside a cousin's West Baltimore flower shop.
Jealous, 44, is seeking the Democratic nomination in his first bid for political office. He joins a growing field of potential challengers to Gov. Larry Hogan, who is expected to attempt to become the state's first two-term Republican governor since the 1950s.
In an interview Tuesday with The Baltimore Sun, Jealous took aim at Hogan's record on education, the economy and the environment. And he faulted Hogan for failing to take on the Trump administration, comparing the incumbent to the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz."
"He may have strength, but he lacks courage," Jealous said. Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, declined to comment.
Jealous brings to the campaign a personal story that could differentiate him from the field. He is seeking to become governor of a state where his parents could not legally marry at the time they met in Harlem Park because his father was white and his mother African-American.
While he was born in Carmel, Calif., Jealous said he has extensive ties to Baltimore. He spoke Wednesday outside Baltimore Blossoms Studio in Ashburton, a store his cousin Rachelle Bland opened after the 2015 rioting and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in city police custody.
Jealous becomes the second Democrat to formally announce his candidacy in the June 26, 2018, primary, joining high-tech entrepreneur and author Alec Ross. Several other Democrats are either expected to join the race soon or are weighing a run.
They include former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Rep. John Delaney, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. and Baltimore lawyer James L. Shea.
Jealous, who lives in Pasadena, was elected president of the Baltimore-based NAACP in 2008 at age 35, becoming the youngest person to head the civil rights organization. He led the group until 2013, the year after he spearheaded the NAACP's successful campaign to abolish Maryland's death penalty. During that year's debate, he was a regular visitor to Annapolis as he lobbied lawmakers to pass Democrat Gov. Martin O'Malley's repeal bill.
When he was NAACP president, Jealous said, he saw how quickly the state can move forward. He pointed to some of the initiatives of the O'Malley administration — including the end of capital punishment, legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing students who are in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.
Jealous in 2014 joined Kapor Capital, which funds tech startups that work on social justice issues. He is divorced and has two children who live with him part time.
He emerged in 2016 as a prominent surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his run for the Democratic nomination for president. Jealous said he brings qualifications for governor that make up for his lack of experience in public office.
"I spent my life literally as a community organizer, civil rights leader, serving people in their communities on their own terms, pulling them together to solve big problems," he said.
Jealous said his time as an investor in start-up businesses has given him valuable insight into business development.
"It helps you understand the value in expanding access to credit to entrepreneurs who are growing new businesses in our state," he said. "I've sat down with the leaders of some of the great tech companies in this country who are trying to build inclusive work forces."
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Jealous' record at the NAACP could be an asset. She said the role of African-American voters can't be discounted in a Democratic primary.
"He could find a lot of support in that community — particularly in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore," Kromer said.
Kromer added that in a matchup with Hogan, Jealous would be able to address social and criminal justice issues with a great deal of credibility, but would have a disadvantage in "economic acumen."
Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, doubts Jealous will get to the general election. "He doesn't have a political base. He's never been in elected office, and he's going to be asking people to vote for him without any experience at all," Norris said.
He said Jealous' record at the NAACP will not necessarily translate into African-American support, especially if Baker — who is black — enters the race.
Nevertheless, Jealous did not hestiate in an interview to go on the offensive.
He faulted Hogan's record on criminal justice and the state's heroin and opioid epidemic. He accused the governor of supporting U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' efforts to bring back what Jealous called an "old-school, ineffective way of combating drug addiction."
Maryland is also falling short on educating its children, Jealous said.
"When I listened to voters across the state, what's clear is folks are ready to work together to do what we need to do as Marylanders to see that our children are well-educated," he said.
Jealous promised to be more outspoken than Hogan in opposing the policies of President Donald J. Trump — especially on environmental issues such as the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency and the president's proposed defunding of federal programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"The leadership of the governor of Maryland should reflect the will of the majority of our people," Jealous said. "The leader of our state has stood silent, and through this he has given consent."
Jealous also criticized Hogan's record on projects that were expected to bring investment in Baltimore, including the scrapped Red Line light rail project and the redevelopment of State Center, which is mired in a legal dispute after state officials canceled the leases that underpinned the state's agreement with the developer.
Jealous said he would emphasize efficiencies in government and reduce what he calls "mass incarceration" rather than look for tax cuts, though he did not explicitly rule them out.
"We've also seen the limits of what politicians promising tax cuts can do for us," he said.
Asked how he would woo disaffected Democrats in areas such as Dundalk, where voters chose Hogan by landslide margins in 2014, Jealous pointed to his experience in campaigning across the country for Sanders.
"What's clear is they've been waiting for our party to get back to fighting for working people," he said.