The day after Ben Jealous won Maryland’s Democratic nomination for governor, he appeared on a left-leaning MSNBC talk show and was asked the question roiling establishment Democrats.
Was he so liberal that he will help a Republican win? Break apart the Democratic Party?
Jealous largely dodged the premise of the question.
“Go ahead, call me a socialist,” Jealous answered, bringing up his latest job and most potent political antidote to the charge. “That doesn’t change the fact I’m a venture capitalist.”
It also doesn’t change the fact Jealous’ platform is further to the left than any other politician Maryland’s Democrats have ever nominated for governor.
His progressive campaign delivered a decisive victory Tuesday over the establishment’s candidate, emphasizing a rift between the Democrats’ left flank and the moderates who have traditionally defined the party in Maryland.
His candidacy going into the general election, political analysts say, leaves open the question of whether he will heal that division — or run a campaign that wedges it further apart.
“It will either save the party or it will destroy it,” said Democratic political strategist Rick Abbruzzese.
Abbruzzese, who for years worked for former governor Martin O’Malley, said that Jealous and moderate incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will be competing for the support of the state’s moderate and conservative Democrats.
“The debate is healthy,” Abbruzzese said. “We’ll find out if Jealous or Hogan is the great convener.”
Publicly, Maryland Democrats intend to display a united front. Former vice president Joe Biden agreed to lead Saturday’s “unity rally” in Baltimore to bring together Democrats, an event planned months before the election.
Privately, prominent Maryland Democrats wonder if Jealous’ victory, and the divisions it might help foster, would help Hogan’s re-election campaign.
“The party endures, but what does this party looks like when it’s over?” asked Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. “Do Democrats have a more liberal party? Or will they embrace that old adage that Maryland is a state of middle temperament?”
Jealous supporters say the entire debate is overblown and ignores how the former NAACP chief won the primary in the first place: by building a coalition, unique in Maryland, of progressive organizations, labor unions and African-American support.
“He’s an organizer at his core,” said Larry Stafford, director of Progressive Maryland, one of the groups that backed Jealous.
“It takes pulling together diverse coalitions,” Stafford said. “You have to be able to bring together different relationships and put pressure on people to lead in the right direction. That’s what he did in the very beginning.”
Stafford argued that Jealous was able to appeal to conservative, rural Democrats as well as those who live in bigger cities, that his victory was not propelled only by the left wing of the party. After all, most of Jealous’ platform — legal marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, and free college — was shared by most of the crowded Democratic field.
“Ben won 22 of 24 jurisdictions,” Stafford said. “Many of those are rural and suburban counties. Most people think those are the places where moderate or conservative Democrats are.”
Jay Hutchins is acting executive of another group that backed Jealous — Maryland Working Families — and coordinated an independent expenditure campaign that spent nearly $500,000 to help Jealous win.
Hutchins said Jealous could unite people because he addressed problems that span the political spectrum — finding stable jobs that pay enough and affording the rising cost of health care and college.
“What we were hearing about on the street level, talking to voters, were the issues that Ben was talking about," he said. The campaign, he said, “clearly captured the sentiment, and I think might signal something bigger brewing here.”
But outside observers say Jealous’ candidacy and Maryland Democrats can’t ignore the existing divide. Nor can they ignore that most establishment Democrats lined up behind Jealous’ chief opponent, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.
“They need to do some soul searching and ask, ‘How have we let this gap grow?” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College.
“He’s got to find a way to bridge the divide between those factions of the party.”
Eberly said that Maryland was left out of the major political realignment of the 1960s, when many white Democrats in southern states joined the Republican Party. In Maryland, he said, conservative Democrats stayed in the party, though their numbers have been dwindling as those moderates become independents.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat who has been in office since 1987, said that over the course of his political career, every Democratic candidate for governor has been more liberal than the last one.
"This isn’t new; Ben Jealous is just pushing it a little further out," Busch said. “I’ve seen a huge shift to progressives since I’ve been in office.”
He added, however, that Jealous’ victory “found the gap” between the progressive wing and the establishment and used it for his advantage — something that was uniquely possible in the 2016 primary given the polarized nature of politics.
“The dynamics of politics has changed dramatically since Donald Trump was elected president,” Busch said. “He has driven the right further to the extreme, and he has awakened the far left progressive.”
Jealous argues he can manipulate that gap to his advantage, creating a new left-right coalition of frustrated Marylanders – from struggling Baltimoreans to poor rural workers – from both major parties who were inspired by outsiders like Trump and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential election.
“We’re going to create a new center, a new middle,” Jealous said. “That’s based on putting out solutions to the big problems of our state.”
But he has no plans to change course and adopt a centrist platform to get there.