As Wes Moore and his entourage walked into a Democratic Party barbecue in Bowie on Sunday afternoon, the candidate stopped short.
Rushern L. Baker III — one of Moore’s rivals in the 2022 gubernatorial campaign — was dashing by on a golf cart. Moore ran over and gave Baker a big hug and posed for photos.
“Watching people in 3D and having conversations is great,” Moore said. “This is what campaigning should be.”
More than 600 party loyalists streamed onto the grounds of Pleasant Prospect, a former tobacco plantation, eager to meet candidates and reunite after more than a year of seeing one another largely on computer screens.
For the Democrats, the event launched the 2022 campaign for governor, in which they hope to reclaim the governor’s mansion from the Republicans after two terms of leadership from Larry Hogan.
“Four more years of Republican leadership in Maryland is not something we can afford to see,” said Doug Gansler, another of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Nearly all of the nine Democrats running for governor showed up, practically giddy to campaign in person now that vaccinations are easy to come by and people feel safer to meet in person.
“It feels great to talk to people. This is retail politics at its best,” said Tom Perez, another gubernatorial candidate.
Perez led the Democratic National Committee for four years through this January, pivoting the party to online and remote events as the pandemic swept the nation. He said he’s trying to build a flexible campaign for governor.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’ve got to prepare for everything,” Perez said.
There’s been some adjustment for candidates after so long stuck behind computer screens.
“I feel like a cicada coming out of the ground,” joked Comptroller Peter Franchot, also a candidate for governor.
Franchot said he’s been buoyed by the feedback he’s getting at in-person events, pleased to know that people still recognize him.
After Baker was stopped by Moore, he was stopped by several others as the former Prince George’s County executive tried to make his way into the event. “For so long, people haven’t been able to see each other, except on Zoom. ... Everybody’s happy to do an event where you can actually see folks.”
Gubernatorial candidate Jon Baron said he can get a much better sense of whether people want to hear his one-minute pitch or his whole spiel. The former nonprofit executive from Montgomery County plans to visit every county in person to boost his name recognition.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s so much different seeing people in person.”
“There’s so many people I met on Zoom that now I can see in person,” said John King, just after shaking hands and posing for a photo with a voter who was struck by his physical presence. (“I didn’t know he was that tall!” the voter said.)
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King said people tend to open up much more about their experiences, issues and problems in person than over video chat and that “it’s important for all of us as politicians to hear that.”
The event was as much a social affair as it was a political affair.
“It’s a family reunion,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball exclaimed, after bumping into state Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Anne Arundel County and sharing a hug.
Robbie Leonard, the secretary of the state party, was besieged by well-wishers. He was one of the attorneys who succeeded in preventing Hogan from ending enhanced unemployment benefits early.
“We thought we’d get together and have a couple [of] friends over and see each other,” said Yvette Lewis, the state party chairwoman. “Little did we know we’d have this huge turnout.”
She reminded the crowd that amid the fun, Democrats have a mission: “Somebody here is going to be our statewide elected leader next year.”
Republicans, however, are hoping to hold on to the governor’s mansion. Kelly Schulz, the state secretary of commerce, launched her gubernatorial campaign earlier this year. She was followed by Del. Dan Cox, a conservative from Frederick County. Former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, now a commentator on MSNBC, is also considering a run.