The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charisma fueled Wes Moore’s primary win. Now he sharpens his focus on policy.

Ending child poverty is among his chief pursuits

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore speaks during a rally for the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School on Aug. 25 in Rockville, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Talk to most top Democratic officials in Maryland about Wes Moore, and many are almost giddy about what the future could hold if the state elects a Democratic governor for the first time in eight years.

Big investments in transit and clean energy. Fully funding and implementing a multibillion-dollar plan to reform public education. Ensuring residents have health care, housing and good-paying jobs, women have access to abortions, and communities are cleansed of violent crime.

Moore, 43, is heavily favored to win in the deep-blue state, which would return Annapolis to the one-party dominance Democrats enjoyed for most of the past 50 years. He’s a best-selling author and former nonprofit chief who lacks a record in public office, a political newcomer who bested nine candidates in the July primary on the strength of his charisma and personal story. On the campaign trail and in debates, he was never forced to lay out plans in detail because there were few policy differences between him and his Democratic rivals.

In the ramp-up to Election Day, he’s sharpening policy pitches to voters and targeting lofty goals, including ending child poverty and closing the racial wealth gap, systemic problems that have long been intractable not only in Maryland, but also across the country.

His proposals span the political spectrum, weighing tax cuts alongside big initiatives.

He spells out particular — and potentially costly — ways to meet his goals: implementing Maryland’s $15 minimum wage two years earlier than scheduled; creating a “baby bonds” program that deposits an amount, based on family income, into an account for each baby born; turning Morgan State University into a top-flight doctoral research institute; routing more state contracts to businesses owned by minorities and women; aggressively ending discriminatory housing appraisals that undervalue Black-owned homes; and pouring cash into a long-underfunded affordable housing program, among many other particulars in 15 annotated policy documents on his website.

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He’s outlined, in similar detail, ideas for climate change, transit, education, LGBTQ+ issues, the economy, public safety and civil rights, saying in a recent interview: “There’s a cost to not doing these things."

Decisions will be made to “prioritize certain investments," he said, noting some elements of his platform already have money earmarked to pay for them. For others, he plans to work with lawmakers and local leaders to “invest” (he doesn’t use the word spend) in the programs and would likely use some of the state’s surplus, federal funds and discretionary state funds.

He said he does not anticipate raising taxes.

“For our state to be able to win we have to be more competitive and also make it more equitable,” Moore said. “Gone should be the days of people who are working, and in some cases working multiple jobs, and still living below the poverty line. That’s a leave no one [behind] agenda,” referring to his political slogan and an idea he said is rooted in his military service in Afghanistan.

His political philosophy, however, is more that of a convener than a progressive ideologue. In the interview, he said he wants to examine eliminating either the estate or inheritance tax, because perhaps the state doesn’t need both and he wants Maryland to become more attractive to retirees.

His Donald Trump-endorsed Republican opponent, Del. Dan Cox, casts him as a “socialist,” a label Moore rejects, noting his military service and his stint as an investment banker working on Wall Street.

At age 28, Moore described himself in an interview as “probably one of the more independent people that you’ll ever find. … I’m a social moderate, a strong fiscal conservative. … I have a little bit of Democrat in me and a little bit of Republican in me.”

Sixteen years later, the former Rhodes Scholar and White House fellow under George W. Bush said he would have phrased his position on fiscal issues differently. “I’m fiscally responsible,” he said.

Liberal and moderate Democrats nonetheless say they are eager to have Moore. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said the caucus doesn’t have specific policies waiting in the wings they need a Democratic governor to pass. But with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in office for the past eight years, Ferguson said, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has been able to attack few complex, systemic problems. With Moore, Ferguson said, that would change.

“We’re able to tackle big questions that we don’t have answers to right now,” Ferguson said of the prospect of a Moore administration working with a Democratic legislature. “… We can start putting together bigger plans.”

Moore said his agenda and approach as convener means “everyone’s voice should be heard. I don’t believe in the idea that when I walk into a room, I should ask people to separate themselves by their political party.”

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While Moore gained the endorsement of the teachers union and many members of the establishment during the primary, he was not the choice of most unions or other progressive groups. (He has since gained their backing.)

He’s promised to glean data and ideas from lawmakers and members of the public, private and nonprofit sectors — and that includes, he said, people he may not necessarily agree with.

To the chagrin of some of the liberal members of the Democratic Party, Moore said that also includes giving the state Fraternal Order of Police, whose endorsement he received after his primary win, a seat at the table.

“I don’t think that you can be serious about actually implementing reforms if the agencies that have to be reformed are not part of process,” said Moore, adding that he told the organization the same thing he has previously said about policing: “We need to have a police force that moves with appropriate intensity and absolute integrity and full accountability.”

Zakiya Sankara Jabar, co-founder of Racial Justice Now, a grass-roots, parent-led organization in Montgomery County, said she knew Moore was not promoting a progressive agenda, in her view, after learning early in the primary that he was not firmly opposed to police officers in schools.

“He sounds a lot like President Biden did during his State of the Union” when he talks about policing, Sankara Jabar said. “It’s disappointing. … The problem is the other side is worse.”

Sankara Jabar said she doesn’t see people in her organization overly excited about Moore. Members of other progressive groups, who are more reliant on the establishment, are quietly grumbling, she said. “I think the motivation is more so we can’t let this other guy in, who Trump endorsed,” she said.

But Jared Schablein, an ardent Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter in his 2016 presidential bid and one of the founders of the Lower Shore Progressive Caucus, said he trusts Moore on issues important to the progressive movement — jobs that provide a livable wage, accessible health care and schools where teachers are highly paid and students learn skills that prepare them for college or careers.

Moore’s poverty-fighting plan includes free pre-K for every child in need, larger investments in apprenticeship and trade programs, having a more diverse teaching pool, and closing the racial wealth gap by, among other things, addressing the “unfair appraisal values in historically redlined neighborhoods” and “fixing the broken procurement policies” affecting minority businesses trying to obtain state contracts.

Moore has said his tenure at the nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation, where he was chief executive, informed his commitment to targeting child poverty. The rate of children living in poverty varies widely across Maryland, from more than 1 in 4 children in Baltimore City and Eastern Shore’s Somerset County to just over 1 in 20 children in Howard and Calvert counties, according to 2020 data from the Annie B. Casey Foundation.

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He sees an intersection between child poverty and his plans to expand transportation options, increase affordable housing units and improve public education, among other things.

Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland Education Association, which endorsed Moore in the primary, said teachers are thrilled to know that with Moore they would have a governor who supports public education.

Bost said Hogan has never met with MSEA in his eight years in office.

“With Wes Moore as governor and Aruna Miller as lieutenant governor, educators will have a voice at the table,” she said. “We’ve seen that through the campaign. … Our members have met and talked to Wes, and they then see that come out in speeches or as part of his platform. So they’re saying he’s listening to what we’re saying.”

Moore said he plans to work with the legislature on what he described as the state’s “upside-down taxation system.”

“We have to make sure that people are paying their share, their fair wages, when it comes to taxes,” he said.

Moore added: “It’s something that I intend to be able to do in partnership with local jurisdictions and with the legislature. It’s not really simple, but it’s something that I know is eminently doable and it’s the way we’re going to think about our government.”

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who routinely stays out of primary contests, endorsed Moore in the spring because she said he “gets it.” She said she considered his background and asked herself: “What does the state need?”

Jones, who is the first Black person and first woman to serve as a presiding officer in the legislature, said Moore, who could become the first Black governor in Maryland, is a candidate who has used his own experiences and the experiences of others to help guide him on policy positions.

“I have met with various persons and they would be telling me ABC, but their body language and facial expressions tells me XYZ,” she said. “I can attest your character when I have a one-on-one.”

But Moore’s sweeping approach to systemic problems could face head-winds in a legislature where policy changes on the environment, criminal justice and education have often come slower than in other Democratic strongholds.

“Incrementalism is disrespectful to the families that continue to fall under the weight of poverty, the weight of inequity, the weight of failed policies,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Moore often tells the story of how he lost his father at age 3 when he died because he didn’t receive proper health care and of how his mother received her first job with benefits when he was a teenager.

“I would be disrespectful to my own history if I somehow thought that I was trying to govern and be an incrementalist,” he said.