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Wes Moore’s campaign pledges created high expectations. Can he deliver?

The Maryland governor-elect’s “leave no one behind” mantra has interest groups, Democrats and even Republicans with high hopes and a lingering question about how he’ll pay for his vision

Wes Moore and Aruna Miller, the future Maryland governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, celebrate during an election night party for state Democrats at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

The coalition that Wes Moore rallied with a promise to “leave no one behind” has high expectations of the Democrat who will be Maryland’s first Black governor.

Universal prekindergarten. Ending child poverty. Raising teacher pay. Launching a statewide paid family-leave program. Accelerating the minimum-wage hike. Reviving the canceled $1.6 billion Red Line transit project. Closing the racial wealth gap. Subsidizing child care. Extending historic tax credits for the working poor and some undocumented immigrants. Buying electric school buses. Creating a service year. Fortifying a hollowed-out state workforce. Starting more ambitious renewable energy projects. Building job training programs.

A partial list of Moore’s campaign promises to tackle systemic problems easily tallies into billions of dollars. Democrats in Annapolis with similar goals moderated their ambitions under term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

But even with a single party poised to control the workings of state government, prioritizing plans and finding the cash to deliver on them will require a tightrope performance by Moore, who has never held public office and cast himself as a uniter. The staff he assembles will inherit both large pools of cash, including a $2 billion surplus, and an uncertain economy that could undermine Moore’s agenda.

At stake is a goal he laid out in the hours after he was first elected.

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“I want to make sure that our long-term legacy is not that I have made history,” he said on election night. “I want that to be something that gets brought up after people talk about the other things that we have accomplished.”

In an interview Wednesday, he said he is assembling a team that “will look like the state of Maryland” to make the state “more competitive but also more equitable” and to fight poverty, create safe communities and strengthen public schools.

In his first legislative session this winter, he wants to advance a service-year option for high school graduates and begin addressing child poverty.

He also wants to be prudent.

“There’s not a single dollar of state resources that I will allow to just be recklessly spent,” he said. “Everything has got to have a demonstrated societal return on that investment. … We have a real responsibility to be proper stewards of Maryland’s taxpayer dollars and to know, to think about the things that we are going to invest in the long term is going to create the largest level of societal return.”

Some leading Democrats have warned that the state’s financial picture is more precarious than bulging balance sheets suggest.

“The party’s over,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said in September after budget forecasters reported the state’s historic surpluses would be even bigger than expected, warning that “a close look at this well-crafted report shows that the past few years of jaw-dropping revenue surpluses are firmly in the rear view. … History shows that extended periods of economic expansion are followed by fiscal contraction. In effect, what goes up must come down.”

At the moment, the expectations for Moore are atmospheric.

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“We’re very optimistic,” said Rich Norling, the political chair of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, of Moore’s goal to go beyond Maryland’s already aggressive plan to reduce carbon emissions. “There’s a lot of implementation that’s needed, and building capacity in state government. Under the eights years under the Hogan administration, a lot of the state government has been allowed to wither away.”

Cathryn Paul, the public policy director for the immigrant advocacy group CASA, said the organization’s No. 1 priority is to expand health care to everyone, regardless of immigration status.

Paul said the immigrant community rallied to get Moore “across the finish line” and wants to make permanent a three-year, $65 million initiative that allowed noncitizens and undocumented immigrants to receive the state’s earned income tax credit.

Paul said that as proud as she is to have a Black governor who also is the son of an immigrant, she intends to make sure that the policies important to the immigrant community move forward.

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“As much as I absolutely love Wes … he is a governor that we are not going to hold back in holding him accountable,” she said.

Larry Stafford, the executive director of Progressive Maryland, said he is most hopeful about Moore’s plans to tackle child poverty, which includes a $100-million-a-year baby bonds program. Moore wants to accelerate the $15 minimum wage to take effect two years early, but Stafford hopes inflation and housing costs prompt Moore to embrace $22-per-hour minimum wage next.

“Now we have a governor who is receptive and open to addressing the needs of working families,” he said.

Republicans, many of whom were resigned to Moore’s victory after far-right GOP nominee Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick) won the July primary, also have high expectations for Moore to deliver for rural areas. “I appreciate the slogan that he’ll leave no one behind,” said Maryland House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel. But he was skeptical that there won’t be disappointment.

“Gov.-elect Moore has never been in public office before. He’s certainly never had to do public budgeting before,” Buckel said. “It’s very easy to promise the interest groups the world, and if the money was out there for every purpose, we would do them all.”

Unions for state workers have complained that Hogan reduced state agencies, soliciting a campaign promise from Moore to address it. Retiring Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who oversaw House budget negotiations during the Hogan era, said Moore should undertake the costly and unglamorous mission of shoring up the state workforce first.

“You have these very important goals,” she said. “You’re not going to get there until you restore, in some cases, some very broken agencies.”

As Laura Weeldreyer, the executive director of the Maryland Family Network, listened to Moore’s acceptance speech Tuesday night, she heard a new promise to add atop the list she expects Moore to accomplish: an even greater expansion of free prekindergarten on top of a planned $4-billion-per-year overhaul of how education is delivered in the state.

“He very boldly said we’re going to make free pre-K for everyone,” she said. That comes alongside previous promises to prop up the state’s child-care network and to implement a long-sought, statewide family-leave program, estimated to cost around $500 million a year but the details of which haven’t been settled.

Each of those policies had been launched incrementally by Maryland Democrats in the General Assembly, but it will be up to the Moore administration to carry them to fruition in the next four years.

Warren G. Deschenaux, a former executive director of the state Department of Legislative Services, said Moore takes the helm at a time that looks much different from any he saw in his more than three decades working on Maryland’s budget.

“All the years, and it was a lot of years, we were always working from behind, handling scarcity,” he said, predicting that the surplus and gains from the federal government would be “sustainable for four years.”

“If we have a recession we’re going to need some of that cash just to keep going,” he said. “It’s possible we think we’re richer than what we will be.”

Plenty of people have been willing to offer the first-time politician advice. During a virtual fundraiser with former U.S. senator Hillary Clinton last month, Moore received what he described during the Zoom as a “master class,” with more than 100 people listening in.

Clinton spent about 15 minutes offering tips to a newbie governor that included staying connected to citizens; being selective on his appointments; and knowing his emergency response system “inside and out” because “literally you could get inaugurated and there’d be a flood or a bridge collapse.”

Clinton also gave a warning about overpromising.

“You have to tell people like, look, this is not going to be easy,” she said. “We’re trying to change a lot of things. But if you stick with me, we’ll get through it together and we’ll actually make something happen. No big razzle-dazzle promises, just kind of we’re rolling up our sleeves — I need you as my partner.”

2022 Maryland Gubernatorial Election: What to know

Races to watch: Wes Moore is projected to become Maryland’s first Black governor. In other historic races, Anthony G. Brown declares victory as Maryland’s first Black attorney, and Aruna Miller will be the state’s first immigrant and first woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor.

Key issues: Maryland’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana is among key issues that residents care about. Here’s what to know about Maryland’s recreational marijuana law.

What’s at stake: Why are midterm elections important? Democrats could dominate all branches of government if they prevail in November, and Republicans hope to keep a seat at the table.

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