The two straight white guys are near the bottom of the polls.
That’s one way to capture the unusual diversity of the Democrats competing in Tuesday’s primary for a chance to unseat Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — another straight white guy.
Former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, the front-runners in recent polls, are vying for the chance to be the first African American elected governor in Maryland (only two African Americans have ever been elected governor nationwide: Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts).
Trailing them are state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., who was the first openly gay person elected to the Maryland General Assembly; former Obama appointee Krishanti Vignarajah, a Sri Lankan immigrant; attorney James L. Shea and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross.
The diverse slate shows Maryland’s Democratic Party — which in the past has been accused of not embracing candidates of color — is “slowly confronting changing demographics,” said Lorenzo Morris, professor of political science at Howard University.
“It’s a party in transition,” Morris said, adding that the diverse slate of “viable candidates builds credibility for future elections,” even if the six candidates face an uphill battle against Hogan, who has a 69 percent approval rating.
Valerie Ervin, who was the first black woman elected to the Montgomery County Council, also was a gubernatorial candidate for a few weeks this spring, taking the place of her former running mate, Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz, after he died of a heart attack. Ervin later dropped out of the race.
Shea and Ross are white, as was Kamenetz.
At an early voting site in Prince George’s County this week, Karen Wilcher, an African American flight attendant, said she would be “proud” to elect any Democrat in the diverse field.
“The powers that be need to be more reflective of their constituents,” said Wilcher, who voted for Baker. “It’s hard to speak for people who you don’t have empathy for.”
Baker and Jealous have courted African American sororities and fraternities and attended events for black professionals in their attempts to secure crucial votes in black communities.
But they have also campaigned “less on race than on the divisions within the Democratic Party,” said Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard. Baker has touted his economic development record, budget experience and efforts to reform the troubled Prince George’s school system. Jealous has talked about shaking up the establishment and touted his progressive credentials.
Woodward-Burns said Vignarajah and Madaleno, who have consistently polled in the single digits, have attempted to “distinguish themselves more on their identity” in an attempt to “rile up Democrats” angry with President Trump.
Vignarajah, the only woman or immigrant in the race, has described herself as “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare” and highlights her gender on the campaign trail, including releasing advertisements in which she breast-feeds her 1-year-old daughter, Alana.
Madaleno’s campaign ran an ad in which he said he was trying to irritate President Trump — by featuring a smooch with his husband.
“Historically, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this,” said Irwin Morris, professor and chair of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
The lieutenant governor candidates on each ticket are also a diverse lot: the running mates of Baker and Jealous, Elizabeth Embry and Susan Turnbull, respectively, are white women; Madaleno and Vignarajah each put black women, Luwanda Jenkins and Sharon Blake, respectively, on their tickets; Ross is running with Julie Verratti, who is openly gay; and Shea is running with Brandon Scott, a black man.
“The number of people running and the diversity — I haven’t seen anything like it,” said Meredith Burnett, 47, who carried a voter’s guide with her choices circled in blue ink when she cast her ballot Wednesday in Silver Spring.
Burnett, an African American business professor, decided to go with Jealous because “he is a strong African American candidate . . . with the greatest possibility of winning in November.”
Maryland Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews said the diversity of Democratic candidates will help the party in November, when she predicts voters “will see the Democratic Party is a big party that represents Maryland’s future and is a reflection of them.”
The majority of about a dozen voters interviewed at an early voting site in Prince George’s last week said they had given little thought to the potential “firsts” in the race and are more focused on how the candidates stack up to Hogan.
“We care about substance — what can they do for us?,” said Wilhelmina Smith, 75, as she stood with her husband, Lloyd Smith, after voting in the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center in Landover.
She and her husband are African American, and both are Democrats — she voted for Jealous and he for Baker in the primary. In November, however, they said they will probably support Hogan, whom they gave points for lowering tolls and his handling of the civil unrest in Baltimore in 2015.
Sitting on a nearby bench, small-business owner Eugene Smith, 57, said that he also planned to vote for Hogan in November.
“As a black man, I would love to see a black man in the governorship,” Smith said. “But I want someone in office who will do the best job.”
Neither Jealous nor Baker have the records or experience to convince him they would do better than Hogan, he said.