Correction: Earlier versions of this article did not include state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) as one of the Democrats seeking the 2018 gubernatorial nomination.


Former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous at his May 31 announcement that he is running for governor of Maryland. (Brian Witte/Associated Press)

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous spoke to a group of Prince George’s County Democrats on Monday night about expanding economic opportunity and reducing mass incarceration, his latest foray into the voter-rich back yard of a potential rival for his party’s nomination.

In a 10-minute talk at the South County Democratic Club’s monthly meeting, the former NAACP chief described his most recent job, working for a venture capitalist firm that supports many minority-owned businesses; his work promoting President Barack Obama’s policy initiatives; and his efforts on behalf of the failed presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

But what seemed to resonate most with the crowd in Suitland — many of whom lived during the civil rights era — was Jealous’s call to push the political conversation beyond civil rights toward a broader discussion about economic injustice.

“The biggest gap in our society is not black and white but rich and poor,” said Jealous, describing himself as the son of a black mother from Baltimore and a white father from Michigan. “We need to make sure we expand the pathways to opportunity that can exist if we have the courage to lead from the bottom up.”

Jealous, who visited a church in nearby Clinton on Sunday, is courting voters in a deeply Democratic county whose executive, Rushern L. Baker III, is expected to announce his own candidacy in the next several weeks.

He shrugged off a question from the audience about whether the two African American leaders could divide the black vote in what is expected to be a crowded field seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2018. And he decried the Democratic Party’s failure to genuinely engage poor black voters who, he said, keep voting for Democrats but see little change in their lives, even when those candidates win.

Prince George’s voters came out in force for Obama but failed to match those same levels of turnout in 2014 and 2016. Jealous blamed the drop-off, and the subsequent elections of Hogan and President Trump, on disillusioned Democrats who have not seen their economic fortunes improve.

“To turn folks out, we have to give them a reason to vote,” Jealous said.

Retired educator Maxine Swann said Jealous caught her ear when he broached the question of how the state is using casino money to fund education, even though his speech was light on policy specifics. She was willing to hear more of what the lifelong activist has to say.

“He gives opinions on what should happen but not on proposing particular policies,” said Swann, who described herself as a fan of Sanders who nevertheless cast her primary ballot for establishment favorite — and eventual nominee — Hillary Clinton.

“I loved Bernie, but we just didn’t think he’d be elected. We went with what we thought was the surer bet,” Swann said. “Maybe it will be different with Jealous.”

James Dula, president of the South County Democratic Club, said Jealous is the first gubernatorial candidate the group has hosted.

Curiosity about his platform was overwhelming, Dula said, whereas voters seem to know what they are getting in other, more politically seasoned candidates. (In addition to Baker, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, U.S. Rep. John Delaney, former state attorney general Doug Gansler and Baltimore attorney James L. Shea have said they may seek the nomination. State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) and Baltimore tech entrepreneur Alec Ross are running.)

“He’s appealing to the common man, because he’s talking about the community issues,” Dula said of Jealous. “He is talking from the perspective of an outsider, but with experience, to try to make a difference.”