First in a series of profiles of Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates.
The sparse crowd chanted, “Bernie! Bernie!” as former NAACP president Ben Jealous and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders arrived on the makeshift stage.
“We’re going to change that to ‘Ben! Ben!’ ” said Sanders (I-Vt.), who was appearing for the third time to support Jealous’s run for Maryland governor. “While we have a president who wants to win votes by dividing us up . . . this is going to be a governor who brings us together.”
Jealous, the child of an interracial couple who left Maryland for California because they couldn’t be married in their home state, is seeking support from two distinct groups: white liberals who backed Sanders in the 2016 presidential race and African American voters who largely stayed home in 2014 because they were less than inspired by Anthony G. Brown, that year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
With nearly 4 in 10 voters still undecided three weeks before the June 26 Democratic primary, the first-time candidate is one of two contenders leading a crowded field: Twenty-one percent of likely voters say they support him while 16 percent support Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
Stacey Abrams, a longtime friend who is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, said Jealous “knows that every vote matters and that you have to contact every voter. But you have to particularly pay attention to the communities that are typically ignored by campaigns.”
Jealous wants Maryland to require a $15 minimum wage and become the first state in the country to adopt its own single-payer health-care system. As governor, he says, he would aim to reduce the prison population by 30 percent, raise the cigarette tax and increase income taxes by 1 percent on the top 1 percent of earners to help pay for several programs that would allow students to go to public colleges and universities free.
He also wants to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana to help pay for universal prekindergarten.
“Folks will tell you that the things I want to do are big and hard, and they are right. But nothing worth doing is ever easy,” Jealous said in an interview. “I’ve spent my whole life getting the big done, making the hard possible.”
Some analysts say Jealous, 45, is too far to the left to beat popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, noting that while Maryland has a 2-to-1 Democratic voter advantage, Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary by a similar margin.
“There are a lot of moderate and conservative Democrats in the state,” said Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College. “I think they are going to be concerned about single-payer health care, teachers getting a 29 percent pay increase, full-day universal pre-K.”
But he is catching on with some voters. Karen Randall, a teacher from Howard County, said she was sold on Jealous after her son, Jordan, went to a rally for the candidate and came home excited.
“When you have a 23-year-old male child who says, ‘I really want you to hear this guy,’ you know it sparked something inside of him,” said Randall, who later attended an event for Jealous hosted by the state teachers’ union. “After last year’s election, things need to change.”
Jealous has won multiple endorsements from progressive groups such as Working Families and Our Revolution; unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the Maryland State Education Association; and leading liberal Democrats such as U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).
He calls it a “rainbow coalition of relationships.”
His “godbrother,” comedian Dave Chappelle, is heading to Maryland to campaign for him this weekend.
Jealous was 35 when he took the helm of the NAACP in 2008, the youngest-ever president and chief executive officer of the country’s oldest civil rights organization.
He left the job in 2013, midway through an extended three-year contract, to focus on lowering his blood pressure and spending more time with his wife, Lia Epperson, and two young children. The couple divorced in 2015.
While at the NAACP, Jealous was a lead advocate for proposals in the Maryland General Assembly to legalize same-sex marriage, abolish the death penalty and implement the Dream Act, which allows some undocumented immigrant students access to in-state college tuition.
His descriptions of those efforts have prompted grumbling from gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery), the only lawmaker in the race. Madaleno, who was deeply involved in passing the legislation, says Jealous is taking too much credit.
“Ben’s leadership helped make this civil right possible in Maryland,” countered Jealous campaign manager Travis Tazelaar, who helped lead the DREAM act and same-sex marriage campaigns. “And all progressives who worked to make this possible should be proud instead of attacking each other.”
Jealous’s push for the NAACP to pass a resolution supporting same-sex marriage was controversial, leading to a backlash from some more socially conservative members of the board.
Still, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, said Jealous helped bring stability to the beleaguered organization by raising its profile and boosting membership and fundraising. He said Jealous largely focused his efforts at the state level, working with local chapters on a broad agenda that included civil rights, social justice and economic reform.
“His sensitivity is to the needs of people, not just those at the top but those at the grass roots,” Anthony said.
His biggest NAACP misstep came in 2010, when Jealous wrongly condemned U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod for making allegedly racist comments. He apologized after learning that the comments were taken out of context by a conservative blogger, and Sherrod has endorsed his gubernatorial campaign.
Jealous, who grew up in California, spent summers with his grandparents in West Baltimore. He got his start in politics at age 14, working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
While studying at Columbia University, he led protests, including one to block efforts to tear down the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. That demonstration resulted in a suspension from the Ivy League university.
Jealous went on to become a Rhodes scholar. Since leaving the NAACP, he has worked as a tech investor with the Kapor Center for Social Impact.
Throughout his childhood and adulthood, Jealous has struggled with a stutter, which was especially noticeable during a recent televised debate. In a Facebook message last year, he said, “When I was young, it was actually a source of great stress.”
He worked on controlling the stammer back then by practicing debating, he said in the post. The idea was suggested by one of Baltimore’s first black judges, Robert B. Watts, who was also a friend of his grandfather.
Jealous said he thinks Maryland is ready for a different approach than those offered by more-traditional politicians. “I come with the optimism of an organizer who knows we can do big things in Maryland when we’re willing to come together,” he said.
Next: Rushern L. Baker III.