Two African American political candidates in Maryland say civil rights leader and gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous attempted to keep them off the Democratic primary ballot to improve his own chances and those of a political ally.

Julian Ivey, a young rising star in Prince George’s County politics who has supported Jealous’s candidacy, said the former NAACP president called him this year to ask him not to challenge Del. Jimmy Tarlau in the June 26 primary. Tarlau, a 70-year-old freshman lawmaker, is also backing Jealous for governor.

Valerie Ervin, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor until the sudden death of her running mate, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said Jealous and his campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar, tried to keep her off that ticket by contacting her then-employer, the national Working Families Party when Kamenetz was recruiting her. The organization and its Maryland affiliate endorsed Jealous for governor months earlier.

Jealous spokesman Kevin Harris denied that Jealous tried to block Ivey or Ervin from running.

Harris said Jealous contacted officials at Working Families after hearing rumors that Kamenetz was considering Ervin as his running mate. Harris said the campaign wanted to know whether the rumors were true and what type of impact it might have on the organization’s endorsement.

“Ben didn’t try to influence them one way or another,” Harris said. “We’re not in their HR department. Did we have conversations with them? Yes. But that was normal because they had endorsed us.”

The allegations from Ivey and Ervin generated some of the first instances of open mudslinging within the crowded Democratic race to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in November.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who has led in early polls and is endorsed by leading Maryland Democrats, took a jab at Jealous on Twitter on Thursday after Ervin’s accusation was reported in the blog A Miner Detail.

“Wondering what Shirley Sherrod thinks of this story? Either way, Baker campaign welcomes @ValerieErvin to the #MDGov race,” Baker tweeted, posting a link to the story.

Sherrod was an Obama-era official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who lost her job after remarks she made were quoted out of context on a conservative website. Jealous, then president of the NAACP, was among the civil rights leaders who criticized her comments. He later apologized. Sherrod is among the many black officials nationwide backing his campaign,

In a reply to Baker, Jealous tweeted, “Given that she’s supporting us, she’d probably be more concerned about this,” then linked to news articles about the troubled Prince George’s school system.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ervin said she was fired from the Working Families Party after the Jealous campaign called a board member seeking a written assurance that she would not become Kamenetz’s running mate.

Ervin, who replaced Kamenetz at the top of the ticket after he died, said she refused. “Basically because of those calls, I was told, ‘Don’t come back,’ ” Ervin said.

Joe Dinkin, the communications director for the Working Families Party, said he asked Ervin to “put out a statement to put the speculation to rest” about her being considered by Kamenetz. After learning that the rumor was true, he told her that he “thought it was unwise for her to join an opposing ticket against our endorsed candidate.”

“She chose to leave the staff of the Working Families Party in order to run. . . . That was her decision alone,” he said.

Ivey, 22, has campaigned for Jealous and worked with him in 2016 on behalf of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). He said he got the call from Jealous in mid-January, after telling Tarlau that he was getting into the race. Jealous urged Ivey to run for a different office, he said.

“I knew that other people would try to persuade me” not to run, said Ivey, who is a member of the Cheverly Town Council. “I didn’t think someone like Ben, given the relationship that we had and what he stands for, would try to stop a young, progressive organizer from running for office.”

Harris said he did not “know where [the allegation from Ivey] was coming from.”

The campaign shared text messages between Ivey and Jealous from March to demonstrate the older Democrat’s support, including him encouraging Ivey to “hang in there. . . We are political family. Know that.”

Harris said Jealous is friendly with both Ivey — the son of former state delegate Jolene Ivey (D) and former Prince George’s state’s attorney Glenn Ivey (D) — and Tarlau and was often “put in the middle” of the two progressive candidates.

“At no point did Ben try to pressure one or the other to drop out of the race,” he said.

But Tarlau said he did ask Jealous to call Ivey because he thought it was a waste of time and progressive resources for the two delegate candidates to compete. “What does trying to keep him from running mean — having a conversation?” Tarlau said. “If someone called me or counseled me on whether it’s a good idea, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

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