It would be a stretch to call Ben Jealous part of Maryland’s African American political establishment.
But at a “unity breakfast” Saturday morning, leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland said they were cautiously optimistic the Democratic nominee for governor would win in November after a long primary season.
Many in the 300-strong crowd at a Greenbelt hotel deep in the home turf of Rushern L. Baker III, Jealous’s main primary opponent, had been enthusiastic supporters of Baker, the Prince George’s County executive. Baker’s centrist, pragmatic platform contrasted with Jealous’s progressive agenda.
Still, the audience Saturday gave a standing ovation during a speech in which Jealous called on Democrats to organize “harder than we’ve ever organized” to register new voters and encourage them to turn out at the polls in November.
“In these times, we know as Americans that it’s easy to divide people against each other,” he said, but “it is easier to unite people across every line we’ve been raised to believe must divide us.”
Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, faces an uphill run against incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has drawn wide appeal across the state — including among many Democrats — for his moderate positions and personal appeal.
In his keynote speech at the breakfast, Jealous focused less on attacking Hogan and more on his own progressive platform points, such as college affordability and universal health care. The speech also touched on the life stories of his own family and social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Jealous said both had benefited from economic opportunity once available in the state.
“If Frederick Douglass had to go to Bowie State or UMD [the University of Maryland] before becoming a builder, he may not have become a builder because he would be so deep in debt today,” Jealous told the crowd.
While Jealous comfortably won the primary 10 points ahead of Baker — his closest challenger in the contest — parts of that platform, including single-payer health care and the legalization of marijuana, may be a tough sell to Democrats in Maryland, where voters overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the state’s 2016 presidential primary.
“Some people are still skeptical,” state Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said at the breakfast. “His message is a little more than people can digest at this time.”
It didn’t help that in the primaries in June, three established state senators from Baltimore — all of them African American — were ousted by challenges from more progressive state delegates whose agendas align with Jealous’s.
Still, African American state lawmakers at the breakfast largely cast aside concerns that Jealous is too progressive, instead saying the novice politician must focus on engaging with voters across the state.
Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Dorchester and Wicomico) said Jealous will be able to win in November if he can show average voters what his progressive platform can do for them.
“It’s important for all of us to let people in your community understand the value of their vote,” she said, “and in knowing that their local elected officials make those decisions for them.”
Hogan aides said they can point to results he has produced in office. Doug Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign manager, said the governor has “very strong, comprehensive records” on health care and education. In his first term, the governor provided record funding for education four years in a row and collaborated with lawmakers to stabilize the state’s health insurance market.
Still Barnes, the caucus chair, said Saturday’s speech helped to convince him that Jealous would be able to win in November.
“People just want to feel inspired, and he provides that,” Barnes said, but added, “It’s going to take a concentrated effort from all of us to get him across the finish line.”