Maryland gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous needs all the help he can get to unseat incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R), but he’s facing resistance from some fellow Democrats uneasy with his left-wing platform.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett is declining to endorse Jealous for now because of concerns that Jealous’s positions on taxes, school funding and Amazon.com’s second headquarters would penalize Leggett’s constituents in the state’s most populous jurisdiction.
Long-serving Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), an influential moderate, offered only tepid backing for Jealous while praising Hogan for “governing from the middle.”
Other top Maryland Democrats, while voicing strong support for Jealous, disagree with him on issues such as his support for state-based, single-payer health care. They include U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), all of whom say they favor the goal of universal health care but question whether Maryland can afford it.
The wariness about Jealous illustrates a fissure between the party’s establishment wing and the restive, left-leaning faction that delivered Jealous’s triumph in the June 26 primary and also has been visible in statehouse and local elections.
Cardin, asked if Jealous was too far to the left, said, “I’m very comfortable with his vision for Maryland. Do I agree with all of [his positions]? No.”
Jealous, a former NAACP president seeking office for the first time, easily beat five main rivals in the primary, buoyed by support from unions and local and national progressive politicians and groups. On Friday, he was endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
During the primary, almost all of Maryland’s elected Democratic leaders backed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who finished a distant second.
Now some party leaders are urging Jealous to soften his stances to improve his chances of beating Hogan, who enjoys high ratings in opinion polls. In addition to supporting Medicare for all, Jealous favors debt-free college, a 29 percent increase in teachers’ pay, shrinking the prison population and legalizing marijuana.
The Hogan campaign, with help from television advertisements aired by the Republican Governors Association, is trying to define Jealous in the public’s mind as a risky, big spender who would raise taxes.
“Everybody in the Democratic establishment is concerned that if he doesn’t moderate himself, he has no chance against Hogan,” said a Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic was politically sensitive.
Jealous is scheduled to meet Monday with top state Democratic elected officials to discuss campaign strategy.
Kevin Harris, a senior adviser to Jealous, said such conversations were normal as the party unites after a robust primary.
“We understand that the party is not monolithic,” Harris said. “It doesn’t mean that those disagreements are so large that ultimately we won’t be a unified party.”
Asked about the pressure to move toward the center, Harris said, “What we’re hearing is that Ben needs to be prepared to compete everywhere, to not take any part of the state for granted.”
Jealous has been holding “unity” events with other party leaders, including two in Prince George’s this month at which Baker endorsed him. (Miller attended one of the events, but did not make remarks.) On Saturday, Jealous was scheduled to appear in Silver Spring with two liberals who strongly back him, Attorney General Brian Frosh and Rep. Jamie Raskin.
Leggett — who has spent a career advising other African American politicians, including Baker — said he plans to meet with Jealous soon to “clarify” the nominee’s stances on issues of importance to Montgomery.
“My first responsibility is to Montgomery County,” said Leggett, who has pledged to support Democratic county executive nominee Marc Elrich over Nancy Floreen, a longtime Democratic council member who changed her party affiliation to run as an independent. “I’m not sure they [in the Jealous campaign] have thought through the impact and implications of some of the positions that they’ve taken.”
Montgomery has the highest median income in the state after Howard County, and Leggett said he’s concerned its residents would suffer unfairly from Jealous’s proposal to pay for programs in part by raising the state income tax by one percentage point on the top 1 percent of earners.
The county would account for about 38 percent of the total revenue raised under Jealous’s plan, Leggett estimated, more than double Montgomery’s 17 percent share of the state’s population.
“That disproportionately hits me,” said Leggett, who noted that he had a similar disagreement years ago with a tax proposal offered by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Leggett also expressed concern that Montgomery would be hurt by Jealous’s plans to adjust school funding formulas, partly to help low-performing school districts. And he said Jealous appears insufficiently supportive of state and local efforts to persuade online retail giant Amazon to place its second headquarters in Montgomery. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
As for Hogan, Leggett praised him for supporting the light-rail Purple Line and helping to keep Marriott’s headquarters in Montgomery, and said his popularity in the heavily Democratic county has grown since 2014. “He’s worked very well with me,” Leggett said.
Harris, the Jealous adviser, said of Leggett: “Our understanding is not that he’s withholding an endorsement. Everything he’s indicated to us is that he’s supportive of Ben but wants to have a meeting.”
Miller, the Senate president, sounded more enthusiastic about Hogan than Jealous in a telephone interview. He lauded the governor for moving to the middle on some issues, such as supporting expansion of scholarships for community college, and predicted he would be hard to beat.
“He understands that Maryland is a state of the middle temperament,” Miller said.
Asked if he was supporting Jealous, Miller said, “I’m supporting the entire Democratic ticket.” Then he talked about the importance of winning state Senate races to protect the Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the chamber.
Miller praised Jealous’s campaign organization but warned he was “not a known quantity here in the state of Maryland.”
“Until fairly recently, Ben Jealous was a California commodity,” Miller said, referring to Jealous’s time living on the West Coast. “He has a long way to go.”
Raskin, who readily endorsed Jealous after supporting state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) in the primary, said it was vital for Jealous to win over the party leadership to beat Hogan. By unifying Democrats, he said, Jealous could take advantage of the party’s 2-to-1 edge over Republicans in party registration.
“Ben Jealous won as an outsider,” Raskin said. “And now he needs to make good friends with the insiders as quickly as possible.”