Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Ben Jealous. (Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Rushern L. Baker III, candidate for Maryland governor. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Two black men from Maryland, with vastly different backgrounds and political styles, are vying for the chance to become the third African American ever elected governor in the United States.

Ben Jealous, a community activist and former president of the NAACP, and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III are competing against at least five other candidates for the Democratic nomination in a blue state where African Americans make up a third of the population.

Black political leaders in Maryland are watching closely, aware that some African American candidates who have run statewide in the past say they have not felt fully supported by the Democratic establishment. Political leaders say they are worried that Baker and Jealous could split the all-important black vote, especially if policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore, who is also African American, gets into the race.

"We know how difficult it is [to elect a black governor] . . . and the fact that we have two black candidates and possibly another, it's frustrating," said state Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore), who chairs the state's legislative black caucus. "They could cancel each other out."

Whoever wins the June primary will face off against Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who drew strong support from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in 2014 and remains highly popular across party lines.

But at a time of growing racial division in this country, in a blue state where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 26 points, analysts say Hogan could still be vulnerable, especially if Democrats who stayed home three years ago come out to vote.

"There are two strategies for Democrats to take," said Mileah Kromer, a political-science professor at Goucher College. "They can nominate a progressive and hope they entice that progressive base . . . or they can nominate someone . . . who has a message that has a more moderate appeal."

Targeting the base

Jealous shares a laugh with Minnye King, a volunteer at a Delta Sigma Theta crab fest in Baltimore this summer. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Jealous stops for a photo at the crab fest. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Jealous, a first-time candidate, has national prominence and strong name recognition for his work as NAACP chief and Maryland co-chairman of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. He is one of four black progressive forty-somethings running for governor across the country. His platform includes a $15 minimum wage, free tuition at community college and a state-run, single-payer health-care system.

"I've spent my life as a community organizer," Jealous said. "My track record is leading big, transformative reform efforts and succeeding despite the odds."

The 44-year-old Democrat stumped for votes this summer at a crab fest in Baltimore County sponsored by the African American sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and he hosted an event for black professionals at his home in Pasadena, a mostly white community in Anne Arundel County.

He has made many stops in Prince George's, Baker's home turf, where low turnout in 2014 was a key factor in Hogan's victory over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), a longtime politician from Prince George's who stirred little voter enthusiasm.

At a panel discussion on the "state of black America" at the Congressional Black Caucus's recent legislative conference, Jealous cast the battle for universal health insurance in the framework of the civil rights movement.

"We practice the faith of our ancestors, who were the first to stand up en masse for public education across the South," he said. "They said, 'We'll find a way.' Today it's the same responsibility pushing many of us to say, 'Everybody must have health care.' . . . It's the leading cause of bankruptcy, not just in our community, but every community."

Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams (D), a longtime friend to Jealous who is vying to become the nation's first black female governor, said their campaigns are motivated by a sense that "there is an urgency to this moment that cannot be ignored."

"We are not waiting our turn. . . . Our turn is now," Abrams said.

Avoiding identity politics

Baker, 58, a state delegate for nine years before becoming county executive, has built a reputation in Annapolis and the D.C. suburbs as a moderate who works closely with party leaders.

He showed no interest in Sanders's anti-establishment campaign, endorsing former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley for president and then backing Hillary Clinton once O'Malley dropped out.

Baker hugs Cindy Schelhorn of the Alzheimer’s Association during an organization event at Maryland’s National Harbor on Sept. 23. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Baker angered some Prince George's voters by joining top Maryland Democrats in supporting then-U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is white, over then-U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), who is African American and lives in the county, in their pitched 2016 primary battle to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D).

While he has targeted the African American community for fundraising — his fraternity brothers held an event for him during the CBC conference, and African American entrepreneur Alexander "A.J." Johnson, a Clinton donor, hosted one in Atlanta last week — Baker shies away from identity politics and has avoided casting his campaign in racial terms. Asked during a recent interview about being an African American candidate for governor, he interjected to say he is "being Rushern Baker for governor."

"We're going to take our message to everybody," Baker said.

When he worked the room at the Deltas' crab fest, he was recognized far less often than Jealous. An aide who worked for former Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), introduced him to familiar faces.

Darius Foreman, 26, a college student in Harford County who came over to talk, said later that with the increased racial tension following the presidential election, he is more likely to consider voting for a black gubernatorial candidate.

"I think we need to elect people with more diverse thinking and more diverse experiences," Foreman said.

Baker's campaign pitch focuses on how he's rebuilt his county's government and reputation following the 2010 arrest on federal corruption charges of his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, with a focus on economic development, housing and education.

"When I look at what we had to do in Prince George's County, given the circumstances we were in, and I look at the state, it's not dissimilar," he said.

Jealous speaks with Karen Brown, center, and Towanda Brogden during a Baltimore campaign stop Aug. 1. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
New vs. familiar

Jealous has the endorsement of the Collective PAC, a political action committee led by a former NAACP board member that helps recruit, train and fund progressive black Democratic candidates.

The group held a fundraiser for Jealous and three other statewide candidates at the CBC conference featuring U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), among others. Jealous has also won backing from progressive groups with close ties to Sanders, both nationally and in Maryland.

Baker, meanwhile, has received endorsements from a few longtime state lawmakers from Prince George's, including state Sens. Joanne Benson, Paul Pinsky, Douglas J.J. Peters and Ulysses Currie, who is retiring. Glenn, the black caucus chair, said she will probably support him, as well. "Rushern Baker has come up through the ranks," Glenn said. "He has a lot of experience with elected office . . . some of us still believe that is an essential factor."

Two Democratic strategists, who declined to be named, said they think voters from the party — black and white — may be more likely to support Baker, who could be seen as less polarizing than Jealous in an era when racial fissures in this country seem deeper than ever.

Baker talks with attendees of the Alzheimer’s Association event. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

But several African American politicians said they have seen a groundswell of interest in Jealous from their constituents.

Del. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore), a first-term lawmaker, said voters in his diverse northeast Baltimore district, especially white liberals, seem to like Jealous's platform and approach. "People want to feel connected," McCray said. "They want to feel you are authentic."

Del. Jay Walker (D), chairman of the Prince George's delegation in the House of Delegates, said voters are curious about Jealous, who has lived in Maryland for less than a decade. "That's not a slight against Baker," Walker said. "They know Baker. They are just curious about Jealous."

Parity within the party

The last two African Americans who ran for statewide office in Maryland fell short, which some black politicians say is proof of the obstacles they face.

Edwards lost to Van Hollen. And Brown blew a double-digit polling lead over Hogan in 2014, largely because of tepid turnout from Democrats overall and African Americans in particular.

After the 2016 primary, Edwards blamed her loss on the party establishment's open support for Van Hollen. And while she agrees with those who say Brown ran a lackluster gubernatorial campaign, she also says Maryland's Democratic leaders hurt his chances by failing to fully embrace his candidacy.

Former U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.). (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

U.S. representative and former Maryland lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown (D), right. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)

The former congresswoman, who is weighing a run to succeed Baker as county executive, would not provide any specific examples. Brown, who won Edwards's old House seat last year, did not return calls seeking comment. But Quincey Gamble, who was a senior adviser to Brown, said the campaign would have benefited from having a "stronger operational relationship" with the party during the general election.

"I think it would be fair to say we were probably not on the same page on who would play what role," Gamble said.

Yvette Lewis, who served as state chair of the party in 2014, declined to comment.

Edwards said her frustration with the party dates back at least to the 2006 Senate primary, when Democratic leaders backed then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, over Kweisi Mfume, a former NAACP president and congressman.

Disappointed because there were no black candidates at the top of the state Democratic ticket, several Prince George's politicians endorsed Republican Senate nominee Michael S. Steele, a black former lieutenant governor, over Cardin. Cardin won by 10 points.

"The question is what is it that we in the Democratic Party are willing to do for candidates of color, for women candidates?" Edwards said.

Kathleen Matthews, the current party chair, said Democrats are "taking nothing for granted in 2018. . . . We have to go after every vote."

Baker and Jealous say their messages should resonate with voters regardless of race. But each candidate also acknowledges that he would have to energize and capture a large share of the African American vote to defeat the others vying for the nomination: state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, lawyer James L. Shea and former Michelle Obama aide Krishanti Vignarajah.

"It's still not easy in many states for a black candidate to generate crossover votes in the white community," said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League. "Obama broke a glass ceiling. . . . But still the coalition that comes together for white Democrats doesn't come as easily together for black Democrats."