Then the call came.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was running for governor in Maryland’s June 26 Democratic primary, and wanted Ervin to join his ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor. “The more excited he talked about his vision, the more I got excited,” she said.
Together, Kamenetz told Ervin, they represented Maryland: a progressive black woman from the state’s most populous jurisdiction and a moderate white man from bellwether Baltimore County. And he said something that resonated with her, especially in recent weeks: “ ‘In the event anything happened to me, Valerie, you could lead from Day One.’ ”
Ervin, 61, moved to the top of the ticket last month, after Kamenetz died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest, becoming the second black woman in the country vying for a governorship this year after Georgia’s Stacey Abrams.
While Kamenetz had been near the top of the field in early polls, Ervin, the first African American woman elected to the Montgomery County Council, was in the middle of the pack in a Washington Post-University of Maryland survey released last week. She received support from 8 percent of likely Democratic voters.
“She has a solid background and personal narrative to make her a good candidate,” said Mileah Kromer, a political-science professor at Goucher College. “But in this short of time period and with a lack of funds . . . is she able to tell people that narrative?”
Ervin, who wears a trademark “Black Girls Vote” button, said she hopes she can be “an example to women all over Maryland, whether they be black, brown — it doesn’t matter the color.
“Our time is here. Don’t blink.”
A mother of two and grandmother of four, Ervin, who is divorced, said she never thought she’d serve in public office while she was growing up. She jumped into the race for the Montgomery County Board of Education in 2003, after her oldest son’s teachers questioned his ability to read.
“My politics came from knowing that there was a system that was not designed for little black boys and girls and little brown boys and girls to be learners and exceed in ways that their counterparts were succeeding,” Ervin said.
A large part of her agenda is focused on improving public education, including universal prekindergarten. Her new running mate, Marisol Johnson, is a former member of the Baltimore County Board of Education.
But Ervin broke with her Democratic rivals at a recent debate by saying that public schools don’t necessarily need more money — they need to spend what they have wisely, and with equity in mind.
“We want to make sure that no matter what Zip code you live in, it doesn’t affect the quality of education you receive,” Ervin said in an interview. She also seeks a $15 an hour minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy in Maryland and child care for parents who cannot afford it.
Ervin said she sees “structural racism” in the criminal justice system and wants to make changes, including legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, so that jurisprudence is more fair.
“How is it that so many African American men are locked up on lesser charges like marijuana possession, or why are they locked up because they can’t bond out, because they can’t afford it or don’t have money to pay a fine?” she asked. “That’s what was instituted after slavery. It’s called debtors’ prison.”
She is firmly against legalized gambling, which she called a “regressive poverty tax, plain and simple,” and would oppose efforts to allow sports betting in Maryland. Her position comes in part from watching her mother play slots in New Mexico after Ervin’s father died in 2003. Ervin said she saw firsthand “the pain that gambling addiction can cause.”
Ervin’s father served in the Air Force. She was born in Guam and lived in Panama, South Dakota and New Mexico. As a child, she met Donna F. Edwards, who would go on to become a Maryland congresswoman and now is running for Prince George’s County executive. Edwards’s father also served in the military, and the men knew each other. The girls formed a friendship, and eventually a political alliance, that continues today .
Ervin dropped out of college after getting pregnant with her son. She worked as an union organizer, initially with poultry and catfish farm laborers in the Mississippi Delta, and moved to the Washington area in 1987 after being promoted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She finished her bachelor’s degree and earned her master’s degree at the University of Baltimore nearly two decades later.
Unions backed her as a council candidate but turned against her in 2011, after she supported changes in the arbitration process and an overhaul of the county’s disability retirement system.
“I’m always going to support people who work for a living,” Ervin said back then, explaining why she went against the union positions. “I’m in no different a situation today than I was then, except the people I’m speaking on behalf of are the taxpayers of Montgomery County. I don’t see anything incongruent about that.”
She has not shied from controversy this primary season either, accusing gubernatorial front-runner Ben Jealous of trying to keep her from joining Kamenetz’s ticket — an allegation Jealous denies. Her employer at the time, the Working Families Party, had endorsed Jealous in the governor’s race.
Ervin went to court last month to demand that the state reprint ballots to show her name and Johnson’s, instead of hers and Kamenetz’s. A judge ruled the state did not have time to make the change. The state Board of Elections instead will inform voters through signs posted at polling stations and information spread through social media. Ervin has decided not to appeal but says the decision is one more example of inequity.
“This is way bigger than the two of us,” she said, standing outside the Annapolis courtroom after last week’s hearing. “We have to do everything we can to support [people’s] right to vote and to be clear about who it is that they’re voting for . . . We’ve fought a really good fight, and we’re not done.”
Next: James Shea.
Read more candidate profiles: