Ben Jealous entered the race for governor of Maryland with a remarkable résumé—Rhodes scholar, investigative journalist, past president of the Rosenberg Foundation, founding director of Amnesty International’s US Domestic Human Rights Program, youngest-ever national president of the NAACP, high-profile surrogate for the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. But what truly distinguished Jealous as a first-time candidate—and made him a big winner in Tuesday’s Democratic primary—was his sharp focus on framing a progressive agenda for Maryland and the nation.
Recognizing that one state can serve as what then–US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to in 1932 as a “laboratory of democracy,” Jealous proposed to do in Maryland what is not being done in Donald Trump’s Washington—but what could be done in other states.
“It is time for us to dream again. It is time for us to get back to making big dreams real again,” said Jealous in a campaign where he emphasized the unique role that a state with progressive leadership can play to solve real problems within its borders and to inspire other states to act.
“We have a rare opportunity right now and hidden inside of it, an obligation,” he declared. “We must bring people together across all lines, and make all forms of difference less important: whether it be race, class, region or religion.”
Those coalitions, Jealous says, can “create a [single-payer Medicare for All] healthcare system that ensures residents are protected, regardless of what President Trump does in Washington,” “end student debt and make it possible for every Marylander to attend community college, public university, or learn a trade for free,” “institut[e] new policies statewide that more aggressively address police misconduct and prevent the killing of unarmed civilians,” “[make] Maryland a welcoming state to refugees,” and “[set] a deadline for 100% clean and renewable energy and provide 21st-century jobs for the Maryland economy.”
Few gubernatorial candidates in Maryland or nationally have gone as deep as Jealous has with his run. His campaign, with strong backing from Sanders, the Working Families Party, and unions representing teachers and nurses, has issued detailed position papers outlining progressive policies on health care, education, and building a 21st-century economy. It has highlighted specific agenda items such as raising wages to $15 an hour, legalizing marijuana, and “fighting concentrated poverty.” It has been especially serious about climate change and developing a clean-energy jobs, winning endorsements from Bill McKibben, 350.org, and Friends of the Earth Action. And it has invited voters into serious conversations about criminal-justice reform and urban renewal.
Voters were impressed. In a nine-way contest that pitted him against several prominent Democrats with longer histories in electoral politics, Jealous finished with 40 percent of the vote. That put him 11 points ahead of the next-closest contender, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, a favorite of the party establishment who ran with the backing of former governor Martin O’Malley and most of the state’s prominent Democratic elected officials.
The solid support that Jealous secured in the primary provided an indication that his big-vision politics really can translate into big vote totals. Now the Democratic nominee must build on the momentum as he heads into a tough fall contest with Republican Governor Larry Hogan.
For Jealous, the key to winning will be mobilization of voters in a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, and which in 2016 backed Hillary Clinton by a 26-point margin over Donald Trump.
To do that, he has to continue to get voters thinking about how Maryland might lead the nation in a very different direction from the one Trump and his Republican allies are taking. It will not be easy. Hogan is a smart politician; he has distanced himself from Trump on at least some issues. But the incumbent has shown little inclination to innovate—let alone to build the coalitions that might free Maryland and America from the confines of status-quo politics.
“This campaign is about seizing a moment to build a movement to make sure that everyone in Maryland moves forward, no matter what happens in Donald Trump’s Washington,” declared Ben Jealous, as he claimed the Democratic nomination for governor. “Larry Hogan has no idea what’s about to hit him.”