Talking About The Impossible: Ben Jealous wants to unite the Democrats and turn the governor’s seat back to blue

Ben Jealous and I are in the 100 East Pratt building in early November talking about his race for the Maryland Governor’s office. I am trying to get Jealous, a former head of the NAACP, community organizer, and a Rhodes Scholar, to talk about the fate of the Democratic party after Donald Trump’s surprise presidential election win.

Trump’s administration has been devastating for the progressive community, and as many try to hold on to political ground they have worked years to gain, the unresolved animosity among Democrats and independents hasn’t made the work any easier. The back and forth over Hillary versus Bernie, “economic” anxiety versus plain old racism, and just how far left the party should push itself, hasn’t stopped.

But Jealous won’t touch it today.

“It’s time for us to build a movement of working families across this state,” he tells me. “That will be Democrats, Independents, and frankly even some Republicans who are tired of a governor who only is good for half measures.”

Health insurance and taxes are at the top of everyone’s minds no matter what their zip code, he says.

“You’re in Dundalk, they’re still mourning the loss of Bethlehem Steel,” he says. “You’re in Cumberland, they’ll point to the prison and say that’s where the factory used to be. You’re on the Eastern Shore, I’m sitting with a little white girl, middle class family, buried three classmates this year who died of the opioid epidemic. I’m in Baltimore City talking to high school students; five kids shot and killed at the high school this year.”

Jealous then provides a lived-in universalism: “Every struggle you see in black East and West Baltimore, you see in white in Cumberland. There’s danger in moments like these when working families, economically struggling families, are super stressed out across this country.”

The solution, Jealous says, is to talk about the problems that unite us all—the struggles all Marylanders face and then work together to fix them.

“This is not about Democrats versus Republicans, this is about the people of Maryland. We have the opportunity to build a movement and what I’ve done my whole life is build movements.”

Jealous, who was born in California but spent summers here in Maryland as a child, has been a student organizer (as a teen, he worked for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign), a journalist (for the black Mississippi-based newspaper the Jackson Advocate), the founding director of Amnesty International’s U.S. Domestic Human Rights Program, and the head of California-based grantmaking group the Rosenberg Foundation. In 2008, at the age of 35, he became the youngest president and CEO of the NAACP.

He’s quick to remind me that during his tenure, the NAACP helped push to make same-sex marriage legal here in Maryland, and also in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington State. He’s behind the successful efforts to abolish the death penalty in Maryland and pass the DREAM act here too.

“[In 2012] I put organizers from the NAACP on the ground in Baltimore City, in Prince George’s County to deliver votes for marriage equality, while running the largest nonpartisan door-to-door voting effort in the country and the largest nonpartisan unlikely voter turnout [effort],” he says. “ Every single one of those efforts they told me was impossible, they even said that it was unlikely black men would show up to vote for Barack Obama, and that year we set records. We did all of that the same way. We built a bigger, more robust coalition than anyone thought was possible. And that how we’ll win this election. I tell folks every day, I’m not running toward the left, I’m not running toward the right, I’m just running toward the people.”

Jealous isn’t a politician per se, but he has the air and cadence of one. On paper, he’s a revolutionary with a deep history of protest. In real life, his answers can sometimes feel canned. He takes pauses and you can see him searching briefly for a necessary talking point—like Cory Booker, he seems intent to follow the straight-down-the-line, low-key progressive rhetoric of President Barack Obama. It hints at the line that he must walk (whether he’d like to admit it or not) between the varying degrees of progressivism.

Jealous must consider the white moderates who feel comfortable with Hogan the person, even if they don’t necessarily like all of his policies. (In an October poll released by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategies, more than half of Democrats questioned said they approved of Hogan, but fewer than 25 percent said they’d vote for him). He must win over white Bernie bros, women who went all in for Hillary, young black people who align closely with DeRay Mckesson and the Black Lives Matter movement, and also some of the more socially conservative black people who know like the back of their hands, the preachers’ cadence that Jealous sometimes falls into.

It’s quite a task.

And what hovers in the background is the devastating, surprising 2014 loss of Democratic candidate Anthony Brown to Larry Hogan for governor and subsequent high approval rating among Democrats for Hogan. That local election was telling, and perhaps predictive of the 2016 presidential election: A moderate, establishment Democrat thought they had it in the bag and didn’t campaign the way they should have (famously, some of Brown’s signs simply read “Vote for the Democrats”) or really push any buttons, and lost as a result. In this sense, Jealous’ alignment with Sanders—he co-chaired the Sanders campaign in Maryland—makes sense.  Jealous provides a contrast to Brown’s election-losing, Hilary-like, middle-of-the-roadness.

Jealous announced that he was running for governor at the end of May and announced the addition of a running mate, Democratic insider Susan W. Turnbull last month. Turnbull is a Bethesda resident and served as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party from 2009 to 2011 and as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. A Clinton surrogate during the election, Turnbull is also a co-founder of Emerge Maryland, a progressive group that helps women run for office.

Jealous has picked up endorsements from grassroots group Progressive Maryland, labor union Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the group National Nurses United. He’s also backed by Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker.

He’ll battle at least seven other candidates for the Democratic nomination, including Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, former Michelle Obama aid Krishanti Vignarajah, techie and former innovation advisor to Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. (That same Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategies poll, by the way, had Baker at the head of the pack.) Whoever comes out on top will have to topple Larry Hogan. Hogan is pretty popular as far as governors go, although he’s less popular here in Baltimore because of his decision to kill the Red Line and his hardline stance on crime.

Jealous, on the other hand, has made it his business to be in Baltimore—he was here at a University of Baltimore rally against Betsy DeVos on Sept. 11, just a few days after it had been announced she was invited to speak at the school’s fall graduation. His decision to show up was a move that could have been seen as opportunism, but somehow didn’t.

“Your graduation day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of the school and the highest aspirations of the students and Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public education secretary of education our country has ever had,” Jealous said to loud applause. “In her very short tenure she has made it easier for banks to profiteer off of students, she has threatened the very hard-won protections students have against sexual assault that President Obama pushed through, and she has attacked the very notion of public education itself.”

Jealous’ speech and presence cuts through the small event, especially in contrast to another candidate for governor, Alec Ross, whose speech feels more like promo, less organic.

Not long before that in August, Jealous stood alongside several city councilmembers (among them Brandon Scott, vice chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee) outside of the controversial closed-door meeting Gov. Hogan called in Baltimore last August to discuss the city’s rising crime rate.

“The timing of the meeting reeks of politics,” Jealous told The Sun then. “Whenever you see a leader close a meeting that’s normally open, you have to ask, ‘Are they trying to hide something?’ You have to ask, ‘What are they afraid of?’”

I ask him why he’s in Baltimore so often, and he talks about his family.

“My family has lived the American dream because we first invested in the Maryland dream. For my family, it starts in Upton, the McCulloh homes housing projects where my mom spent half her childhood.”

Jealous says that his family moved to Maryland because things were a little easier here than in their home in Virginia. Schools here were better and his grandparents were able to get the kind of jobs that helped them nurture a family. His maternal grandmother worked as a social worker here for 40 years.

I ask him about recent Democratic wins across the country, including in Virginia where Democrat Ralph Northam bested Trump-endorsed Ed Gillespie. He said those elections gave him hope.

“The voters of our country are ready to move away from hate and hurt and back towards hope and healing, and that’s what you saw,” he says. “It was led by young people, it was led by women—voters who are really invested in our future and who understand what’s at stake for future generations.”

I try again to talk about the Democratic party. There are some who will be thrilled that he’s earned an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, I say, but it won’t mean much for others.

“My endorsements are bookended by two U.S. Senators; Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker,” he says. “The entire Democratic party exists between those two. We’re building a big tent campaign.”

Ben Jealous / Photo by Tom Hausman.

A few weeks after we talk, Jealous makes an appearance at what is billed as a “Medicare for all” rally at Notre Dame of Maryland University. The packed and stuffy auditorium is ready to hear Bernie Sanders, who is also making an appearance.

If it wasn’t already clear from the life-sized Bernie Sanders cut-out in the lobby, or the Bernie Sanders t-shirts being worn by many in attendance, the crowd is definitely here for Bernie, not Ben.

“I’m committed to Bernie, but I’m not committed to Ben yet,” a man behind me comments to a woman sitting next to him.

Most of the crowd here looks like young, white progressives and their parents—that is to say, college students and folks who are 50 and up. I notice there are some boisterous groups of brown and black people, and learn later that they are nurses whose unions are backing Jealous’ “Medicare for all” stance. Members of the People’s Power Assembly walk around handing out fliers that read “end the occupation/abolish BPD.”

The committed Bernie fan behind me isn’t sold on that idea. We can reform the police, he suggests, but we still need them. This is the sort of voter Jealous has to nurture.

This isn’t a pie in the sky rally; it sticks to the nitty gritty details. We need health insurance, we need common sense solutions, and Jealous can provide them.

First up is Turnbull, who warms up the crowd with stories about her mom and dad. Both of her parents’ illnesses, along with the need for healthcare, made a lasting mark on her younger life, she says.

“We have to make sure that no Marylander is choosing between paying for rent or for their medical bills,” she says. “I believe in Medicare for all because no one should have to make that kind of decision.”

She introduces a few nurses who dutifully stay on message, telling stories of how access to healthcare, or lack thereof, has played out in real life before their eyes.

Sanders himself comes out to roaring applause and a standing ovation. He hammers home the greed in Washington and the need for progressive change.

“We are living in a moment when the billionaire class has never had it so good,” he says. “They want more and more and more and they want that more on top of the backs of the elderly and the children and working people and the sick and the neediest among us. Their greed has no end, but we are going to end it for them.”

Sanders takes the crowd through the Republican party’s latest hits: attempts to get rid of Obamacare, the current tax bill, and the looming fear that Medicare and Medicaid are next on the chopping block. Wins like the ones that happened in Virginia on Nov. 7, though, mean that change is possible.

“We need great governors, progressive governors, all across this country. And there is no individual that I know who is running for governor who has the record of progressivism that Ben Jealous has,” Sanders says. “This is a man who has been there in all of the important struggles of our time. In the struggle for racial justice, in the struggle for economic justice, in the struggle for environmental justice, for immigration justice. He has been there and as governor of this state he will be there in a position of real power to bring about the change we need.”

When Jealous takes the stage, he begins to build on a theme: “We can, we must, and we will.”

At the age of 15, his mother could and did integrate Baltimore’s Western High School. He and the NAACP could and did help abolish the death penalty, pass marriage equality, and so on.

“If any of the folks tonight are sitting around tonight saying, ‘You know, Jealous is talking about the impossible,’” Jealous says, “Say ‘Yeah.’ I’m doing it again.”

The crowd doesn’t roar with as much enthusiasm as they had for Bernie, but you can sense he’s winning them over more and more. Jealous is saying all the right things.

  • Diane

    As long as Ben is talking like Bernie, he won’t be uniting Democrats, many of whom blame the Sanders campaign’s lies about Clinton as a major factor in her loss, as they feel the pain of the Trump victory every single day.

    Interesting how Sanders tries to co-op Northam’s win as a sign. Sanders would not even endorse him after the primary. Plus, Northam is not a wild-eyed, so-called progressive. Nor was the other Dem candidate, Doug Jones, in the huge Alabama win. The majority of Dems know they cannot win with progressives from the left-wing.

    Ben still doesn’t get it. The majority of Dems across the country are not falling for “Medicare for All.” Apparently, he has no idea the impact of such a program on the national economy and individuals’ pocketbooks. He hasn’t done his homework.

    • Maryland isn’t Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, or Kentucky level of Democratic politics. You have to run candidates that resonate with their constituency. There is a reason why Bernie didn’t participate in Doug Jones’ campaign this past year, or Roy Cooper’s campaign last year here in North Carolina. I will admit, I voted for Bernie in the primary and Clinton in the general. Maryland has a progressive Blue history and present, so if I lived there, I would be on the Jealous bandwagon.

      • Diane

        Herbert, I appreciate your opinion that candidates have to resonate with their constituency and Jealous is going down the wrong track playing footsies with independents and Berniecrats. Maryland is a Hillary state, not Bernie. She walloped him 63% to 33 in the 2016 primary. “nugh said.

Sign up for the Beat Blast!

Get news to your inbox every week!