In early October, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore appeared at a panel discussion at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. In a crisp blue suit, Moore directly addressed the problems Baltimore faced.
“What we’re seeing in the city of Baltimore, what we are watching is an intentional neglect that has led to generational impacts,” Moore said. “And in the time that you have had a generational pullback, the only way that you can address that is a generational buildup.”
But the biggest response came when Moore went on to tell the story he often recalls on the stump. The story is detailed in his book “The Other Wes Moore,” which focused on his single mother’s struggle to raise him. In it, he talks about his brushes with trouble as a young person, and his redemption as a teenager. Some have called the book exploitative for its inclusion of another Baltimore man named Wes Moore, who didn’t overcome the obstacles set in his path. The book gave some the impression the Democratic nominee is from Baltimore, which he is not. However, the story he tells is compelling to many, and when he told it at the panel discussion, four older Black women sat in the front row listening attentively.
Watching Moore, they smiled broadly, and vigorously applauded. Judith Thomas was one of those women. She had come from Howard County to see Wes Moore. “I was impressed by his humbleness, his engagement to the audience,” she said. “I was a single mother, the support you need as a single mother is significant.”
Moore has this effect on so many he encounters. In public he can keep an audience rapt. And, one on one, he has the same effect with the other politicians who have rallied behind him to elect the state’s first Black governor and return the Governor’s Mansion to the Democratic Party.
In the fall of September 2015, Wes Moore sat at a table inside Forno, an Italian restaurant on Eutaw Street, with a decision to make.
It had been months since the death of Freddie Gray ignited an uprising.
The Baltimore Police Department was under investigation by the Justice Department; the homicide rate had spiked in May and again in July and was pushing the annual tally above 300 for the first time in almost 20 years. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the incumbent mayor, decided not to run for a second term.
Moore, the CEO of Robin Hood, a nonprofit formed to address poverty, had arranged dinner with two powerful Maryland politicians — state Delegate Maggie McIntosh and state Senator Bill Fergsuon. Moore wanted to talk about a run for mayor of Baltimore.
McIntosh, who had served more than 20 years in the House of Delegates, came to the meeting knowing little about Moore. She had seen his 2 minute, 30 second speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where he was billed as Captain Wes Moore, and talked up his military credentials in support of Barack Obama’s first run for the White House. She knew about his book, “The Other Wes Moore,” where he compares his own fate to another young man living in Baltimore.
But McIntosh had never met Moore in person, or been able to quiz him on politics. What was going to be a chance to quiz the political hopeful quickly turned into McIntosh trying to sell Moore on running. The smart, inquisitive, and charismatic nonprofit executive seemed like the perfect candidate for a race with no clear front-runner and a crowded field. But Moore had some reservations, McIntosh recalled.
“His family was very young, and at the time he was still growing his nonprofit Robin Hood,” McIntosh said. “He was very conflicted about it.”
She left the restaurant crestfallen.
Ultimately, he decided not to run.
“I was sad he didn’t run for mayor,” she said.
But she had a gut feeling that she would see Moore again. He had a political future. What it would look like was anyone’s guess, but McIntosh knew she hadn’t seen the last of Moore.
“I walked away having met and having talked with him and came away with a lot of confidence in his ability,” McIntosh said. But not with a clear idea of what a nonprofit executive would do to operate a city trapped between the violence of the streets and the violence of the police.
As Election Day draws near, Moore’s rise to the governor’s office looks inevitable to many. He is leading his opponent, the Donald Trump-backed Republican Dan Cox, by more than 30 points in at least one poll. Moore has raised millions of dollars and can spend freely on ads. He has powerful endorsements from President Joe Biden, Representative Steny Hoyer, Representative Kweisi Mfume, former President Barack Obama, and former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But, while it looks likely that Maryland Democrats are close to electing the state’s first Black governor, no one can be sure what a Moore administration would bring. His politics sometimes seem as much of a mystery today as they were to McIntosh seven years ago, a mixed bag of economic progressivism and social and civic pragmatism. On one hand, he wants to close the racial wealth gap between more affluent white families and the scores of financially strapped Black and Latino families. He also has the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, a political endorsement which is elusive, and perhaps toxic, for young Democrats.
But maybe the best thing he could do is to get the state back to running efficiently. Not the sexiest style of leadership, but one that veteran political leaders agree Moore must demonstrate if he gets into office.
“I told Wes, you are responsible for state agencies that deal with housing economic development, safety, and health. It’s not exciting, but if you can make those agencies work, people can feel the results,” former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon told Baltimore Beat. “That’s where the focus needs to be, to get those agencies to be functional where you can see results in Baltimore and the rest of the state.”
But that might not satisfy parts of his base hungry for quick change. Maryland is a relatively wealthy state. However, large pockets of deep poverty exist in the state, and in its largest city, Baltimore. Moore has proposed issuing baby bonds to address poverty and the wealth gap. The state would spend $3,200 on each child born to a family living near or below the poverty line. The price tag for Moore’s program is about $92 million per year. He plans to pay for this by using a $2 billion surplus in the state budget. Such a proposal could be dead on arrival even in a Democratically controlled legislature. For one, the surplus is due to a massive infusion of federal money from the COVID-19 pandemic, and taxes collected on the state’s wealthiest residents. Transferring that wealth to impoverished families could get significant blowback from the state’s more conservative lawmakers.
But McIntosh, who is leaving office in November, believes Annapolis is on the cusp of a dramatic change in political culture. Of the 96 members of the Democratic caucus in the House of Delegates, 80 of them have served two terms or less. The days of old entrenched politicians in the state Capitol are becoming a thing of the past.
“You are walking into two very recently elected officials, with the senate president and speaker of the house,” McIntosh said. “What you are going to see in Annapolis will be a desire to work with him.”
Moore has the endorsement of Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, who was with McIntosh when she met with Moore. Ferguson did not respond to a request for comment made by Baltimore Beat.
Still, Moore’s close relationship with law enforcement can make some, especially in Baltimore, suspicious. But with Cox’s own record, Moore’s position on law enforcement might not matter with progressives. Cox organized a bus caravan to transport people to the January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally, where violent rioters breached the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Kweisi Mfume was on the Wes Moore train early. Mfume is currently serving in Congress, but cut his teeth in politics on the Baltimore City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moore and Mfume became acquainted almost a decade ago, when Moore was initiated into the Baltimore chapter of the Grand Boule of Sigma Pi Phi, the elite Black fraternal organization. Mfume, like McIntosh, noted Moore’s presentation as a clean-cut, well dressed family man. They weren’t really close, but over the next few years, Mfume and Moore talked — politics, policy, and how to deal with the deep poverty impacting Baltimore and its Black residents.
“I always thought of Wes as a complete package. He’s a family man, a man of faith, he’s a patriot,” Mfume said. “I was impressed by his work as a CEO at Robin Hood.”
But when Mfume talks about a Moore administration, he turns to style over substance, saying that Moore could change the narrative around Baltimore. The city is the largest in the state, and also an economic hub. As goes Baltimore, Mfume said, so goes Maryland. The image of the city as crime-ridden isn’t a complete portrayal of Charm City. Moore could change that. “He can paint a more accurate picture,” Mfume said.
Of course, Baltimore politicians have been talking about “changing the narrative” for decades — usually when they don’t have anything else to say. And when the 74-year-old politician gets specific, he talks about how Moore will need to address public safety in terms that sound a lot like “changing the narrative” around policing in Baltimore by once again giving more resources for law enforcement.
“We know that community policing works. We know officer friendly works,” Mfume told Baltimore Beat. “We know that reaching out in elementary kids where people shape their initial views on policing works.”
Moore himself has been clear about some of the ways he hopes his administration can increase the reach of law enforcement. During his debate with Cox, Moore vowed to invest more into parole and probation enforcement by hiring more people to do the work of tracking those coming home from prison. He believes doing so will curb violent crime.
“We consider a third of all violent offenders are in violation of parole or probation,” Moore said. “That is a state function and right now it is understaffed.”
In other words, Moore believes something akin to the “broken windows” theory of policing: If we enforce probation and parole violations, the people who are then re-incarcerated will not commit violent crimes.
Moore added that, like basically every other politician, he wants to work with federal and state-level law enforcement to help cities like Baltimore reduce violent crime and gun deaths.
This message can ring a bit hollow in certain corners of Baltimore, a city which spends more than $570 million on its police department. But Moore supporters believe that Baltimore must invest in an agency currently under federal oversight if the city is to properly address public safety.
But as Election Day nears, the focus for many is not on how he will operate in Annapolis, if he doesn’t blow a 30-plus point polling lead. Instead many are focused on the historic nature of the race. Maryland, the slave state, the place where Conferederate sympathizers clashed with Union troops, the place with the highest incarceration rate for Black men, could elect a Black man as governor, breaking the stranglehold white men have had on the office.
“The candidacy of Wes Moore represents a historic milestone for Maryland and for the African American community,” Mfume said. “It is historic and significant for Black people in the state.”
Still, some older Black leaders are skeptical of Moore’s charm and are waiting to see what he does once he is in office. “People only look at things at surface level. A person looks good, sounds good. It’s like looking at a movie star,” Dixon said. “But he hasn’t been in government, …with someone like Martin O’Malley, for example, he had a history of dealing with those state agencies. He’s going to have to learn how to deal with those state agencies.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Steny Hoyer’s title. He is a member of the House of Representatives. The Baltimore Beat regrets the error.