A Conversation With Valerie Ervin

Valerie L. Ervin is the woman of the hour. The former Montgomery County councilwoman decided Thursday to press ahead with an abbreviated campaign for governor following the stunning death, one week earlier, of her running mate, gubernatorial contender Kevin B. Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive. Ervin’s decision transforms the crowded Democratic primary in incalculable ways; her potential to make a meaningful impact may largely be determined by her ability to raise money, get the word out, and capture excitement by being the only African-American woman in the field – in a state where black women are a sizable Democratic voting bloc. Maryland Matters spoke Thursday evening with Ervin about the previous week – and the challenging road ahead. A lightly-edited transcript follows. Maryland Matters: Can you talk about the thought process you went through and why you eventually decided to run for governor? Valerie Ervin: I didn’t think about it that much until after Shiva was over [Monday night]. We respected the family’s Jewish tradition. Kevin died on a Thursday; I literally was sequestered in my house until two days ago. I went to the funeral. I went and sat Shiva with Jill and the boys. But that was it. We were quiet and I was glad. I didn’t return any press calls. I didn’t do anything. People were like, “What’s she doing? Where’s she at?” I think that I needed to give them space and time, and I certainly needed to do that for myself. But when I came out on the other side of it, I just felt the need to continue Kevin’s legacy and the work that he’d done way longer than any of the [other] candidates did, and he was running a campaign apparatus for at least a year before I got on the ticket.  It wasn’t a hard decision. It was a quiet one. Once I made it, I knew it was the right thing to do.  MM: It occurred to me that you were likely to run when I considered the optics of not running. If you had dropped out, you would have been saying, to African-American girls in particular, that you were suitable as the running mate with a white man, but not atop the ticket. That didn’t seem like something you would do.  Ervin: I wore my “Black Girls Vote” pin today, and that was for my three grand-daughters. When I was traveling around with Kevin and I would walk into a room with a group of young women, [I could see] how they looked at me, and made judgements about me. We were mirroring each other. For me to be doing this, no matter if I win or not, is an extraordinary step forward for Maryland politics, that young women can see themselves in me. I think that’s really important. Valerie L. Ervin and the late Kevin B. Kamenetz campaigning together earlier this year in Silver Spring. Photo by Bruce DePuyt And then to put Marisol Johnson on the ticket was not the conventional wisdom, as you know. [Usually people say] “Well, you have to balance the male and the female, the white and the black and the brown, you can’t do two women.’” And I thought — well, I didn’t know who made those rules, but I didn’t adhere to the rules. And I think that Kevin would actually be really pleased because I think what he liked about me was my independent streak, and that I made it in politics in a very rough-and-tumble county like Montgomery as an independent woman, and I’m very proud of that. It’s simple. I’m 61 years old now. I started running [for school board] in 2003, still in my 40s, but I never expected to still be here, doing what I’m doing, but Kevin brought me back in! MM: Ballots have been printed that say “Kamenetz/Ervin.” You need to get the Board of Elections to change the ballot, which is going to be difficult. Ervin: So, we think we’re going to have to meet with [state elections administrator] Linda Lamone at some point. All we do know at this point is that absentee ballots have gone out with Kevin Kamenetz/Valerie Ervin on the ballot. She wasn’t present today when we went in to do all the paperwork to get on the ballot. I’ve been in touch with Emily’s List and they’re helping us get some legal counsel as it relates to lots of questions that are still outstanding, because this is such an unusual circumstance and no one’s actually done this before.  The same goes for the fact that Kevin and I had two accounts — well, one account we shared, one account was mine and one was the one he raised a lot of money on by himself before I got on the ticket. I really don’t know what’s in the accounts because I came onto a campaign that was Kevin’s campaign. And he had his own finance people, he had his own treasurer, and so that is not something that I saw for myself or had my eyes on, but I do know that those accounts can have transfers between them so we’re just going to have to get access to what I can have access to.  So far I haven’t asked for it, but I think I’m going to wait to get the kind of professional legal help I need to help sort all this out.  MM: Given the tight time frame, a transfer, if that’s allowed, would be the best-case scenario, right? Ervin: I’m actually not waiting for that. I want to be clear to people — I never expected it. I’m not trying to get it. I’m not counting on it. I just want to know how it’s supposed to work. We trended on Twitter today. The No. 3 story on Twitter today was us, which was pretty amazing. And we know what that means is that the ticket is resonating, not only here in Maryland but outside Maryland. I’m only the second African-American woman to be at the top of the ticket running for governor outside Stacey Abrams [in Georgia].  We know there are a lot of progressive organizations, women’s organizations and groups paying attention to this race. We think we’re poised to raise the kind of money we need to finish this thing out in the next six weeks. So, I didn’t make the decision to run based on what I thought I was going to get in terms of money. I’m running because I’m running. That’s what politics is about, even though money is necessary. But I think that money is coming. MM: Does the Kamenetz campaign apparatus become yours? Ervin: No. The Kevin Kamenetz campaign apparatus will be closing down. And that is because Kevin hired his team before I got there. Their loyalty was really to Kevin. I have a team that I brought in myself who I will continue to work with. It’s a different race now and we will build the team out. So it will look and feel a little different, not too much, but it will have my stamp on it. MM: Any names you can share? Ervin: I’m working with Emily’s List right now on the campaign manager but I am working with people who are just volunteering their time. And I did hire Megaphone Strategies; they’re working with us. And we have some unions that are going to be offering some assistance, so I think there’s just a lot of excitement about my getting in the race and maybe by tomorrow I can start returning all the calls and messages that I’m getting from people saying, “tell us what you need.”   We just did this a few hours ago. I think it’s an opportunity that has come and we needed to seize the day, and so we’re called to service. Both me and Marisol are both driven by service and so we hope to be able to do that for the state of Maryland.  MM: Why did you pick Marisol Johnson, and how long have you known her? Ervin: When I came on the ticket Kevin wanted me to meet her. They were friends. She held a meet-and-greet for me the same night that Kevin was at the Bowie State candidate forum [the night before he died], so we were in her neighborhood at an event she had put together for me, and we ended up spending a lot of time around that event. She’s a pretty amazing person. I chose her for a lot of reasons. I think she’s the best choice for me.  MM: The state party announced four TV debates on Thursday. You’ll be in them? Ervin: I’m assuming so, yes.  MM: Someone who’s “been there” told me they think your path to success —in a field where the frontrunners are both male — is in attracting female voters. Have you thought about what the winning coalition looks like? Ervin: I think about that all the time. It’s how I won in Montgomery County when people can’t understand how it is I won. Clearly the women that are going to come to us and the women who are from immigrant communities and the women who are African-American moms, the union members who have always known me, progressives, we take a little bit from what [all the other candidates] think their lane is. We cut into that.  I was on Barbara Arnwine’s radio show and a young millennial woman from Prince George’s County called and said, “I want to encourage Ms. Ervin to run because we see in her what has been lacking in the race and that is someone who speaks to our issues. And we think she excites the base.” And so that’s what we hope we do. This race hasn’t garnered a lot of enthusiasm anywhere. Most voters are undecided. The vast majority of voters are undecided. We’re coming in at the moment when people woke up to Kevin’s passing and started hearing so much about him and his legacy. And I think this has turned on the voting public to the fact that there is a primary, that they need to look at these candidates and make some decisions. MM: The last few months have produced some very unusual results. Look at Virginia, where turnout shattered all the predictions. And there were special election upsets in Alabama and Pennsylvania. What does all this portend for Maryland? Ervin: Pennsylvania’s primary [this week] showed that the women were the big winners that night. I think we should just get prepared for a new energy emerging in Maryland. It’s a moment where women are just like, “Hallelujah, we’re breaking some new ground.” I think it really is exciting for people. And it’s not like men aren’t going to come on board, that’s just insane to think that way. But I think there is something special happening in the country. There’s the #MeToo movement, the women’s march in 2017, thousands more women are running for office across the country, and I think that’s why there is national attention now on Maryland, because of what Marisol and I are bringing to the race. MM: Did you seek the approval of the Kamenetz family before deciding? Ervin: I sat Shiva with Jill and the family, and I spoke to her on the phone prior to that. And she just had a really strong belief that Kevin’s legacy should continue. She didn’t say, “Valerie, you should run.” But it was an unspoken nod that this should not be over. She wasn’t trying to tell me that I should run.  I think people are being very careful. They wanted me to make my own decision on this. But I do know that it’s a grieving family. After you bury your loved one and you realize that they’re not coming back through the front door, the grieving process is really beginning now. So I think they’re just going to shut down for a while. The boys are back in school now. When she talked to me on the phone, it was indicated to me that they want to take a step back. So it was a lot for her to carry these last seven days.  I’ll be checking in on them. I like Jill a whole lot. I’m just not going to get too in their way as they try to figure out what’s next for them. [email protected]rg 

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