Behind Ervin’s Endorsement of Baker: ‘Fire,’ Fury and a Chance to Play Kingmaker

Maybe Valerie L. Ervin was never going to be elected governor this year. Deep down, she may have known it, even after she jumped into the race on May 17, one week after the sudden death of Baltimore County executive and leading gubernatorial contender Kevin B. Kamenetz. “Our unlikely journey was fraught with roadblocks,” Ervin conceded during a news conference Wednesday at the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center in Langley Park. Now, after suspending her campaign – though she’ll remain on the Democratic primary ballot as Kamenetz’s running mate – Ervin, a former Montgomery County councilwoman, may find herself in the enviable position of kingmaker in the June 26 primary. On one level, Ervin’s decision to exit the race and endorse Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III amounted to just one more current or former elected official getting behind Baker’s campaign. Valerie L. Ervin and Rushern L. Baker III talk to reporters following their formal news conference in Langley Park Wednesday. Photo by Josh Kurtz But with the primary now in its final days – early voting begins Thursday – and Baker and former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous deadlocked in recent public polls – Ervin’s endorsement could be especially important for a variety of reasons. First is its potential to impact the numbers, however slightly. Ervin was polling in the single digits in recent surveys, but if most of her supporters move in Baker’s direction, that could be significant if the race between Baker and Jealous is as close as it appears to be. “This [primary] will be won at the margins,” said a top-ranking Maryland Democrat who has not publicly endorsed a candidate in the gubernatorial race. Next is the Kamenetz factor. Ervin as a candidate for governor may have been an imperfect vessel for Kamenetz supporters. Though he expressed great confidence in her ability to serve as governor in case of tragedy or emergency when he selected her, Ervin no doubt appealed to Kamenetz as a political partner because of the contrasts she brought to the ticket, as an African-American woman from a different part of the state whose politics were distinctly more progressive than his. That was a strategic move to broaden Kamenetz’s appeal – but it did not automatically move his supporters into Ervin’s column after he died. Yet it’s easy to imagine that if Kamenetz were still alive and not running for governor, he’d be supporting Baker over the candidates currently in the field. So in that respect, Ervin’s endorsement of Baker closes the loop, and may symbolically bring a degree of closure for Kamenetz’s family and supporters. When Ervin declared her candidacy for governor following Kamenetz’s death, she compared her decision to taking the baton from Kamenetz during a relay race – a theme she returned to Wednesday. “Kevin passed the baton to me and today I’m passing the baton to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker,” she said in Langley Park. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), a Baker mentor and supporter, described it as an apt metaphor and potent signal to would-be Kamenetz voters. “When you look at what you’re seeing today, he’d be proud of this alliance,” Leggett said. Additionally, Ervin’s endorsement of Baker serves as a slap at Jealous. But that could prove to be a mixed blessing for Baker. Ideologically, Ervin, a former labor organizer and, until recently, a top official with the national Working Families Party, may be closer to Jealous than to Baker. Jealous and Ervin were both prominent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 White House campaign. Jealous traveled the country on Sanders’ behalf, and Ervin was an elected Sanders delegate from Maryland to the Democratic National Convention. So Ervin’s endorsement of Baker is a message to progressives that Baker is sufficiently supportive of their agenda. But additionally, she drew a distinction between the two frontrunners that Baker is also trying to make – that he has actual governing experience, while Jealous does not. “This is the ticket with the experience to lead on day one,” Ervin said. “This is the ticket to beat [Gov.] Larry Hogan (R) in November.” In Langley Park, Baker suggested that Ervin’s brand of progressive politics – along with the experience of her running mate, former Baltimore County Board of Education member Marisol A. Johnson – was superior to Jealous’ because they had been government policymakers. “The difference between their progressive agenda and our opponents’: They’ve actually done the work,” Baker said. “It’s not some dissertation from afar.” But Ervin has also been involved in a war of words with Jealous and her former employers at the Working Families Party. Maryland Working Families was an early supporter of Jealous’ gubernatorial bid, and when Ervin accepted Kamenetz’s offer to be his running mate, she had to leave her job at Working Families. Ervin has accused Jealous of getting her fired after first trying to prevent her from joining Kamenetz’s ticket – charges he has denied. “My response is, it’s a lie,” Ervin said pointedly during the news conference in Langley Park. “And that’s all I can say about it. I think the character he is showing is not the character of someone who I would want to be supporting.” Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters that Jealous “at no point” demanded Ervin be removed from her job. “Needless to say, it would have been impossible for her to stay on our staff while also mounting a campaign against our endorsed candidate,” Dinkin said. “…There’s simply no way it would be appropriate to do both. Beyond that, running for statewide office is a full-time job itself. It wouldn’t be possible to both run for office full-time and also meet your obligations at work.” Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Jealous, said Ervin’s decision to endorse Baker did not come as a surprise and “doesn’t change very much for us and how we plan to finish out this campaign.” On to Baltimore The only politicians on hand during the Langley Park news conference were Ervin, Baker, Johnson, Leggett, and former assistant attorney general Elizabeth Embry, Baker’s running mate. Later in the day, Ervin was among the entourage of elected officials who turned up to open the Baker-Embry campaign office in Baltimore, a storefront on the northwest corner of North Avenue and Howard Street. Former Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis (D) served as a sort of emcee, introducing a host of local elected officials and others who had met to launch the campaign’s final primary push in the city. They included: former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley; state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Senate president pro tem, and Del. Talmadge Branch, the House of Delegates majority whip, both from East Baltimore’s 45th District; Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg and Del. Angela C. Gibson, from West Baltimore’s 41st District, Del. Adrienne A. Jones, the House speaker pro tem, and Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr., both from Baltimore County’s 10th District; Del. Frank S. Turner of Howard County’s District 13; and Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian E. Jones Jr. Elizabeth Embry addresses the crowd at the opening of the Baker-Embry headquarters in Baltimore Wednesday, with an array of current and former elected officials looking on. Photo by William F. Zorzi  Among the audience members, many of whom wore white T-shirts emblazoned with green Baker-Embry logo, were Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a former House member and state secretary of juvenile services; Larry S. Gibson, a law professor, political organizer and operative; and former Maryland secretaries of state John T. Willis, of Baltimore City, and John P. McDonough, of Prince George’s County. “We’re gonna fight like hell in the county, as I know many of you are going to fight for the city — and for this region,” Venetoulis told the group. “We’ve got to do the best we can out here, because it’s the only place they can roll it up on us.” Polls have shown Jealous leading Baker in the Baltimore region, while Baker is ahead in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “We’ve got to do the best we can organizationally,” Venetoulis said. “All of you, there’s one thing to remember: We are all precinct workers … and we will be out in front of those precincts handing out material through this early voting. “This is the key. This election’s going to be won by the people who get their vote out, and the people who are there … handing out the material,” he said. O’Malley warmed up the crowd and enthused about his past dealing with Baker. “I know other people in this primary, but I’ll tell you this, there is no candidate in this primary who is better able to lead us forward right now than Rushern Baker,” O’Malley said. Ervin began her remarks by telling the crowd, “Hi, Baltimore.” “We didn’t have to think too long or too hard to make a decision to support the Baker-Embry ticket,” she said. One long-time political observer, when asked why Ervin endorsed Baker over other candidates in the primary, that person said, “Because she can count” – a reference to recent poll numbers in a matchup with Hogan. On Wednesday evening, Baker and Ervin repeated the drill at Leisure World in Montgomery County. O’Malley and a collection of other politicians were also there. Asked whether the excitement she and Johnson generated during their brief campaign could be transferred to a more conventional politician like Baker – and make a difference in a close race – Ervin replied, “We talked about bringing the fire. We lit it up.” [email protected] [email protected]

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