Josh Kurtz: Ben Jealous Is the Democratic Nominee for Governor. Remain Calm

A week after the election, Maryland Democrats are wondering whether their nominee, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous, can defeat Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in the fall – and whether Jealous was the strongest general election candidate they could have come up with in their eight-candidate primary field. The conversation in Maryland is taking place amid the broader national debate over the future of the Democratic Party and must be viewed in that context. Some of the conflicts that have been roiling the national party – generational, ideological, gender-, race- and turf-based – are also at play here. Veteran Maryland Democratic leaders have largely been closing ranks around Jealous, and most showed up at a unity rally in the Camden Yards warehouse Saturday evening. U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), who is up for reelection year, even came equipped with a nifty slogan. “I have a simple message for Maryland voters,” he said. “For governor of the state, and for U.S. Senate, vote for Ben.” Benjamin T. Jealous meets the press at Camden Yards Saturday evening. Photo by Genevieve Kurtz  But it’s hard to know exactly what’s in the party chieftains’ hearts. Most – though not Cardin, who was studiously neutral – rallied around Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III in the primary. It was almost reflexive: Baker is a party guy, plain and simple, someone the veteran politicians know and have worked with for years. Part of the fraternity. They knew what they were getting. Whether they thought Baker could defeat Hogan is almost immaterial. It may never even have crossed their minds. He was the safe choice. Sure, the Democrats have lost a couple of gubernatorial elections in the past decade and a half, but they remain the dominant political force in the state’s population centers, so most party leaders remain, figuratively speaking, fat and happy. They don’t think a lot about how to build the party. They tend to cruise to reelection. Jealous’ victory over Baker – by a surprisingly robust 11 points, after carrying 22 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions – has forced Democratic leaders to quickly recalibrate. Most every leading Democratic politician in Maryland is progressive; their differences are a matter of degrees. In Jealous, they’ve got a gubernatorial nominee who is bolder and louder (figuratively speaking) than the standard-bearers they’re used to. Most of the speakers on Saturday evening, including former vice president Joseph R. Biden, were parroting the party line, so to speak, about Jealous, with talk of solidarity, vision, and taking the fight to Hogan. “He’s going to lead our party to victory and return our state back to real progress,” said former state Democratic chairwoman Susan W. Turnbull, Jealous’ running mate – and in some ways his ambassador to more establishment Democrats. Jealous, in a brief interview Saturday night, called the primary “a great clarifying process that made us recognize our common goals.” “We fought, but we fought like family,” he said. “But that makes it easy to come together.”   Party leaders skeptical? But you know in the back of their heads, at least some Democratic leaders are thinking: Can we work with this guy? Can we adapt to and cope with the new political terrain? Couldn’t the voters have gone with the safe and predictable? Is the party doomed? Well, here’s a sobering thought for Maryland Democrats: The party was probably doomed anyway. Inasmuch as Hogan, as if anyone needed reminding, will be very, very tough to beat. But maybe, just maybe, things aren’t as bleak for Democrats as they may appear. As soon as the primary ended, the Hogan campaign, very cleverly – because there is little they do that isn’t clever and designed to give Democrats maximum heartburn, all under the cloak of bipartisanship – released a list of Democrats who are supporting Hogan for reelection. But tell the truth – even though the Hogan campaign fine-tuned the rhetoric to target Jealous – were any of these aging and largely irrelevant former Democratic officials going to be endorsing Baker in the general election? Highly doubtful. And if Jealous loses to Hogan in November, will it be because former Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg or former Del. Johnny Wood or retired federal judge Alexander Williams decided to forsake him and back the Republican incumbent instead? Um, no. Hogan got extra pop Monday, when Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) went on WYPR and said he would not be endorsing anyone for governor. Surprise? No – even if it was a mild contradiction from what he told interviewers earlier this year. The bigger surprise will be if Franchot doesn’t endorse Hogan in the fall. Remember, youngsters, Franchot was the Ben Jealous of the 2006 Democratic primary for comptroller. Franchot is Franchot. And obviously, trotting out some former Democratic electeds helps Hogan advance a narrative that he’s willing to reach across the aisle while Jealous is too radical, too untested, too dangerous for this state of “middle temperament.” But some of the same lines, with variations, would have been used against Baker, too. Take the “tax-and-spend Democrat” line (please). The Hogan campaign wasn’t going to use the very same line against Baker, who sought a 15 percent tax hike in his county? Or attempt to make former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) – who, after all, endorsed Baker in the primary – and his “43 consecutive tax increases,” an anvil around Baker’s neck the way it is attempting to do so with Jealous now? And speaking of albatrosses, can you imagine how many times, and in how many creative ways, the Hogan campaign would have bludgeoned Baker with the discontent over Kevin Maxwell’s leadership in the Prince George’s County schools? Baker vowed to spin the county schools’ progress under his administration as a positive. But he would not have had the resources to win that debate, if in fact it was winnable. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez was among the party leaders urging a vote for Ben Jealous at the unity event in Baltimore Saturday night. Photo by Genevieve Kurtz   If the issue in the general election is competence, Hogan wins. If the issue is vision, Democrats have a chance. Jealous makes the race more of an ideological fight than Baker would have. Yes, that means Hogan sees lots of daylight in the middle. But it also means there are more opportunities to get voters thinking about the future – instead of yesterday and today, which is what Hogan likes to talk about – and to remind voters that Hogan is a Republican. Jealous may force Hogan to lay out a vision for the future beyond imploring voters not to go back to the way things were. Hogan built his 2014 victory over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) in the Baltimore suburbs and exurbs as well as in rural areas. Were any of the Democrats running for governor going to make major incursions against Hogan in any of those places, if they were nominated? Hard to see. Similarly, Brown lost because voter enthusiasm was so low in the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He could not put together the so-called Obama coalition. Young voters tuned out. Progressives were complacent or turned off, or both. The Democratic candidate for governor best equipped to recreate the Obama coalition – or at least the post-Trump equivalent – in a nominally blue state like Maryland? Ben Jealous. To turn out younger voters? To mobilize progressives? Jealous. Can you imagine Rushern Baker, a good man with an estimable record of public service, being on national TV multiple times since the primary? Or energizing voters beyond the Democratic regulars? Or being part of the national conversation about the future of the Democratic Party? Or having the fire to go for the jugular in the fall? And what about campaign cash? “While Hogan has the money right now, something tells me we’re going to find some of that, too,” Jealous told the crowd at Camden Yards. Fundraising potential That was a winking reference to Maryland Together We Rise, the independent expenditure entity that was set up during the primary to benefit Jealous, and that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from labor unions and out-of-state lefties. Here again, Hogan will have a field day – who are these outside forces who would dare influence our politics? And how hypocritical of Jealous to be talking about political reform at the same time he’s benefiting from an IE campaign funded by fat cats! But these are the modern-day necessities of politics, in the post-Citizens United world. And Citizens United is led by David Bossie, the Republican national committeeman for Maryland who is unabashedly supporting Hogan for reelection. Democrats should ask themselves: Would Rushern Baker attract significant outside money for his campaign? (That said, wondering about Jealous’ outside funders is absolutely fair game.) So here’s the bottom line: Rushern Baker would not have had the resources, or generated the enthusiasm beyond the Democratic establishment, to have won. Jealous may not win; lord knows, he is a ripe target for Hogan attacks on a variety of fronts – those we can anticipate and those we can’t. But he might win. And think about this, Democrats: You are trying to build a party for the future. Did anyone read the extraordinary editorial in Sunday’s New York Times, titled “Make Way for Young Democratic Leaders,” which took Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. House Democratic leaders to task for failing to groom any successors? Noting that Pelosi and her top lieutenants, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn and our own Steny Hoyer, are pushing 80, the Times wrote, “At this point, the caucus leadership has gone from stale to downright ossified.” That refrain has been repeated frequently, if quietly, in Maryland Democratic circles, about the state’s most prominent leaders, in Annapolis and elsewhere. So with Jealous as the nominee – win or lose – state Democrats can at least begin a conversation about the party’s future. That alone will be a valuable contribution. And beyond that – he just might win. jkurtz@marylandmatters.org

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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