On an Epic News Day, a Fundraising Email Reveals Plenty

On a busy day in the already overheated Maryland gubernatorial election, on a day with Biblical storms when most voters were riveted to another round of stunning headlines about their president, the most significant development in Maryland politics Tuesday may have been found in a hyperbolic fundraising email. Tuesday’s news cycle was naturally dominated by the double-barreled court action involving President Trump’s former close associates: the guilty plea from his longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, to multiple charges, and the conviction of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on multiple charges. Not to mention the indictment of a sitting Republican congressman who was among Trump’s earliest supporters. In Maryland, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) launched his first over-the-air TV ad of the general election, a seven-figure buy airing on broadcast stations and on cable. At the same time, Benjamin T. Jealous, the Democratic nominee, held an event at a popular Silver Spring brewpub to tout his proposal for a single-payer health care system. On Tuesday evening, Hogan appeared at the vote-rich Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Benjamin T. Jealous and brewpub owner Julie Verratti drink beer and talk about single-payer health care Tuesday. Photo by Josh Kurtz And yet an email that Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh (R) recently sent to his supporters may have said more about where the Maryland gubernatorial election stands than anything else. Schuh’s fundraising email featured the subject line, “Coming Soon: Ben Jealous & Co.” It sought to tie his Democratic challenger, Steuart Pittman, directly to Jealous. The first four paragraphs of the missive read: “I cannot begin to tell you how many of my supporters say, ‘You don’t have anybody running against you this election, do you, Steve?’

“In fact, my team and I have heard this so often that it has become a concern. The answer is yes, I do have an opponent, and we need your full support to ensure a positive outcome in November.

“My opponent is an ally of Ben Jealous who refuses to sign the no tax increase pledge, and his only political experience was as a ‘community organizer’ for ACORN in Chicago. Yes, you read that right.

“You haven’t heard his name yet, but after Labor Day, out-of-state special interest groups, liberal labor unions, and the Democratic Machine will pour funds into Anne Arundel County to promote his candidacy.” Later, Schuh wrote, “My opponent’s backers don’t care that our policies are working for Anne Arundel County. They don’t care that our citizens are more prosperous, our waterways are cleaner, our children are better educated and our communities are safer than they were four years ago. All that they care about is the “R” next to my name on the ballot. They want to elect their Democrat, even if that person holding the office would result in a poorer, worse-off Anne Arundel County.” It is hardly surprising that Schuh, who is not universally beloved even in his conservative-leaning county, would want to go after Pittman and even raise the specter of a potent “Democratic Machine” out to get him. But the use of Jealous as a political punching bag, with the implication that he is an outsider to be feared, cannot be overlooked. Between now and the general election, we are likely to see Republicans in competitive races up and down the ballot trying to link their opponents to Jealous. With Pittman and Jealous, there is an ephemeral tie, besides their party designation: Jealous’ activism as a former leader of the NAACP, and Pittman’s work as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago. The racial overtones cannot be ignored. Whether Jealous is truly an albatross around the necks of downballot Democrats is an open question. But Republicans will certainly be happy to push that story line, and at least some nervous high-profile Democrats seem ready to go along. Historically, this has happened all the time on the Democratic side: Candidates and their advisers routinely worry that the top of the ticket will be a drag on their own fortunes. Jealous’ campaign declined to comment on the Schuh email. But Pittman, who is running a surprisingly feisty and nimble campaign so far, quickly hit back, in an email of his own that quoted at length from Schuh’s missive. “You are probably as turned off by negative campaigning as we are, but this will make you chuckle. I just had to share,” Pittman wrote. He went on: “…His words are in italics. Mine are not. “I cannot begin to tell you how many of my supporters say, ‘You don’t have anybody running against you this election, do you, Steve?’” “Interesting. My supporters say, ‘So how long do you think it will be before Steve Schuh starts making stuff up about you, Steuart?’ “My opponent is an ally of Ben Jealous who refuses to sign the no tax increase pledge, and his only political experience was as a ‘community organizer’ for ACORN in Chicago. Yes, you read that right.  “Um, I’ve never seen ‘the no tax increase pledge.’ I guess Grover Norquist knows how tight we farmers are with money and didn’t bother sending me the form. “Ben Jealous is running for Governor, Steve, and if you wanted to run against him you should have filed in the Republican primary. You’re stuck running against me. “We kind of expected Schuh to pick up on the ‘community organizer’ theme. Bringing people together in their neighborhoods to influence local government decisions is awfully threatening stuff when so many people are fed up with reckless development, traffic, and overcrowded schools. It’s terrifying when you’re a politician who was put in office by development interests. “I love talking about my early experience as a community organizer. The Chicago part was my first job out of college. We brought people together in their south side neighborhoods to fight crime, attract private investment, and force a hazardous waste storage facility to stop leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater. “I did that work in Des Moines, Iowa as well, and I was good at it. When I returned home in 1990, I was hired to oversee research and campaign planning for neighborhood organizing efforts in 26 cities. I also put those skills to work in our county for Farm Bureau and the Soil Conservation District. “That’s why our campaign slogan is Putting Communities First. And that’s why our campaign is structured around sixteen Communities First Forums where we are listening to the community. I’d be concerned if I were in Steve’s shoes.” Fabion Seaton, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, pointed out that Schuh has appeared at fundraisers with Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and U.S. Senate candidate, and Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka (R), who has been linked to far-right national groups. “Steuart Pittman has a plan and a vision to improve lives for all Anne Arundel County residents,” Seaton said. “Steve Schuh, on the other hand, is a protégé of John Leopold, voted for Donald Trump, and was proud to back Republicans like Michael Peroutka and Roy Moore, who embrace white supremacy.” But despite the Democrats’ bold talk, there is zero doubt that other Maryland Republicans will attempt to link Jealous to their opponents, as Schuh has. Whether Democrats parry those attacks as Pittman did remains to be seen. ‘We want to stay here’ While Schuh and Pittman skirmished over Jealous, Hogan drained some of his robust campaign war chest to begin airing a positive TV spot called “Affordability” – part of the governor’s campaign to show that he is making Maryland more affordable. The ad features a small businesswoman praising Hogan for holding the line on taxes since taking office, and a single mother saying the small amount of money she has saved thanks to Hogan’s decision to cut roadway tolls has nevertheless made a big difference in her life. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. greets well-wishers at a meeting of the Leisure World Republican Club Tuesday night. Photo by Josh Kurtz “We want to stay here, grow our business here, because of Governor Hogan,” the businesswoman, Delores Reyes, says in the ad. Hogan in the ad is quoted saying, “We have not had a single tax increase the entire time that I’ve been governor and we’ve cut taxes four years in a row.” Jealous’ senior adviser, Kevin Harris, scoffed at the message. “No matter what Larry Hogan says, the facts are clear Maryland is not more affordable for working families,” he said. “Health care premiums have increased, prescription drug costs are skyrocketing and wages for working families have not grown quickly enough to keep up.” ‘The only reason to do this is to get a better deal’ While Hogan was preparing to blanket the airwaves, Jealous took to Facebook Live Tuesday to promote his proposal for a Medicare-for-all health system. Sitting in Denizens Brewery in downtown Silver Spring with the brew pub’s co-owner, Julie Verratti, who ran for lieutenant governor on another Democratic ticket this year, Jealous argued that single-payer would help businesses expand by reducing health care costs. As the two sipped the brewery’s new PGC Premium Lager – brewed in honor of Denizens’ forthcoming second facility in Prince George’s County – Verratti said that the company has spent almost $200,000 on employee health care costs since it launched five years ago. Prodded by Jealous, Verratti said she’d be hiring more employees and expanding her operation more rapidly if health care didn’t cost so much, and she praised Jealous for seeking a solution. “You go for it,” she said. “You say, ‘here are problems and we’re going to confront them.’” Jealous was in the role he has increasingly attempted to portray on the campaign trail: that of entrepreneur, talking about the businesses he has worked with in his day job as a venture capitalist, and the challenges they face. “The only reason to do this is to get a better deal,” Jealous said. “We know that health care costs are out of control.” Republicans have seized on a legislative estimate that a single-payer health care system in Maryland could cost $24 billion a year – and Jealous has struggled to put a price tag on his plan or offer a soundbite-worthy counter-argument to the GOP attacks. On Tuesday, he said the ultimate benefits of providing health care to the 350,000 Marylanders who are uninsured would far outweigh the cost – especially with health insurance costs rising so quickly anyway. Pressed by reporters, Jealous conceded that some jobs in the private insurance market would likely be lost under single-payer. But he said the private market would not disappear entirely, and that expanding health insurance to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders would create more jobs in the medical industry. “Ultimately, this will be a boon to the Maryland economy,” Jealous said. ‘Everybody wants free stuff’ A few hours after Jealous and Verratti quaffed their beers, Hogan turned up at the Clubhouse at Leisure World – where whiskeys can be had for just $3 in the bar – to offer his rebuttal. Speaking to a packed and enthusiastic meeting of the Leisure World Republican Club Tuesday night, Hogan took aim at Jealous’ single-payer plan and other costly proposals. “Sounds really good,” Hogan said. “Everybody wants free stuff. I want free stuff. It sounds really good. It sounds like Joseph A. Bank: Buy one, get five free.” Hogan gave his standard stump speech, with a few variations. He was in incredible good humor, joking about moving to Leisure World “when they kick me out of the governor’s mansion.” He peppered his talk with references to his administration’s spending on programs for seniors, and to his growing brood of grandchildren and puppies. The crowd literally oohed and ahhed at every positive statistic. Like so much of Montgomery County, Leisure World leans Democratic. But Hogan was addressing a crowd of 200-plus near-certain voters – and a few Democrats did show up to offer support. “Don’t forget, this is the largest voting precinct in the entire state of Maryland,” he told the crowd. Hogan gleefully ticked off his high approval ratings and they seem daunting at first, second and third glances. And yet, the headlines out of courthouses in Virginia, New York and California Tuesday cannot offer much comfort to any Republican, even one, like Hogan, who has worked so skillfully to distance himself from Trump and the national GOP. It was an amazing day, on every possible level. [email protected]

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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