Frank DeFilippo: Ben Jealous Needs to Find His Inner Elvis — Fast

There comes a point in every campaign where nothing can be done to alter its outcome and all that’s left is to sit back and watch it happen.

The race for governor of Maryland may not have reached precisely that halting point yet, but it’s getting mighty close. Recovery time is closing in on Democrat Ben Jealous while the incumbent Republican, Larry Hogan, toddles along on his merry way.

Yes, but no.

The soothsayers may venture that the traditional starting-point for general elections, for some cockamamie reason, is Labor Day, next weekend, that nobody’s really paying attention during the summer months. That’s a silly notion, as Jealous may be learning, for someone who is starting from scratch and dead broke. 

Frank A. DeFilippo

Democrats originally fixed the primary election in September nearly a half century ago to compress the time between the primary and general elections. The idea then, as it should be now, was to run at full speed through both elections without giving Republicans breathing space between the two.

But the primary was re-set to June recently to accommodate overseas military voters. There are several signs of treachery undercutting Jealous’ tyro campaign, both from within and without.

Together they form a menacing impediment to validating what should be viewed as an all-hands effort by Democrats to unseat Hogan.

Right up front, Jealous has been hammered by a non-stop attack ad blitz – accurate, inaccurate or somewhere in between, reader’s choice – paid for with $1 million from the Republican Governors Association, and now followed, without missing a beat, by another wave of advertising by the Hogan campaign itself. The RGA ads were grainy, noir-ish and designed to make Jealous appear more of a mugger than a candidate. They were, in political parlance, intended to define Jealous before he could define himself.

There’s one major problem with attack (and negative) campaign ads: They work, and they’re often lethal, as they seem to have been in the death-by-a-thousand-cuts attack on Jealous. The attack ads are doing their insidious work.

Jealous did not, could not, respond, except to cuss and complain, and only lately ask television stations to take down the ads.

Good luck with that.

Nor did the Democratic Governors Association come to his aid, a hex sign for sure.

Jealous lacks the funds to answer the ads, tit-for-tat. He’s about $10 million shy of what Hogan has in the bank, and his fundraising ability is seriously limited by the perception that his campaign is stuck in the mud. An overall impression of the Jealous campaign is that it is not at all nimble, as it should be, able to react instantly, re-group and turn on a dime.

The Jealous operation is, in a word, meh.

As the late columnist Molly Ivins observed: “I long since decided that if the candidate doesn’t have some Elvis to him, he ain’t gonna make it.”

By those lights, the polls have not been kind to Jealous, either. A rule of thumb in polling is that any two reputable polls conducted at about the same time will show roughly the same results. Most polls to date show Hogan’s job approval ratings in the stratospheric 70s and Jealous trailing in the trial heats by anywhere from 12 to 16 points. More telling is that the polls show very few undecided voters left to persuade one way or the other, a discouraging sign for any candidate running behind and hoping for a lifeline, or at least a few late conversions. Both the poll numbers and the attack ads have had a profound hindrance on Jealous’ fundraising. He was strapped with less than a reported half million dollars in the bank as of as of mid-June in a state where recent campaigns for governor have cost as much as $20 million (new campaign finance reports will be released Tuesday). Hogan is already halfway there with more, much more, to come if he needs it. The three building blocks of any successful campaign are money, media and organization. It’s possible to win with any two as long as one of them is money. But Jealous’ main difficulties seem as much internal as external. Maryland Democrats, for a range of reasons, appear reluctant to accept Jealous, even though he won 22 of 24 jurisdictions but in a low turnout primary. And there is no indication so far that a united Democratic ticket, headed by Jealous, will present itself to the voters In fact, the politically androgynous comptroller, Peter Franchot (D), has become Hogan’s neutered poodle.  And Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) regards Jealous a little far out in space for his relentlessly centrist tastes, but nevertheless gave Jealous a tepid endorsement. Ditto House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel). The Maryland party, like the national Democrats, are torn between two flavors – the traditional, or centrist, Democrats and the assertive progressive wing of the party whose calling card is the 2016 campaign manifesto of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – with whom Jealous is aligned – and the rapidly emerging new demographics of brown-on-black. As an aside, to illustrate the point, back around 1979-80, three Maryland Democrats were invited to a Washington, D.C., meeting with Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt to discuss – what else – Maryland politics. At a pregnant point in the discussion, one participant piped up and said: “Mr. Chairman, if this country, and the two political parties, continue the way they’re going, we’re going to wind up with a black political party and a white political party.” More to the point, the oligarchs in Annapolis, who form the backbone of the Democrats’ voter delivery system because they’re all on the ballot, appear reluctant to identify with Jealous and his progressive agenda because they don’t welcome the ruckus it would thrust upon them in next year’s General Assembly. Jealous’ ambitious to-do list includes universal health care, free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage and he’s recently added universal Pre-K to the menu. His various funding sources include a tax increase on the wealthy, a new tax on pot and scooping up more of the state’s share of gambling proceeds to fund his programs. The risk in all this is that if the designated funding falls short, it has to be made up from other areas of the budget. The accepted wisdom in the State House is to ram through the tough stuff in the first year or two while the new arrivals are under the tutelage of the old hands and before they catch on to the system of winks, nods, patronage and vote-trades. And a word or two to those with other ideas: Being independent can be an awfully lonely position. But Jealous’ agenda would be a tough sell in any year, and especially in a year when the Kirwan Commission is expected to recommend an expensive new education funding program. (Democrats are relying on a huge turnout of school boosters to contribute to an illusory “blue wave.” The lure of the ballot is the anticipated Kirwan report and the constitutional amendment creating a “lock box” for education funding from casino proceeds.) The other Hail Mary motivating factor is a huge Democratic turnout to repudiate President Trump, who lost Maryland by 26 points in 2016. But if Democrats expect some of that hostility to stick to Hogan, they’re going to need a lot more Krazy Glue. The guy’s as slick as the Naval Academy’s greased obelisk during graduation week. What’s more, with a Republican upstairs, Democrats in the Assembly pretty much rule the roost. They get much of what they want from Hogan, and when they don’t they override his vetoes. Yes, but redistricting is the big bug-a-boo in this election. And the party that captures the governorship gets to draw the maps after the 2020 Census. And yes, again. If members of the General Assembly don’t like the maps the governor sends them they can draw their own and take a chance with the courts. Every political rubbernecker knows that the courts have been notoriously reluctant to intervene in redistricting cases. The Supreme Court has whiffed on a couple of opportunities to re-draw the Maryland map. The trouble is, the Constitution contains no prescription for congressional redistricting except one guideline: There shall be 435 districts in the nation, each with roughly equal population. State legislative redistricting, which is the identical process, as designed by the states, has guidelines such as population balance, contiguity and commonality of interests. Jealous is running against the clock as much as against Hogan. If he has some mojo hidden in his back pocket, he’d better starting using it, and use it fast.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.


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