Frank DeFilippo: A Victim of His Own Limitations

One among many old sayings in politics is this time-tested cautionary note: If you’re going to have a tough general election, you’d better have a tough primary.Ben Jealous had an easy ride. He won 22 jurisdictions. And he, like many tyro candidates, never learned the difference between a primary and a general election.  Jealous’ campaign against Gov. Larry Hogan (R), not to pile on, has been one of a lack of preparation and missed opportunities. There appear to be few, if any, turning points left. The Jealous campaign, like Churchill’s pudding, has no theme. Politics is a form-follows-function kind of business. The late Joseph Napolitan, the renowned political consultant, observed: “Strategy is the single most important factor in a political campaign. . . The right strategy can survive a mediocre campaign, but even a brilliant campaign is likely to fail if the strategy is wrong. The strategy must be adapted to fit the campaign; you can’t adapt the campaign to fit the strategy.”  Frank A. DeFilippo  Primary elections are based mainly on organization. Identify and organize your vote and get it to the polls on Election Day. Primary elections are family affairs wherein the parties sort out their differences and pick the candidate they hope will deliver the pork chop in November. Crossovers in Maryland primaries are taboo. General elections, more broadly, are where issues and personalities really count for motivating voters who stake their futures on a vote and a promise. Voting is triage. Candidates should know what votes they have and which they don’t and pursue those that can be persuaded. In a general election, all votes, theoretically, are up for grabs. Crossovers are welcome. Jealous received bad news early. One poll following the primary, either Goucher or Gonzales, had Jealous leading Hogan by only 6 points in Baltimore City. If the race is that tight in a city that’s 68 percent black, think what the sentiment must be beyond the I-95 blue streak. The bad news, like Hurricane Florence, just kept coming, and dumping on. Last week’s Goucher poll had Jealous trailing Hogan statewide by 22 points, with little more than five weeks before the Nov. 6 decision day. The earlier Gonzales poll had Jealous behind by 16 points. The story of Jealous is not one of campaign collapse, but a tale of a campaign that never got off the mattress. Jealous’ natural base of allies, far and near, is nowhere to be found nor accounted for at the donation window. The issues he considered revolutionary have pretty much been dissed or absorbed into the mainstream. And the progressive left in Maryland has evanesced into the ether after its brief brass-band appearance. The self-identified progressives have been neutralized, if not subsumed, by the currents of Maryland politics. Beyond the noise, they’re outnumbered, out-voted and, for the moment, out of the way. Movements and moments such as theirs have brief shelf lives. Put another way, Jealous has relied too much on retail politics for the general election and not enough on the wholesale embrace that weaponizes general elections. But that’s part of another story that devolves from his impecunious campaign. Money follows winners. But the toothsome twist in the new Goucher poll is that many voters support the programs Jealous advocates, mainly the $15 minimum wage, even if they don’t intend to vote for Jealous as a candidate, proof enough that the middle can accommodate ideas whose time has arrived. A lifeline is on the way. Jealous supporters have launched a million-dollar ad campaign to help prop up his candidacy. It focuses on the issue of education and is funded, in part, by teachers’ unions and wealthy backers. By contrast, Hogan has introduced a new campaign conundrum: He wears his grief on his sleeve. How can Democrats defeat an enormously popular Republican governor who’s a cancer survivor, an advocate for kids with cancer, whose sister died a horrible death, who buried his father and who announced from the State House that First Dog, Lexi – whom Hogan described as his “best friend” – died in his arms at Government House. If only. Instant reaction means instant involvement. Hogan has succeeded where Jealous has failed. The advantages of incumbency are evident in the everyday operations of government, but Jealous should have been able to latch onto news events as well as the governor. Three cases of missed opportunities: — When the Republican Governors’ Association launched its ad blitz in which it labeled Jealous a socialist, he could have responded by delivering a major speech in an appropriate setting defending the American way of caring for the sick and the aging. It wouldn’t have cost a dime, and he would have answered the charge as well as defined himself and clarified his proposal to his supporters and constituents. — Dumping state retirees from the Maryland health care plan into Medicare Part D is roiling aging pensioners and has long-range implications for current state employees. It’s an issue that effects 60,000 retirees and about the same number of active employees in the state workforce. Jealous was silent when news of the dump broke, and he was silent again when four retirees filed a lawsuit against the move. Jealous could have joined the suit by filing an amicus brief (friend of the court), gained attention and made some valuable new friends and allies. And if he lacked legal standing, Jealous could have made even more noise. Seniors not only vote, they vote their pocketbooks. — Most perplexing of all, Jealous allowed Hogan to filch credit for a Democratic program without raising his voice. As noted in a previous column, Hogan is characterizing the “lockbox” constitutional amendment question on education funds as “my initiative.” It’s not. The constitutional amendment is the Democrats’ property; Hogan proposed legislation to set up a lockbox for school funds, but it wouldn’t have been enshrined in the state constitution. Jealous could have made an issue of this sleight-of-hand with no cost to his campaign but a news conference, a thunderclap statement and frequent repetition. The amendment’s supporters, the teachers’ unions and PTAs, would have applauded. Jealous has no doubt discovered by now that running for governor as a Bernie-come-lately did not offer traction through the association. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is yesterday’s hero, and perhaps a future candidate for president, but his endorsement carried little cachet beyond a day’s notice. Jealous had been a Sanders surrogate during the 2016 campaign for president and the favor was returned but with little benefit. Jealous had never run for office before. His primary win must have been an unexpected surprise to him as everyone knows it was to the Democratic establishment. The party’s oligarchs were lined up solidly behind Jealous’ principal rival, Rushern Baker, term-limited executive of Prince George’s County. That said, back to the top. If Jealous had been forced to undergo the rigors of a tough, disciplined primary campaign, with a solid staff of professional managers to back him up, he might not be in the pickle he’s in today. Jealous appears to have bet his entire campaign on the ability of a couple of service unions to enlist a majority of voters to his cause. That’s terrific as far as it goes. But there was no little or no money, nor an aggressive fundraising component, to support the effort. Nor was there a clear and understandable message that was communicated to targeted groups, but only vague and ill-defined proposals that were whiplashed back to bite Jealous by the Hogan campaign. Jealous is a victim of his own limitations.

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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