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Government & Politics

Moore faces great expectations and the weight of history as he takes office

Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) with President Biden at a get-out-the-vote rally in Bowie last November. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) takes office Wednesday with the weight of history and the burden of high expectations on his broad shoulders. He also begins Day One of his four-year term as a bonafide national superstar, a rarity for a political newcomer  and a weight, perhaps, of a different kind.

Hours before Moore was set to be sworn in as Maryland’s 63rd governor, Bloomberg News posted an article touting him as a future presidential contender. It mentioned him in the same breath as Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“As Democrats wring their hands about who might run — and win — once Joe Biden leaves office, Maryland Governor-elect Wes Moore emerges as if he were created in a political lab: a person of color who rose from poverty and served in combat,” Bloomberg wrote. “A Rhodes scholar and best-selling author on Oprah Winfrey’s radar. And through his work on Wall Street and the Robin Hood Foundation, he boasts a network of celebrity and hedge fund contacts.”

How does a 44-year-old first-time officeholder measure up to such a build-up? How will he learn the nuances and complexities of a high-pressure job under the constant glare of the national political media, camped out just 30 miles away from Annapolis in Washington, D.C.? How does he balance the 24/7 demands of being governor with his party’s never-ending search for fresh and exciting leaders? And how does he navigate as the state’s first Black governor — and only the third elected in U.S. history — in such toxic, perilous political times?

Admirers say that Moore is uniquely equipped for the challenges ahead and will face them with equanimity and determination, and that he learned long ago to thrive at high levels even under intense scrutiny. All of Moore’s previous professional stops, they say — in business, in the military, in the nonprofit world and as a best-selling author — prepared him for this moment.

“Wes is a tremendous leader and a tremendous executive who has the ability to juggle a lot of things at once, and he has throughout his career,” said Doug Thornell, the CEO of SKDK, a national Democratic consulting firm who was Moore’s top media strategist throughout the campaign. “Wes has been in the spotlight for a while now. He never lets it go to his head. He is always focused on the job. And he’s always very even-tempered. He’s never too hot and he’s never too cold.”

Veterans of Moore’s campaign say that as a candidate, and in the weeks since, Moore was always zeroed in on the tasks at hand. When he was campaigning in the crowded and hard-fought Democratic primary, he never spoke openly about the general election, and he won narrowly. When he competed in the general election, which had all the makings of a blow-out from the beginning, he never took anything for granted. After Election Day, Moore has focused on the transition and assembling an innovative, energetic and diverse team, without overstepping boundaries while Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was still in charge. And he has never once, associates said, talked about any further political ambitions.

“He was elected to be the governor of Maryland, and that is what is driving his heart, his decision-making,” said Thornell, who grew up and lives in Maryland.

Alexandra Hughes, the former chief of staff to House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and the late House Speaker Michael Busch (D), said Moore is doing everything he can to prepare to govern, but said political distractions are inevitable, especially for a celebrated and history-making new chief executive.

“From what I’ve seen, I think that the governor-elect has spent a lot of time over the last five or six months learning about the operations of state government. That shows his commitment to this job,” said Hughes, the founder of Blended Public Affairs, an Annapolis firm. “But it’s not as if other people aren’t going to be pressuring him to do something else. I think people have wanted to make him a caricature or a symbol. And he has leaned away from wanting to do that. There’s definitely going to be some level of balance. People are going to have really high expectations. Those expectations have to be balanced with the pressures and realities of governing.”

Moore, who raised more than $16 million for his election, has already accepted the assignment to be finance chair of the Democratic Governors Association. And some national political strategists, including President Obama’s former pollster, Joel Benenson, cannot help but see comparisons between Moore and other iconic national Democratic leaders.

“I think Wes has enormous talent, and I don’t just mean political talent,” said Benenson, who met Moore several years ago to discuss the rudiments of running for political office and has since become friendly with the governor-elect, though he has never worked for him. “He’s doing this for all the right reasons. I think he’s a great talent for the Democratic Party. Obviously, he’s got to deliver.”

Benenson said Moore reminds him of President Biden and another former client, Hillary Clinton, because he possesses “tremendous values.”

“That’s what makes a great political leader,” Benenson said.

Despite any distracting political chatter, a big national profile for the incoming governor can benefit Maryland, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Tuesday.

“Having that relationship with folks in D.C. is really important to make sure Maryland is at an advantage,” Ferguson said, citing the state’s attempts to lure the FBI headquarters to one of two locations in Prince George’s County.

“I think it’s essential that we get the FBI building,” he said. “That decision has a 40-year implication. You get a new FBI headquarters in Prince George’s County, you get a whole new ecosystem of opportunity.”

On top of that, Ferguson said, “I know that Wes is focused on Maryland. I know that he understands that he was elected by the people of Maryland and he has a laser-like focus, he and [Lt. Gov.-elect] Aruna Miller, have a real focus on making sure that they, with the legislature, can really make a huge difference. I think it’s exciting to have someone who has the capacity to inspire people and I think certainly the new administration has that ability.”

Hughes noted that in contrast to Hogan, Moore will have legislative leaders who will largely work in tandem with him and his team.

“With any new governor, there’s always growing pains,” she said. “I think the governor-elect has demonstrated the acumen to put together a very talented Cabinet. And they have the two presiding officers who endorsed him early in the primary and are invested in his success.”

But Moore’s presence in Government House, Hughes conceded, will require an adjustment from rank-and-file Democratic legislators who, during Hogan’s tenure, became “used to being the shot-callers on policy.” It will be up to Ferguson and Jones, she said, to balance the desires of their members with the imperatives of the new administration.

Thornell, a former top strategist for U.S. House Democrats, said Moore is following strategic advice offered by longtime House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” Moore’s innate political skills, he said, make it difficult for the public to see how hard he works.

“He’s really the most prepared person I’ve ever met,” Thornell said, “whether it’s debates, staff meetings, speaking engagements or town halls. People think it comes so easy to him that he doesn’t have to work at it. Wes works his butt off.”