A Conversation with Ben Jealous
By Josh Kurtz
It was another day, another labor endorsement for Ben Jealous.
Not that they have become so frequent or ho-hum that the Democratic gubernatorial contender and former NAACP president doesn’t enjoy them. It’s hard for a hard-working candidate not to take energy from these events when the crowd is so fired up. And it never hurts when The O’Jays’ “Love Train” is blaring through the room.
This particular gathering was just before Christmas, at a converted church that’s become an event space south of Charles Village in Baltimore. Members of the union UNITE HERE!, which represents hotel, restaurant, casino, airport and service workers across the state, gathered to bestow their endorsement on Jealous.
“In all my years in the union, I’ve never seen such an impressive candidate for Maryland,” said Bert Bayou, president of the UNITE HERE! Local 23 chapter in Washington, D.C., which has about 2,000 members in the state, most of whom live in Prince George’s County. “We’re committed to getting him across the finish line. We’re not only saying this – we’re going to show it, we’re going to work it.”
Jealous knows what endorsements like these can mean, with UNITE HERE! joining the Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America, Maryland Working Families, Maryland Postal Workers Union, Our Revolution, National Nurses United, Friends of the Earth Action and Progressive Maryland among the groups backing him.
“We now have more organizations that have endorsed us than we need voters to win,” he told the crowd. The trick, Jealous also knows, is getting these groups to get their members to the polls.
In an interview a few minutes after the rally, Jealous laid out his strategy for doing just that.
What quickly emerges in a conversation with Jealous is that he is unlike anyone who has run for statewide office in Maryland in recent memory. There have been progressive candidates before, and insurgents, too, but no one who has described him- or herself as a civil rights leader and organizer, no one with quite the messianic streak that Jealous possesses.
But in the era of Donald Trump, when dispirited and deflated Democratic electorates have cost the party crucial elections, and with a fractured field in this gubernatorial primary, could this be what the voters – or at least a sufficient number of voters – are looking for?
“When you look at the political landscape, at political leaders, courage and conviction are often missing,” Jealous said. “I’ve spent my lifetime taking risks to pull people together to get things done. Part of what’s driving this campaign is the sense that we have to get back to what we were.”
With that, Jealous invoked JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Mikulski. He marveled at the rally he held in the fall at Notre Dame of Maryland University with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), where 1,200 people crowded into a 900-seat venue, “on fire about ensuring that everybody has affordable, accessible, quality health care.”
Jealous believes there is an economic “anxiety” that unifies disparate portions of the Maryland electorate.
“The way to pull Maryland together is to focus on kitchen-table issues,” he said. “We feel like we’re succeeding at building a broad alliance of working families.”
‘Hard to motivate people with half measures’
Jealous has proposed some aggressive policy prescriptions, like a state single-payer health care system and free tuition for state universities, community colleges and trade schools.
“It’s hard to motivate people with half measures,” he said. “Because people want the problems to be fixed.”
On health care, Jealous argued, the government can’t move gradually: “You can’t solve half the problem. The most expensive option is to preserve the status quo.”
So how do you go about achieving a Medicare-for-all system in Maryland? Start, Jealous said, by convening a conversation of stakeholders: Businesses and employers. Consumer groups. Unions. Health care professionals. Students. Work to reduce medical providers’ overhead. Limit the influence of big pharmaceutical companies to drive the economics of the health care industry. Manage the overall state health care system better.
It may sound simplistic. But Jealous believes the conversation needs to begin and then be framed in the right way. Health care costs under the current system continue to surge, and business leaders become anxious about their ability to provide coverage – a fear that would dissipate, Jealous said, under single-payer.
“Fundamentally, fixing our health care crisis is about making our state more competitive,” he said.
Asked to explain Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) popularity, Jealous replied, “An old politician’s trade secret: The best policy to re-election is to do nothing.”
Like his fellow Democrats, Jealous hit Hogan for what he described as insufficiently speaking out against Trump policies – particularly on the environment, immigration and “the return to the failed war on drugs,” and said “Larry Hogan knows he only became governor because Maryland had the lowest turnout in 2014 that we’ve had for many, many years.”
If traditional Democratic voters go to the polls in regular numbers this time, Jealous predicted, “we’ll win.” If the party is able to reach Democrats who have been reluctant to vote in recent cycles, “we’ll wallop him.”
‘I’m an organizer’
But before Jealous can set his sights on Hogan, he must first get through a crowded primary that includes three veteran elected officials and three first-time candidates with varying degrees of experience and different appeals.
There are some elements of the Democratic establishment that privately worry about Jealous as their nominee – whether he’ll be too radical and turn off centrist Democrats who gravitated to Hogan in 2014. The establishment – which has tried to anoint candidates in some election cycles – is slowly gravitating to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker this time.
Jealous noted that he knows Maryland Democratic leaders and has worked with them – particularly when former Gov. Martin O’Malley was in office. He was named Marylander of the Year in 2013 by The Baltimore Sun, which cited his work at the NAACP on repealing the death penalty and passing the DREAM Act and marriage equality.
“I’ve worked well with the party leadership for a long time, and we understand each other,” Jealous said. “I’m an organizer, so I’m trained not to let politicians’ opinions of the possibilities get in the way of what people think is a necessity.”
He added: “The voters of Maryland will be more engaged in a Jealous administration. We will build a bigger, more robust coalition than any people think is possible.”
As the interview concluded, Jealous was heading from Baltimore to his campaign headquarters in downtown Silver Spring – which was situated there to be close to where his two children attend elementary school – to make money calls, the bane of almost every candidate’s existence.
“It’s easy to complain about the call time – you wind up doing more of it than you think you have to,” he conceded. But he also said he found the fundraising process “quite affirming,” when people express a willingness to invest in the campaign.
Jealous was strategic in choosing a running mate before any of his Democratic opponents, and his candidate for lieutenant governor, longtime party activist Susan Turnbull, has been raising money from her own wealth of contacts.
Jealous declined to speculate on what his cash on hand will look like later in January, but said, “You can expect us to talk just as loudly about voters on hand. … Our team looks different because we are different. We’re organizers, and we believe the power of organized people trumps the power of organized money.”