Ben Jealous’ abysmal campaign reflects the inertia of an African-American polity that was on the move only a generation ago and beginning to restructure central cities that were wholly unresponsive to people of color.
BALTIMORE — At first glance, Ben Jealous appears to be a good bet to become Maryland’s first black governor. Running in a blue state — where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one and nearly one in three voters is African-American — against an incumbent Republican governor, Jealous is a liberal Democrat, a son of Baltimore, and the former head of the NAACP, which is headquartered here. He even received an endorsement from the popular black comedian Dave Chappelle.
And yet, unless Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is found in bed with the proverbial live boy or dead girl, polls suggest that he will win re-election in November’s general election, and rather handily at that. The only real suspense is how wide Hogan’s margin of victory will be.
The results of a public-opinion survey published Wednesday showed Hogan with a seemingly insurmountable lead of 22 percentage points over Jealous, 54 to 32 percent. What’s even worse is that Jealous seems to be losing ground rather than gaining momentum as Election Day approaches: a poll in August showed the Democrat trailing the incumbent governor by 16 percentage points.
Jealous’ abysmal campaign reflects the inertia of an African-American polity that was on the move only a generation ago and beginning to restructure central cities that were wholly unresponsive to people of color. Across the country, from Oakland to New York City, New Orleans to Chicago, and Detroit to D.C., black politicians rode a wave of grassroots support into elected office beginning in the late 1960s and carved out space for their black and brown constituents, who had long been excluded from the public sphere.
From black power to oreo impotence
But the postwar generation of black politicos — such as D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley — owed their success at the ballot box to insurgent, bottom-up, populist movements that discomfited the white Democratic machine. Most of today’s black politicians, however, eschew a grassroots political campaign for a top-down strategy that relies heavily on party operatives who are mostly white and, truth-be-told, quite ambivalent about black political power.
Maryland’s Democratic kingmaker is the president of the state senate, Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, who many Blacks complain has run the party much the way slaveowners once ran Maryland’s tobacco plantations — manipulating the machine to nominate, finance and ultimately micromanage those black candidates for high office whose policies are consistent with the party leaders’ pro-business, pro-police slant.
In the June primary, Jealous upset Rushern Baker, who is also African-American but — as the county executive for the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, the most prosperous majority black county in the nation — alienated black parents with his efforts to privatize public schools, worsening an already bad educational system. But, despite his upbringing, Jealous’ connection to the black working class are tenuous at best. Said Donny Glover, 53, the host of a popular Baltimore radio show:
I saw him at a campaign event over the summer and he wasn’t remotely interested in learning who I was, and I really wasn’t interested in learning who he was. Other than two years I spent in Atlanta I have lived in Baltimore all my life and I cannot see what impact Ben Jealous has had on this community. The Black community doesn’t really know the man, and if he was counting on his ties to the NAACP, I’m not sure the organization has that kind of credibility. Does the NAACP really fight for Black people?”
Compounding matters for Jealous is that Hogan has staked out moderate policy positions in an apparent effort to distance himself from Trump’s brand of arch-conservatism. In addition to the traditional GOP pledge to cut taxes, Hogan’s message of lowering the cost-of-living for all Marylanders through subsidized college tuition, expanded health insurance, and tax cuts for the working poor has largely drowned out Jealous’ campaign promises to raise the state minimum wage, help ex-offenders find jobs, expand lead paint abatement programs and lower health care costs. Glover noted that Hogan’s administration has also invested heavily in Coppin State University’s campus in Baltimore, which has a large African-American enrollment.
Moreover, class resentments in the Maryland jurisdictions with the largest black populations, Prince George’s County and Baltimore city, have heightened in recent years as foreclosures have hit African Americans particularly hard; school reform measures have worsened public education; and police misconduct — such as the death in custody of an unarmed black man, Freddie Gray — have deepened the state’s racial divide. Last year, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed legislation approved by the City Council to raise the city’s minimum wage, saying that it would hurt employers.
In Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood where protesters poured into the streets during the city’s 2015 unrest, Donte Fisher wore a «Hogan for Governor» T-shirt during Tuesday’s primary. Once, it would have been highly unusual for black citizens in a disenfranchised Baltimore neighborhood to voice any enthusiasm for a statewide Republican candidate, especially when they could support a contender who once led the Baltimore-based NAACP and could become the state’s first black governor. But they say Hogan is not a typical Republican.
‘I think Hogan has been a good governor. He gets things done. He gets more things done for Baltimore than the mayor,’ Fischer, 45, said, referring to Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat.”
A passing rainbow
Beginning with Carl Stokes’ 1968 election as Cleveland’s mayor, black politicians mobilized working class African-American support to claim scores of elected offices, culminating in the 1983 election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. His “rainbow coalition” relied as much on Chicago’s public housing residents as trade unionists to get out the vote, sometimes literally, with volunteers shuttling the elderly and first-time voters to the polling stations, manning phone banks, distributing fliers, raising money and registering voters.
Washington also inspired Jesse Jackson’s powerful 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns but, by the time Washington fell dead from a heart attack while working at his desk on Thanksgiving eve in 1988, white Democrats like Mike Miller, Bill Clinton and Al Gore had begun to regain control of the party, its finances and its nominating process (see superdelegates as one example), and to purge the party of its most radical influences.
To comprehend this phenomenon, understand that it was not a grassroots movement that propelled Barack Obama to the White House, but a coterie of think tanks, moderate Democrats, and Wall Street bondholders who openly praised Obama for not being a “polarizing” figure like Jesse Jackson.
The problem is not black defections in the voting booth so much as the failure of African-American candidates who can rally the troops, as it were, and inspire heavy turnout. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote last month that Hogan managed four years ago to defeat another African-American candidate, Democratic state lawmaker Anthony Brown, because African-American pols like Brown fail to connect with the party’s most loyal constituency:
The problem of playing it safe seems peculiar to Democrats, however — at least the establishment ones. They are technically competent, but unable to inspire an appropriate voter turnout. Brown should know this better than anyone.
In Prince George’s County, which is Brown’s home turf, there are about 451,000 registered Democrats and about 40,000 registered Republicans. In the 2014 race for governor that pitted Brown, a two-term lieutenant governor, and odds-on favorite against Republican businessman Larry Hogan, only 175,000 Prince George’s residents cast a vote for Brown.”
Glover said the reason for poor turnout is the estrangement of black politicians like Baker, Pugh and Brown, who carry water for white party leaders like Miller while making little effort to address the concerns of working-class African Americans:
A major problem with African-American Democrats is their elitism; they are no different than Trump in my book.”
For his part, Jealous has told interviewers that their polls have been wrong before, including in his primary contest against Baker.:
I know there is skepticism that Larry Hogan can be beaten. Well, we’ve got a message for those who think this race is already over. Larry Hogan will lose in November because he is not ready to run against someone who knows how to build a true people-powered grassroots campaign.»
Top Photo | Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous addresses supporters at an election night party, June 26, 2018, in Baltimore. Patrick Semansky | AP
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”