Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous is facing off against incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland. The former president of the NAACP, Jealous has a progressive message that calls for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all, the legalization and taxation of marijuana and tuition-free college. Additionally, he has the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and even comedian Dave Chappelle. As the youngest president to lead the NAACP, Jealous has worked with statewide governments to develop plans to address mass incarceration and expand civil rights. If elected governor of Maryland, he hopes to continue this work, as he would be the first Black man history to secure this position in political office.
As a traditionally blue state, there's much hope for a win. In the 2016 presidential primaries, Clinton won her party's nomination with 63 percent of the vote, not only surpassing direct competition Bernie Sanders, but also Trump, who only secured his nomination as the Republican candidate with a meager 54.4 percent. Clinton triumphed yet again in the general election with 60.3 percent of the vote, as Trump lagged behind with 33.9 percent. Democrats in Maryland also currently have a veto-proof majority in the state legislature and hold both U.S. Senate seats, as well as all but one congressional district.
Will Jealous’ progressive agenda motivate enough voters to the polls, in a state with slow job growth that's also been known to host controversial police activity and a public school system often criticized for its apparent racial and socioeconomic divide? Blavity Politics caught up with the civil rights leader on the campaign trail to discuss his journey from the NAACP to 2018 midterm elections, and everything in between:
Blavity: What advice would you give to young Black men navigating their way in Trump’s America?
Ben Jealous: Pursue your dreams with passion, and don’t let anyone deny you what’s yours.
Listen and seek out the elders, who forged a path in front of you. Listen for their stories for inspiration, but also for instruction for how to win the battles in your life. There’s a reason why great generals know so much history.
I’d also say, if you want to lead any institution, learn how to drive revenue. That’s what empowered me to lead the NAACP.
Blavity: You are the former national president and CEO of the NAACP. How has your time and experience in this previous role help prepare you for running for governor?
Jealous: I’m running as a civil rights leader and a business person: The civil rights leader in me knows that genius is evident is every zip code; the business person in me knows that if we tap into that genius, if we cultivate that genius, we can all do better. Those complimentary experiences helps me focus my platform — to make sure kids get a quality education, everyone has quality health care they can afford, and that we build a more inclusive and robust economy powered by the people.
Blavity: What's the biggest lesson you learned from your tenure with the NAACP?
Jealous: Our guiding principle at the NAACP was, "In order to have a friend, you gotta be a friend." It’s the ethic of this campaign, and it’s the ethic of my leadership in civil rights. We are more interconnected and interdependent than we often acknowledge. But when you embrace that, you find people are ready to embrace it, too.
Blavity: What is the most important thing you think young Black voters should prioritize this election?
Jealous: Young voters need to own their power. They should demand that leaders have a plan to address issues that are unique to their generation, like student debt, stopping police killings of innocent civilians, and even legalizing cannabis for adult use. If young people stand up and raise their voice, they will find that solutions are possible, and our laws will increasingly reflect the values of their generation.
Blavity: What is the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
Jealous: "Someone like you can't do that."
Blavity: There has been a lot of struggle and concern around the policing of Black communities in your state, particularly in Baltimore. What is your plan to help create fair policing policies and criminal justice reform in your state?
Jealous: Increase civilian oversight; use personality testing to weed out those that have precluded abusive, violent behavior; recruit more officers from urban communities; and build an apprenticeship program from our high schools into the police force, to help achieve that. I’d reform our Police Officers' Bill of Rights, so that there is no longer a waiting period for the investigation of an police officer, who has been accused of murder.
Blavity: Shortly after the death of the Freddie Gray, a young student from Baltimore reportedly made this statement in video by Brookings Creative Lab, which was also cited in a Huffington Post article: “Everything is still segregated and the opportunities are different. Kids aren’t allowed to go to certain schools — or, even if they do, they’ll go there, but they won’t feel comfortable. They’ll feel outcasted in those different schools.”
If you could address this student directly, how would you respond? What is your solution to help fix the racial divide within Maryland's most vulnerable cities?
Jealous: I’d say to that young person, "You’re never too young to start leading."
My mom sued to desegregate her school when she was 12, and it was desegregated when she was 15. Young people’s time to lead is now; there are school board members in Maryland as young as 14. When we see more more young people running for office, we see more young people out to vote, and we see more policy in place that help govern young people’s lives.
To fix the racial divide, the number one thing we can do is make sure that every school is a great school. Housing segregation has accelerated by underfunded schools, poorly resourced schools and underperforming schools. If we’re going to solve the resegregation of our neighbors, we have to stop the under education of young people.
Blavity: What's your favorite thing to binge watch?
Drunk History, because historians are more compelling when they're candid. Also, Star Wars movies with my son.
Blavity: You’re a father to two adorable children. How has being a father helped shape your message and campaign?
Jealous: Being a parent to public school kids makes me [feel a sense of] urgency to address the underfunding of our schools. We have an opportunity to fully fund our schools, and as governor I plan to make that happen. As a parent, I know we don’t a lot of time to waste. It’s not about what we can do 10 years from now, it’s about what we can do for them next year. [The children] will rise or fall based on the courage we have as adults to make sure they have all have a quality public education, and our economy will rise or fall based on that courage, as well. If you shortchange public education today, you short-circuit economic growth tomorrow.
Blavity: Tell us more about your Make It in Maryland plan and the importance of increasing wages?
Jealous: Job growth in Maryland is so slow, that if we had the job growth of Virginia we’d have 400,000 more jobs right now — and Virginia’s job growth is below the national level. In order stilt job growth, we have to take a page out of Silicon Valley’s book, and make it easier to take ideas created by federally-funded research, turn them into products and bring them to market.
Maryland is the number-one destination for federal research dollars, yet we lag in the creation of startups. I propose placing power in the governor’s office to make it central to stoking our economy in Maryland. In the same way we’d work to make it easier for startup founders to create jobs and wealth, we must make it easier for work to add up for every worker. So I propose to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 per hour. I recognize the best way to stop a bullet is with a job, and we’ve got to make sure to bring jobs back to areas that have suffered most. We will create a pilot program that will demonstrate that it is better for our economy to invest in creating jobs and public employment in neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment and underemployment.
Blavity: What do you say to business owners and leaders that don’t have that civil rights experience, and have failed to invest in the diverse and inclusive spaces as you plan to create as governor?
Jealous: I’d tell them that trickle-down economics has failed, and bottom-up economics has always worked. And honestly, a lot of business owners are starting to get it. I launched my campaign in front of a flower shop, and the owner of that shop is a supporter and supports a statewide $15 per hour minimum wage. She readily admitted, "I will have to pay some of my workers more, and I will look forward to it because people in this neighborhood don’t make a livable wage. So if the neighbor gets a raise, I’ll sell more flowers."
Our economy is based on consumer spending. For two generations we’ve seen the base of our economy contract. When we start expanding the base of our economy by raising wages, we will see our entire economy grow.
Blavity: A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change painted a grim picture of the future. What would you do as governor to curb climate change?
Jealous: When I'm governor, I'll put Maryland on the path to 100 percent reliance on clean and renewable energy. We have to make Maryland a leader on environmental protection and on the opportunities presented by the 21st century, green economy. I'll also ensure that Maryland meets and exceeds all the regulations and benchmarks laid out in the Paris Agreement. If Donald Trump and the Republicans in Washington, D.C., won't lead on this issue, then our governors and our states have to.
Blavity: Why should Maryland residents vote for you?
Jealous: If you want to send a message to Donald Trump, elect a civil rights leader as your next governor.
Blavity: What are your long-term career plans — win or lose?
Jealous: I'll keep doing what I've always done; working toward building stronger communities and advancing civil rights. Whether it’s in government, the private sector, or the nonprofit space, the common theme of my career has been bringing people together to solve the big problems we all face. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Early voting has already begun in Maryland, with over 90,000 voters having already cast their ballots as of October 31. Will the voters of the Old Line State favor the moderate, GOP incumbent running with a centrist approach to leadership, or the progressive, Democratic businessman heavily influenced by civil rights doctrine? The country will be watching on November 6 to find out.
Did you like this article? Here are three more like it: