Commentary: Endlessly Jealous

By Josh Kurtz

Former state Del. Heather Mizeur (D) must regret that the 2014 election cycle — when she ran a scrappy, progressive, low-budget campaign for governor — wasn’t a little more like the 2018 cycle is shaping up to be.

Democrats in 2014 were complacent, with President Obama midway through his second term and Martin O’Malley finishing his second term as governor. The party establishment in Maryland was firmly in control, and it seemed almost inevitable at the outset of the cycle that then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown would wind up as the gubernatorial nominee. He did – with disastrous consequences.

But this election cycle, with Larry Hogan in Government House and Donald Trump in the White House, looks completely different. Rank-and-file Democrats are fired up and angry and pushing their party ever leftward.

There’s a grassroots energy we haven’t seen for a long time – along with a healthy dose of disorganization, which cuts both ways. Party leaders in hide-bound Maryland, who have unique staying power, will always be a factor. But this time the nominating process for governor feels wide open.

If the 2014 lineup of Democratic candidates – Brown, Mizeur and then-Attorney General Doug Gansler – was running this time instead, you could easily see a scenario where Mizeur would ride a wave of activism and prevail in the primary.

Which brings us to Ben Jealous.

The former NAACP president, who is gearing up to announce his candidacy within a month, is the Heather Mizeur of the 2018 cycle – the passionate, full-throated progressive who seems destined to fire up elements of the Democratic base, inspire great loyalty, and stitch together an interesting coalition of supporters. In this political environment, a candidate like Jealous is a force to be reckoned with.

Which isn’t to say that Jealous is sure to win the nomination or that he’d be the strongest challenger to Hogan. And we certainly shouldn’t discount the more conventional candidates.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz know a thing or two about governing, have regional bases but are familiar with the state as a whole, and can speak fluently about the issues that are likely to be at the top of the election year agenda.

Congressman John Delaney, if he runs, will be formidable – not just because he is rich as Croesus, but because he is a strategic, measured and thoughtful guy with an estimable life story.

After those three, the prospective Democratic field begins to blur a bit – even though each individual has ability and potential.

Gansler is a known entity, with a solid record as attorney general and as Montgomery County state’s attorney before that. But he’s largely been out of the limelight since 2014. And though he starts the cycle with name recognition and the regrets of some Democratic voters who may feel, in retrospect, that he would have been a stronger nominee than Brown, he has no campaign cash to speak of, no natural base given the cast of characters eyeing the race, and no campaign organization.

Alec Ross (see https://marylandmattersblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/scoop-baltimore-tech-entrepreneur-ponders-run-for-governor-in-2018/) and Jim Shea (see https://marylandmattersblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/political-roundup-jim-shea-speaks-rushern-baker-travels-busy-days-for-fundraisers/), if they run, will have the appeal of being newcomers to electoral politics. But they will have to work quickly to show that they are serious, knowledgeable and viable.

State Sen. Rich Madaleno, if he enters the race, will be competing for some of the same voters as Jealous – and will attract some of the same support that Mizeur did. He has the added credential of knowing intimately how Annapolis works, and he’s also become a go-to guy for Democrats when it comes to doling out criticism of Hogan. There is undoubtedly a core of progressive activists who work the State House regularly ready to cheer him on if he makes the plunge.

But that’s a limited universe, particularly on the fundraising front. Jealous, on the other hand, already has a national following, a network of Bernie Sanders supporters and other progressives only too ready to come to his aid and write a check.

It’s entirely conceivable that as soon as Jealous announces his bid, money will start pouring into his campaign, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him vault to the very top of the fundraising charts among Democrats – especially if Delaney does not run.

This, of course, does not automatically translate into local support, and Jealous will have a credibility test of his own – to prove that he can identify local problems and offer practical solutions, not just an evangelist’s theatrical and generalized bromides.

Supporters believe Jealous has the unique ability to appeal to both working-class white and African-American voters. That’s an awfully idealized view, but the potential phenomenon bears some watching. While his fans are spinning, Jealous better be doing his homework – on places like Dundalk and Elkton and Cambridge and Suitland.

A Jealous candidacy will make party elders – the same people who gave us Anthony Brown in 2014 and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002 – nervous, which is one of its appeals. But the leaders may scramble to anoint Baker or Kamenetz or Delaney – or press Attorney General Brian Frosh to enter the race.

Frosh’s potential as a gubernatorial candidate is another matter entirely. He has resisted the idea of running, but he has become increasingly important — by his actions as well as symbolically — as a figure of resistance to the Trump and Hogan agendas.

He’s also the kind of candidate, if he commits to the fight, who could come close to uniting the establishment and activist wings of the Democratic Party.

With luck, it will be the voters this time, rather than the party bosses, who determine the identity of the nominee for governor. With the popular and well-funded Hogan already primed for the general election fight, Maryland Democrats will need as much grassroots energy as they can muster. Right now, the candidate best suited to do that may just be Ben Jealous.

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