Looking for news you can trust?Subscribe to our free newsletters.
Ben Jealous was in a hurry. It was a Sunday morning in early June and he had just addressed a few thousand Bernie Sanders followers at the People’s Summit, a Chicago gathering of lefty organizers. It had been a long weekend of workshops and plenaries and the odd dance party, and Jealous, who is running for governor of Maryland, had helped close it out, speaking on a panel on electoral politics titled “Beyond Neo-Liberalism and Trumpism.” For three days organizers had tallied their victories and studied their setbacks, in an effort to understand where the Sanders-inspired movement was headed. In candidates like Jealous, they seemed to have an answer—the revolution was moving down the ballot.
Jealous had other things on his mind as he rushed to the airport. The next day, his parents would celebrate the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down interracial marriage bans, by renewing their vows at a Baltimore church. But his path to the convention-center taxi stand was blocked by one supporter after another. A twentysomething in a T-shirt that read, “Fuck it, I guess I’m a Democratic Socialist,” wanted a photo. A woman wanted to pass along a book from the author Naomi Klein. A nurse from California just kept saying, “You’re going to win! You’re going to win!”
The 44-year-old is a difficult man to miss, towering and heavyset with short black hair and a thick goatee peppered with flecks of gray. He is rarely seen in public without suspenders, leaving you with the sense that you are talking to not just the youngest-ever ex-president of the NAACP, but also a lumberjack. In crowds, Jealous doesn’t walk so much as he parts the waters, like a boulder breaking up a rushing stream.
Finally, he had shed the friendly organizers and the photo-seekers and the man who wanted to have “a couple-minute conversation” about universal basic income. He walked off an escalator, short of breath and sweating a little, into a white-linoleum-floored foyer somewhere in the bowels of the largest convention center in the country. “I don’t know where the fuck we are,” he said. “Do you?”
It is a familiar sentiment these days. The 2016 election has thrown the Democratic Party and the political left into a series of struggles over the path forward. These fights—to obstruct or to compromise, to clean house or keep their leadership—are infused with a sense of foreboding about what three (or seven) more years in Donald Trump’s America might bring.
Jealous approaches this moment of reckoning from a different direction than many of his Democratic peers, one that almost sounds like optimism. Even after their strong showing in November, Democrats face steep odds of breaking Republicans’ grip on Congress, but Jealous’ race is emblematic of an opportunity outside Washington: In 2018, 13 states that Barack Obama carried twice have Republican governors who are retiring or up for reelection. Winning governors’ mansions, Jealous says, is “the only way to move our families forward.”
Ben Jealous shakes hands with admirers outside a restaurant moments before declaring his endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker.
His campaign is a product of two spectacular failures—the failure of then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown to win a slam-dunk gubernatorial race in 2014 against Republican real estate developer Larry Hogan, and the failure of Hillary Clinton to win a slam-dunk race against another Republican real estate developer two years later. Without Clinton’s loss, the appetite for a Democratic Party reset would be considerably weaker; without several cycles of down-ballot losses, there wouldn’t be many places to try it.
We emerged from the convention center by an underground loading dock. No cabs. His jacket now draped over his shoulder, Jealous consulted his iPhone and shrugged, setting off toward a pocket of sunlight. “As progressives, we’ve mourned the transfer of power from the federal government to the states over the last half-century,” he said, getting back to his point. “Well, this is that sort of a judo moment, where you decide to use your opponent’s momentum against them and say, ‘All right, fine. You guys want to put all the power in your states? Well, we’ll just get back to running our states.’”
It is a simple-enough idea—federalism, but for liberals—to make you forget, for a second, how radical of a proposition a Gov. Ben Jealous would be. No one who has led an organization like the NAACP has ever been in the position he could find himself in come January 2019, in charge of the very institutions—prisons, schools, courts—that organizations like the NAACP have spent more than a century trying to influence from the outside. Nor, for that matter, has anyone affiliated with Sanders’ movement. If Jealous can make history next fall as Maryland’s first black governor, he’ll have the space to test-drive a revamped lefty politics that could show Democrats—and Berniecrats—how to make coalition politics work in a reactionary age. To some disaffected liberals, Jealous, a Rhodes scholar turned civil rights leader turned tech investor, represents a new hope. “We’re in this kind of post-Obama desert,” says the commentator Van Jones, an early backer, “and if you listen to Ben Jealous, he’s the closest thing to an oasis that I’ve heard or seen.” And yet, if Jealous is what comes next, the most surprising thing about his campaign may be that Sanders’ second wave doesn’t sound much like Sanders at all.
Benjamin Todd Jealous was born into a life of crime. In 1966, Ann Todd, a descendant of enslaved Africans from Madagascar, and Fred Jealous, whose ancestors followed the Pilgrims to Massachusetts, were two teachers living in Baltimore when they decided to get married. The Loving decision was still a year away, and 17 states, including Maryland, prohibited interracial marriage. Fred’s grandfather disinherited him when he heard the news. Determined to push ahead, the wedding party formed a caravan to Washington, DC, where they could legally tie the knot.
After the ceremony, Fred and Ann moved to California and settled in a quiet, almost entirely white town near Big Sur called Pacific Grove. Although Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who studied Jealous’ ancestry on his show Finding Your Roots, joked that he was the “whitest black man we’ve ever tested,” Jealous has never struggled with his identity, in part because of the circumstances in which his parents married. He is black, full stop, and the fact that Fred Jealous was disinherited for marrying Ann meant that the extended family Ben knew in his youth were mostly black, too. Jealous spent summers with his mother’s parents in Baltimore and has lived back East most of his adult life, but he has not fully left California behind—he learned to surf and stopped eating meat after a rigorous propaganda campaign from his sister about veal calves when he was five.
Jealous’ political baptism came in 1988, when as a short, stuttering 14-year-old, he registered voters for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Jackson’s candidacy is remembered now for its historic nature—he was the first black candidate to win a contested primary—but it also created a lasting blueprint for progressive insurgencies. Jackson showed that a lefty coalition of working-class white and black voters, without support from party leaders, could unite under a banner of economic populism and civil rights and be taken seriously.
Jackson lost the election but won the argument. Jealous, whose five-year-old son is named for the reverend, watched the next year as two African American followers of Jackson—Doug Wilder and David Dinkins—won elections in Virginia and New York City. Candidates tend to shirk historical comparisons, but Jealous’ run is explicitly based on one: Bernie is 1988, and he is 1989.
Ben Jealous talks to a crowd of people at local restaurant Busboys and Poets.
“Jackson’s campaign says you can make social movements matter with a campaign; Wilder and Dinkins showed you could make social movements stronger and win,” he told me. “In each case they started out with the ashes of a failed presidential primary bid and would build a coalition that was much larger and much more inclusive—and that’s fundamentally what we’re doing here.”
Jealous’ politics fell into a Jacksonian mold from there, and he wound up at Columbia University in New York City, where Dinkins was mayor, and where Thurgood Marshall’s successor at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Jack Greenberg, then serving as the dean of students, got him a work-study job at the LDF. Jealous became a fixture in the classroom and on the quad, marching against the Gulf War and burning Christopher Columbus in effigy. “Ben has a significant presence,” says Carlton Long, a former Columbia professor who remains close with him. “He showed up to campus wearing his letterman jacket with his last name on the back, and that created a little bit of consternation among students. ‘Is this a message? Does he think we all envy him?’”
Living in New York also brought him closer to his godbrother, the comedian Dave Chappelle, whose father was best friends with Fred. Jealous was such a ubiquitous presence at Chappelle’s Manhattan comedy gigs that he was known to bystanders simply as “Chappelle’s Puerto Rican bodyguard.” (One of his first fundraisers featured a meet and greet with the comic.)
At Columbia, Jealous befriended another Californian with a mixed racial background and an activist streak, Eric Garcetti, and they teamed up in a series of clashes with the administration. The duo staked out a university-owned convenience store to catch the clerks refusing service to the homeless, and when Columbia’s trustees were considering scrapping need-blind admission, Jealous and Garcetti helped organize a blockade of the building where the meeting took place. Stylistically, they represented contrasting approaches to the same ends. Garcetti, the son of then-LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti, conducted back-channel negotiations; Jealous climbed through a window to crash the meeting. “Maybe they thought I was quote-unquote ‘somebody reasonable,’” says Garcetti, now the mayor of Los Angeles. “They might have seen him as more radical.” In the end, the program was saved, but Jealous was put on notice.
“We’re in this kind of post-Obama desert,” says Van Jones. “He’s the closest thing to an oasis.”Jealous, however, was not one to heed requests to mute his activism. Determined to stop the university from tearing down the ballroom where Malcolm X was shot, Jealous led another blockade of an administration building, preventing Greenberg from leaving until he and his fellow protesters had listed their demands. He was kicked off campus for a semester.
For a time he wasn’t sure he’d be back at all. In 1993, Jealous moved to Mississippi, taking an $85-a-week job as an organizer in Jackson, where the Republican governor had proposed eliminating the state’s historically black public universities (HBCUs) to save money. (In the coup de grâce, one was to be replaced with a prison.) To a kid from Pacific Grove, Mississippi was another world, in which the 1860s, to say nothing of the 1960s, had never ended. Medgar Evers’ assassin was only just then standing trial, and the Ku Klux Klan had threatened to retaliate against the HBCU organizers if they continued their protest. Jealous spent a night in jail after one demonstration and narrowly avoided worse trouble when his friend Chappelle flew down for an event with a bag of weed in his duffel. They were later pulled over and nearly arrested; they were spared when one of the cops recognized Chappelle—”Boy, didn’t I see you on Def [Comedy] Jam last night?”
Much of the work on the ground was still being done by old-line civil rights activists, such as the crusading newspaper editor Charles Tisdale, who after the successful organizing campaign would hire Jealous as an investigative reporter at his paper, the Jackson Advocate. The Advocate‘s offices had been firebombed twice by the Klan in the 1980s and would be torched again three years after Jealous left. “He doubled our security,” Alice Tisdale, the publisher, joked of Jealous, who quickly worked his way up to managing editor.
Most of Jealous’ Advocate bylines were incremental attempts to correct a deliberately broken system of justice—one series of articles helped clear a black farmer who’d been wrongly accused of arson; another compelled the state to relocate an inmate who’d testified against a homicidal guard. “The Bible talks about [how] you really have to hate injustice, you have to hate evil, and you have to have a burning inside of you,” Tisdale says. “And I think Ben realizes that.” But Jealous also saw glimmers of hope. He often describes an encounter late one night at a Waffle House. He and a few HBCU organizers were sitting in a booth when a rough-looking white man walked over with a carryout bag. The man recognized them from the local news; he called them “boys” and used the word “nigger.” It had been a long day, and they were on edge. They thought he was about to pull a gun—but instead he shook their hands and offered to write them a check.
People make their way to the Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, Maryland, for the National Capital Baptist Convention where Ben Jealous, along with other political figures, will speak to church members in the community.
It sounds like a parable out of a motivational speech (it is), but it’s central to what Jealous is selling now, when he pumps black voters with stories about a Maya Angelou-quoting white guy he met in the Baltimore suburbs, or a Trump-voting single-payer supporter on the Eastern Shore. Don’t assume you know who your allies are. His mantra: “If you are comfortable in your coalition, your coalition is too small.”
Jealous returned to Columbia after two years down South, more focused on his studies but still uncertain about his future. “I used to wonder what direction his life would go,” says Judith Russell, a Columbia professor whom Jealous considered a mentor. “He just has a sensitivity to him about ethical matters that’s kind of spiritual.” He started working for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and was increasingly involved with the Episcopal Church. His grades improved, and after graduating two years late in 1996, he followed Garcetti to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. (The two have remained close; Jealous even wore Garcetti’s graduation gown at his Oxford commencement.) Before he left for England, Jealous and a few Rhodes scholars appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss the future. It was a showcase for America’s brightest young things in an era of economic prosperity, but Jealous’ forecast was overcast. Jealous couldn’t shake the suspicion, he said, “that this social revolution might have taken a bad turn—that a lot of the people who may 20 years ago have gone into public interest law now are going to Wall Street.”
When he returned to New York, Jealous spent a year training to be a priest and moved into a home in Harlem for people with addictions who had been diagnosed with HIV, a period he describes as a “spiritual antidote to the decadence of Oxford.” Jealous’ experiences in New York and Mississippi had nurtured a “profound sense of betrayal,” he later told Julian Bond, the iconic civil rights leader and longtime NAACP chairman. The children of the civil rights generation had been told “that the playing field was now fair,” but instead they were coming of age “just in time to find ourselves the most murdered generation in this country, the most incarcerated generation on the planet.”
Notably, though, at a time when many of his peers were drifting away from the old-guard civil rights institutions, Jealous embraced them. Inspired by his experiences with the Tisdales, he spent three years as executive director of an association of black newspaper publishers—the informational lifeblood of the civil rights era that had fallen on hard times at the end of the millennium. That stint was followed by three years as the director of the US human rights program at Amnesty International. The group’s signature accomplishment during his tenure was the abolition of the juvenile death penalty—another example, as he tells it, of the virtues of coalition-building. The objective was to get a majority of states to ban the sentence, so that the Supreme Court could find it “unusual” (in addition to “cruel”). First, organizers from campus Amnesty and NAACP groups hit on the idea to join forces with campus pro-life groups. Then, instead of focusing their energies on moderate lawmakers, they appealed to rock-ribbed conservatives and liberals alike. It sounds like a West Wing plot, but it worked, and in places where groups like Amnesty did not generally have much sway—their biggest victories were in South Dakota and Wyoming.
His mantra: “If you are comfortable in your coalition, your coalition is too small.”By the time he took over the NAACP in 2008 at the age of 35, the national mood had shifted. Barack Obama was ascendant, and even some African Americans were wondering about the purpose of an aging civil rights group in the age of a black president. Jealous’ predecessor spoke freely of a “post-civil rights” era. A New York Times Magazine profile of Jealous and other young black political leaders asked if Obama marked “the end of black politics.”
The selection process brought many of these anxieties to the surface. Critics seized on Jealous’ age, light skin, and lack of connections to the black church (an ironic complaint, given his still-recent flirtation with the priesthood). “He has had no presence in black leadership at all,” fretted one San Francisco minister. “At best, he has been a technocrat.” But Bond, who was just 25 when he was elected to the Georgia Legislature, was impressed by Jealous and saw his youth as an asset. “Ben’s selection would not have happened but not for Julian Bond,” says Wade Henderson, an NAACP veteran who served on the selection committee. Nor was Jealous entirely unfamiliar to the organization, having worked for the Legal Defense Fund in college—historically the NAACP’s more pugilistic arm. (It was at the LDF where Jealous met his now ex-wife, Lia Epperson, a civil rights attorney.)
Jealous viewed the Obama era as an opportunity to reorient the organization. The NAACP had accomplished a lot in its 100-plus years, but it had long harbored a conservative streak. Some board members wanted the organization to transition toward community services—rather than attacking structural racism—and placed a premium on respectability politics. The year before Jealous arrived, the NAACP held a funeral for the N-word. Not for the first time, it faced a generational divide. Younger activists, to whom the idea of a racial end-of-history seemed absurd, were gravitating to more combative groups such as Van Jones’ Color of Change. “It was a train wreck inside a circus on a sinking ship,” Jones says. “They were running out of money. They were not taking on relevant issues. They were just kind of an internally focused dinosaur.”
Jealous discusses his plan to end mass incarceration by using the saved funds for education.
But Jealous was a member of that restless generation himself. Although he admires Obama and the two have some obvious similarities—”We graduated from the same college, we have a white parent and a black parent, we’re both distant cousins to Dick Cheney,” as Jealous puts it—he bristled at the idea that one leader would change much on his own. “History has proven the fallacy of the Moses archetype for black leadership,” he told reporters the day before Obama’s inauguration. Obama often shied from tackling white supremacy head-on. Under Jealous, the NAACP would have no such inhibitions.
He placed the group at the fore of high-profile civil rights cases. When Trayvon Martin was shot, he all but moved to Sanford, Florida, to fight stand-your-ground laws. But his biggest successes again involved unlikely coalitions. He signed on to a gender discrimination lawsuit against Walmart—typically outside the NAACP’s purview—and used that as leverage to convince the nation’s largest private employer to hire ex-convicts. In 2012 and 2013 in Maryland, where the organization was headquartered, the NAACP helped pass marriage equality, a DREAM Act, and the abolition of the death penalty—an intersectional triple play that Jealous rattles off to almost everyone he meets. “Marriage equality was not something that was necessarily easily solved, particularly in an organization where the clergy plays an important role in the leadership,” Henderson says. “Ben used personal capital to make that happen.” By the time he left in 2013, citing stresses on his family, the organization’s membership numbers were back on the rise and its fundraising was booming. The biggest complaint upon his departure was that he had left too soon.
“The guy was all-in. He was an incredibly important player in the campaign,” says Sanders’ campaign manager.But there were bumps along the way. In 2010, Andrew Breitbart published a video on his fledgling conservative news site of an Agriculture Department employee named Shirley Sherrod appearing to boast to an NAACP chapter about discriminating against a white farmer. Speaking for the organization, Jealous said he was “appalled” by her comments. But Sherrod’s remarks had been edited—in the next breath, she had talked about getting past her impulse and helping the farmer anyway. The NAACP retracted its statement. Jealous said he’d been “snookered.”
When I asked him about the episode, he pointed at the clock on his phone, to indicate that our interview had gone longer than it should, and then went silent for a moment. Jealous is a commanding public speaker today in part because he is, by nature, a terrible one. He struggled with a severe stutter into his 20s, and to avert this, he often pauses mid-thought for seconds at a time, as if he is searching for just the right word. “I learned the power of being deliberate,” he said. “And the value of saying, ‘I was wrong, I apologize,’ quickly.” The fiasco marked the beginning of a friendship between Jealous and the Sherrods. The couple ran a public land trust near their home in Albany, Georgia, and in 2011, Jealous drove down from Maryland and spent part of his vacation living and working on a farm they had recently acquired. He dropped by again last year. “People wanted to feel that they were protecting the president,” Sherrod says. She forgave Jealous immediately. But, Jealous says, “that was the lowest moment of my professional career.”
During the Obama years, Jealous found a receptive audience and willing partner in the White House, and in particular at Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department. But he also found the Obama years frustrating. When rumors began circulating in 2016 that Jealous would endorse Sanders, Clinton confidante Neera Tanden told a colleague that “he’s really hung up on Obama not caring about black people.” (The email was later published by WikiLeaks.) That wasn’t quite true, but it was clear he thought things were moving too slowly. In an appearance on Meet the Press shortly after Obama’s second inaugural in 2013, Jealous noted that after four years, the black unemployment rate was a full point higher than it had been when the president took office. Meanwhile, the fundamentals of American racial and economic inequality were unchanged. “It’s almost a certainty that the kids coming out of college will be worse off than their parents,” he lamented months after he left the NAACP.
It was not especially surprising, given his career arc, that Jealous would back Sanders. He found Clinton’s continuing support for capital punishment archaic, and her decades-old comment that preteen “super-predators” necessitated a crime bill was “not just a violation of psychology, [but] a violation of theology.” Perhaps most gravely, Jealous worried she would cede too much ground to the opposition in the interest of finding consensus—something that flew against his entire coalitions theory of change. Jealous believed the moment demanded an “idealist” who could speak critically of the American system to people who felt excluded from it, and such a candidate would necessarily come from outside the political establishment. Jealous endorsed Sanders in early February 2016 and almost immediately took a place in the senator’s inner circle, popping up at strategy meetings and introducing the candidate almost everywhere he went. “They come from different generations, they come from different backgrounds, [but] the two of them clicked very quickly,” says Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and longtime consigliere. “The guy was all-in. He was an incredibly important player in the campaign.”
Jealous’ work for Sanders is one of the first things he mentions everywhere he goes these days, and his agenda reflects the leftward lurch in the Democratic Party since November 2016—Medicare for all, universal pre-K, free college, a $15 minimum wage, and an end to the war on drugs. Of the hundreds of Sanders-backed candidates seeking office, from Deep South mayoralties to big-city district attorneys, Jealous is the highest-profile, and his is the race where Sanders himself has the most skin in the game. Sanders endorsed Jealous last July, 11 months before the primary, and has made several visits to the state to campaign. Should Sanders decline to run in three years, Jealous might be the closest thing to a passing of the torch.
Jealous enters the Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, Maryland, where he is scheduled to speak at this year’s National Capital Baptist Convention.
But Jealous is not Sanders redux. The Vermont senator has a tendency to see economic and racial inequality as two distinct crises, with the former taking up far more oxygen than the latter. He had made few inroads in communities of color prior to running, and his candidacy, in hindsight, was doomed to demographic failure. Sanders’ coalition widened as the presidential campaign went on, and Jealous took an active role in helping to broaden his support—ushering him around South Carolina and cutting a minutelong ad set in West Baltimore—but it didn’t always look like a rainbow coalition.
Jealous doesn’t have that problem. He has spent his career articulating the ways in which economic and government institutions are built to keep racial minorities down. That frees him up to more closely emulate his idol Jackson, to build a coalition that gets each faction interconnected with the others. When he meets with black audiences, he makes a point of describing the conditions in Cumberland, Maryland, a largely white railroad town afflicted by the opioid epidemic and dead-end jobs. When he meets with white audiences, he tells them about the McCulloh Homes housing project in West Baltimore where his mother grew up.
“I typically talk about race and class in the same breath, not as the same thing, because they’re not, but as parallel struggles that are interconnected, interwoven,” he told me when we met again in September. He was sitting in the lobby of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he is a visiting professor. “Look, the Democratic Party practiced identity politics for a reason, which is that if you signal to different groups that you heard their concerns before you got there, they’re more likely to listen to the rest of what you have to say.”
“Donald Trump will take care of Larry Hogan,” Jealous says.The other major difference is his economic message itself. Jealous is not a socialist—he’s a venture capitalist who believes in the power of markets to instigate social change. He had expected to spend his post-NAACP career teaching, or launching an Emily’s List-style incubator for candidates of color. Instead, he ended up as a partner at the Baltimore office of a firm called Kapor Capital. The VC arm of the organization, where Jealous works, invests in companies—usually firms founded by women or people of color—whose services target communities whose needs are not being met by Silicon Valley or anyone else. (It has a nonprofit sister organization, the Kapor Center, that funds philanthropic ventures directly.) “Every single problem that a rich person in San Francisco has, some startup is solving,” Jealous told a conference in 2014, not long after taking the job. He wanted to apply the startup world’s enthusiasm for solving first-world problems to actual first-world problems.
Jealous name-drops companies like LendUp—”which is disrupting the payday lending space”—and Honor, an Uberlike app that is “disrupting the middleman in the home health care industry.” His favorite of the bunch is a company called Pigeonly, which was founded by a former drug trafficker to slash the exorbitant cost of calling into prison (sometimes as much as $14 a minute) through a setup similar to Skype. At the NAACP, Jealous had pushed for regulations to curb the cost of prison phone calls by 50 percent, but Pigeonly, he points out, has already cut it by 80 percent.
It is hardly the stuff of Mitt Romney-era Bain Capital, but it is also difficult to imagine Bernie Sanders ever talking about the Uber for home care services. A defining lesson of the Sanders campaign was that you could run as an openly socialist candidate and many people wouldn’t care. That’s meaningful. It is already shifting the boundaries of debate within the Democratic Party considerably to the left. But the takeaway wasn’t that the only way to energize progressives was to run a socialist candidate. If Jealous, at the crest of Sanders’ second wave, can take down a popular Republican incumbent, it might offer a lesson for how other Democrats can assemble their own coalitions, to harness frustrated, shut-out working-class voices under a populist banner. Van Jones, who has known Jealous since they worked in college with the AIDS activist group ACT UP to protest President Bill Clinton’s ban of Haitian refugees, compares the campaign in Maryland to Deval Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial run in Massachusetts. “Every single theme that he hit wound up being almost a carbon copy for the Obama campaign in 2008,” Jones says. “You could have another Deval Patrick effect, where in the middle of the Bush horror, somebody kind of figured out a pathway and pattern.”
In September, I met up with Jealous for a weekend on the trail in Prince George’s County and Baltimore. He was locking in a string of endorsements—including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the Service Employees International Union, and a group of black pastors—that showed the contours of a unifying coalition nine months before the primary.
Nine other Democrats have signed up to run, but Jealous was not particularly concerned about any of them, nor was he worried about Gov. Hogan, who consistently ranks as one of America’s most popular governors. Hogan, who has been battling advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma for most of his first term, never endorsed Trump and has managed, for the time being, to escape the stench emanating from Washington. Maryland may be broadly Democratic, but it packs a range of influences into a small area—Appalachian in the west, tobacco country in the east, and two major population centers along I-95: an ailing Rust Belt city in Baltimore and the booming suburbs of DC. In 2014, Hogan took advantage of those fault lines. He flipped white working-class enclaves in historically blue Baltimore County (which surrounds but does not include the city), and ran up huge margins in the east and west while black voter turnout cratered. “He was an outsider candidate who ran on a message of change in this state, and he spoke to those communities who have been hungry for change, whereas the Democratic nominee did not,” says Larry Stafford Jr., a Democratic campaign veteran who is now the executive director of Progressive Maryland. “Maryland was a forecast for what happened in the 2016 election.”
After speaking at the National Capital Baptist Convention, Jealous and Reverend Charles W. McNeill, Jr. join church members for a group picture.
Jealous doesn’t dispute Hogan’s appeal but points to polls showing that a significant number of Marylanders who view Hogan favorably won’t say they’ll vote for him—a sign that things could go south in a bad year for Republicans, as 2018 is expected to be. “Donald Trump will take care of Larry Hogan,” Jealous says.
Meanwhile, Jealous was piecing together his coalition a few voters at a time. A Q&A with African American clergy in Hyattsville was followed by a cookout at the McCulloh Homes, which outsiders might recognize as the low-rises from The Wire. Jealous was at the housing project for the second time in a month. He relaxed in striped suspenders with his 11-year-old daughter, Morgan, by his side, joking with the pitmaster about tofu and signing copies of his book, Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding.
At a farmers market the next morning, he stopped to inspect the merchandise at a stand selling oversize hula-hoops. The owner announced that “the next governor of Maryland” was about to test his wares—the sort of impromptu photo op that can haunt a candidate—and Jealous, shrugging, picked up a ring that could fit comfortably around a midsize sedan and twirled. “Oh my God,” someone shouted.
Jealous chugged a chocolate milk (“the breakfast of champions”) and continued on his walk, passing a juvenile courthouse, where two men were sitting on the sidewalk watching the Ravens on a phone. Players on both teams had kneeled for the national anthem at the start of the game, so Jealous vented about Colin Kaepernick. “I’m tired of them keeping him from playing,” he said. “It’s just like they did Muhammad Ali.”
Finally, after stopping by a Unitarian church, he came face to face with his own handiwork—a smooth, seven-foot-tall slab of granite in the middle of a public park. Since the late 19th century, the pedestal had supported a statue of former Chief Justice Roger Taney, whose majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision declared that free African Americans were not US citizens and had no standing to sue in court. Two days after Heather Heyer was run over by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists were protesting a proposal to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Jealous had held a press conference in front of the Taney statue, demanding it be not just taken down, but melted. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh carted the statue off two days later. Jealous marveled at the way the plaque had been unscrewed and removed, leaving no trace of its past life behind. “I wanted to take a photo standing on top of the platform,” he said. (He didn’t.)
The statue, which Hogan initially opposed removing, had rankled Jealous not only because of what Taney stood for, but because it was just one more way in which historical memory had been distorted to enforce cultural dominance. In his theory of politics, an object in motion tends to return to its original state. “The mistake that those of us in the movement make,” Jealous said, “is we misremember the original state of race relations.”
Americans might look at the starting point of race in America through the prism of Roots or 12 Years a Slave, Jealous says, but he goes back to a 1663 revolt in the Virginia Tidewater community of Gloucester. What made the Gloucester County rebellion unique was that it was not a slave rebellion in a traditional sense—it was an alliance of enslaved Africans and Irish and English indentured servants. The casus belli was an edict that stipulated that their current status (that is, as enslaved or indentured) “shall convey to your children.”
“As Americans from the very beginning, so long as we could hope that our children could be better off than us, we were willing to endure a lot—but the moment that it became clear that we were locked out from the American Dream, we would rebel together,” Jealous said.
“And this is one of those moments.”