Ben Jealous’ plan to beat the ‘politics of divide and conquer’

The former NAACP director has an uphill climb to reach the governor's mansion, even as a Democrat in blue state Maryland.

Ben Jealous won the Democratic primary for Maryland Governor and addressed the crowd gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture June 26, 2018 in Baltimore, MD.  Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Ben Jealous won the Democratic primary for Maryland Governor and addressed the crowd gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture June 26, 2018 in Baltimore, MD. Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — Seated at a roundtable discussion on drug addiction, Ben Jealous was flanked by experts who praised him for his proposals on ending the opioid epidemic in Maryland.

The accolades couldn’t go on too long, however. Jealous was short on time. President Barack Obama had recently announced his endorsement of the Democratic candidate for governor, and Jealous was due to appear on a national TV network to discuss the campaign milestone.

Jealous’ campaign, by all accounts, is securing all the necessary wins. His performance last month in his first debate against incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan (R) was widely viewed as impressive. He has received the backing of prominent Maryland unions, and he’s secured endorsements from popular national Democrats like Obama, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Jealous also is running on a progressive platform, at a time when far-left candidates are securing upset victories across the country. And like two other gubernatorial candidates in the south who are leading in the polls, Jealous would be the first black governor of his state.

Why then, is he trailing so far behind Hogan in solidly-blue Maryland?

Experts in Maryland say the answer could be that Jealous is running as an outsider, too far to the left, without the money and support of the state’s powerful Democratic power structure.


But Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, will tell you that polls showing him down by over 17 points do not reflect the actual attitude of voters. November is likely to look different from other midterm elections, and he hopes to turn out voters who don’t typically cast ballots in off-year elections.

It’s his proposals on issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights, and addressing the drug crisis that he says will mobilize voters to unseat Hogan, a popular governor who Jealous says should not be viewed as a moderate.

ThinkProgress sat down with Jealous to discuss his campaign and his effort to make history in Maryland:

In 2015, Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would restore voting rights to Maryland citizens who are on probation and parole. The legislature overrode his veto, and in 2016, Maryland joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia and began restoring voting rights automatically upon release from prison.  

There is broad bipartisan consensus that we need to end mass incarceration and increase investment in training and activities that reduce recidivism. One of the simplest, most cost-effective things we can do to reconnect people to their communities and encourage them to be good citizens is to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. I worked with the Republican governor of Virginia to expand access to the franchise for formerly incarcerated people in Virginia when I was president of the NAACP. It was especially disappointing to see Hogan make so many reversals on the bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform. For example, he passed new mandatory minimums.


However, none hurt more than his attempt to veto restoration of rights to the formerly incarcerated. These are laws that originated during Jim Crow segregation as a way to attack the rights of black citizens who were disproportionately impacted when crimes involving misdemeanors before the end of slavery were made felonies after the end of slavery. If you felt like there was one place where there should be easy bipartisan agreement, it would be the need to move beyond and undo Jim Crow-era voter suppression laws.

It’s also a reminder that Governor Hogan appointed someone to President Trump’s voter suppression commission and then was forced to withdraw that person after public outrage in Maryland.

We’re in Baltimore, a city whose police department was, until recently, under a federal consent decree for issues including the death of Freddie Gray. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has said it will halt all civil rights investigations into local police. As governor, how would you provide the necessary oversight of the state’s police and improve how officers are viewed among minority communities? 

We will make Maryland a model for how you build a police force that has a strong relationship with every community. We’ll change how we recruit, using personality tests to filter out those who are predisposed to unnecessary violence. We’ll build apprenticeship programs out of local high schools straight into the police department. And we’ll restore police athletic league centers that serve as a much-needed oasis for kids in tough neighborhoods but also often is their first positive contact with police officers and helps them even envision becoming police officers themselves.

We will make the police department more transparent and accountable, implementing civilian oversight at every level. That includes putting civilians on internal review boards and strengthening civilian complaint review boards. And we will create state standards for use of force and use of force training, including deescalation training, that are based on best practices globally.


The so-called high crime rates are also high victimization rates. Places where we need good, productive relationships with police more than anything. The only way that we get there is we have to restore trust. More than any of the things we put on table is moving victim services into the community where it can be accessed by any victim of crime, even before they’ve made a formal report. People who have been sexually assaulted, sometimes they need to see a mental health counselor and get their head on straight before they move further. When you look at the trauma that crime causes in communities, it’s clear that every crime survivor needs access to victim services.

How do you respond to the criticism that some of your policy proposals are idealistic, but will be difficult to implement in reality? Can you really reduce Maryland’s prison population by 30 percent

I suspect those people haven’t read my plan. I teach public policy at the university level, including criminal justice reform. We’re proud of the fact that we’re the first campaign in the history of Maryland to put out a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan. Our basic theory is simple. You decrease recidivism — recidivism in Maryland is way too high. We decrease it by ten to 15 percent from what it is now, and our prison system will shrink seven to eight percent a year. In four years, you’re down 30 percent. That would give us the incarceration rate the state of New Jersey has presently. If we get an incarceration rate in line with New Jersey, we’ll be saving $660 million a year.

Maryland, like many states, has serious issues with drug addiction. How do you think Hogan has failed when it comes to the drug crisis?

It’s all connected. Addiction and incarceration usually occur in people’s lives after a series of other systems have failed them. Schools have fallen from first to sixth. Health care costs have surged 120 percent — high health care costs are now the leading cause of bankruptcy in Maryland. Our economy is flat and we’re now dead last in job growth, dead last in income growth. If we had the job growth of Virginia, we’d have 40,000 more jobs, and they’re way below the national average. In the last four years, murders are up 34 percent outside of Baltimore City, statewide, and they’re up over 50 percent when you include Baltimore City, statewide. And deaths from opioids are up 160 percent.

In the case of opioids, Governor Hogan ran for office saying it was an emergency, that he would declare a state of emergency on his first day in office, and then he waited two years while thousands of our neighbors died. In the debate, he said he had to study it. We have been fighting heroin and opioid addiction for generations. It’s not a new thing. I’ll be a day one governor, and that’s why I put so many plans out there with all the payment very clear. On this one, what I’m saying is we really have to embrace it as a public health crisis and deal with it that way. We will not incarcerate our way out of an addiction problem.

You have spoken on the campaign trail about your staunch opposition to President Trump. What concerns you the most about the president’s almost two years in office? What could you do about it as governor of Maryland?

Donald Trump has resurrected politics of divide and conquer in a very aggressive way. We see it in scapegoating of Muslim Americans, immigrants, unions, women’s rights activists, black people, and many other groups. We also see it reflected in an increase in hate crimes in our states and bullying in our schoolyards. As governor, I’ll set a high bar for civility, inclusion, and lead the people of our state in listening to each other and recognizing that we have more in common than we don’t.

You’re not the only African American gubernatorial candidate who could make history in November. Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidates in Georgia and Florida, could also become the first black governors of their states. 

Stacey and Andrew are both old friends. Especially Stacey. Stacey and I have organized together since we were 20 years ago. We all came together 25 years ago to stop the governor of Mississippi from turning a college into a prison, and we won.

I spoke to a Baltimore resident this morning who said the last time she cast a ballot was for President Obama in 2012, but she plans to vote for you in the midterms. What are you doing to get disengaged voters to show up in November?

We have five times as many organizers on the ground right now as we had on the ground on Election Day in 2014. We built an army of organizers across the state. In Baltimore City on any given Saturday, there will be 120, 150 volunteers knocking on 6,000 to 8,000 doors. We’re not taking anything for granted.

Do you think the polls reflect that?

We proved in the primary that we engage a larger electorate than the pollsters thought. We defied every pollster, we defied every pundit, and then we won by ten points. They predicted a very different outcome.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.