BALTIMORE — On a recent Saturday, Benjamin Todd Jealous was up early, getting ready for a full day of campaign stops. The former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was preparing to make the rounds — shoe leather pounding the pavement in neighborhoods — ahead of next month’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland.
But first, Jealous takes to the podium to rev up a group of union workers before hitting the trail.
“When we invite other people to join us, we win,” says Jealous to a wave of steady applause. “We are building a movement of working families across the state to make sure we fully fund our schools, to make sure all of us have health care and we can afford to use it.”
At 45, Jealous is looking to make history by becoming Maryland’s first Black governor, making access to higher education a central tenet of his grassroots campaign.
Jealous is no stranger to becoming a trailblazer.
Ten years ago, at the age of 35, Jealous was selected as the youngest person to lead the NAACP, the venerable civil rights organization founded in 1909.
Though this is Jealous’ first run for office, he appears at ease, returning to the skills that he developed many years ago as a community organizer who led campaigns to abolish the death penalty for children, stop a Mississippi governor from turning a public historically Black university into a prison and champion federal legislation against prison rape.
“It’s going well,” says Jealous of his time on the campaign trail, remembering how in 1988 at the age of 14 he canvassed for Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s presidential campaign. “The theory from the very beginning was that we could win by pulling together a bigger, more robust coalition than any other candidate, campaigning in every corner of the state, pulling people together across every racial line, every regional boundary, every religious difference. And it’s been working.”
In a crowded primary race of Democratic contenders, Jealous has already secured several coveted endorsements, including one from The Maryland State Education Association — Maryland’s largest teacher union.
“Our children need a new Maryland Promise that no matter their neighborhood, the state will make sure there’s a strong public school in their community,” says union President Betty Weller. “Ben Jealous is the candidate with the values, the vision and the coalition-building skills to make that promise a reality.”
Jealous, who also has received the endorsement of the 45,000-member Service Employees International Union, enjoys support from Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, who he campaigned for during the 2016 presidential race.
Sanders says Jealous “has a radical idea that maybe, just maybe, government should represent all of the people and not just the one percent.”
Jealous hopes to secure the June 26th nomination so that he can take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the fall.
“Larry Hogan is a typical politician,” says Jealous in an interview with Diverse. “He thinks the widest lane to reelection is to do nothing. The people of the state can’t afford a governor who does nothing. The debt burden is too high. Our health system is too broken. Our schools are falling. Our economy is stuck.”
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, says that Jealous’ extensive political cache and support from outside networks and high-profile endorsements will certainly help voters in some of the state who care about the national landscape.
“But winning in a state like Maryland with such a longstanding tradition of party elites requires a stronger ground game and the backing of establishment figures within the state,” says Brown-Dean. “Maryland voters care less about who you know and more about what you will do.”
Brown-Dean says Jealous would be wise to “play up his civil rights chops on issues like criminal justice reform, education equity and economic development rather than relying on surrogate status.”
With such diverse counties and political connections, she says Maryland could be a bellwether state for other candidates seeking to balance national popularity with local success.
A Maryland connection
Jealous’ roots in Maryland stretch back to the 1940s, when his grandparents moved to the McCulloh Homes public housing projects. His grandfather was a Pullman porter who worked on the B&O Railroad and his grandmother worked for Planned Parenthood in Baltimore. They were both graduates of Virginia State University.
Later, his grandmother received a scholarship from St. Mary’s College to earn a graduate degree in social work and his grandfather saved enough money to enroll for a year at the Maryland School of Law. He eventually becomes a probation officer.
In 1954, Jealous’ mother helped to integrate Western High School as a member of the NAACP Youth and College Division, even suing the school. His White father was jailed during the Congress of Race Equality’s (CORE) efforts to desegregate downtown Baltimore.
“Dad proposes three times in a week and Mom says ‘yes’ the third time, and then they discover that not only can they not get married here, they’re not to live here,” says Jealous, noting that his parents relocated to California but sent him back east every summer so that he could get to know his family.
“The law was unlike the recent marriage equality struggles we’ve dealt with,” says Jealous. “Anti-miscegenation laws forbade you from remaining in the state. The law you would break would be co-habitating as man and woman across racial lines.”
After earning degrees from Columbia and Oxford Universities and working as a community organizer and later a journalist, Jealous’ return full-time to Maryland would come full circle when he was tapped by the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to take the helm.
“For a guy whose family is rooted in West Baltimore, it’s very affirming that people are ready to come together in the interests of making sure our children can pursue their dreams, and our seniors don’t have to fear their lives will become nightmares,” says Jealous.
Legacy of NAACP
When Jealous knocks on neighborhood doors, he introduces himself as “the former president of the NAACP and candidate for governor.”
Jealous is counting on his credentials in the civil rights world to help give him the edge over his competitors. Although many were surprised when he stepped down from the organization after five years on the job, he’s proud of his legacy.
And he should be, say civil rights experts.
During his tenure, Jealous reinvigorated college chapters and took on a litany of high-profile national cases from the execution of Troy Davis to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“The gateway to a great cause is typically a tragic case,” says Jealous. “When you don’t champion the case, you shut the gateway. We simply went back to the roots of the association from the very beginning, which championed the cases of individuals as a way to get justice for the individual and raise awareness about a broader problem.”
Days before Davis was executed in 2011, he urged Jealous to make sure that his nephew, DeJuan Correia, was admitted to college and graduated.
Jealous kept his promise to Davis and helped Correia gain admission into Morehouse College, where Jealous serves as a trustee. Correia is a physics major with a minor in math.
“This has been the biggest investment in my life outside of my household, putting DeJuan through college,” says Jealous, who is the father of two children.
Mentored by the late Julian Bond— a civil rights stalwart who went on to teach history at the University of Virginia and American University while serving as chairman of the NAACP— Jealous was considered a rising star early on and continues to be a popular speaker on college campuses.
One vote at a time
Back on the campaign trail, Jealous is advocating for free community college in the state — a proposal that the governor recently announced that Jealous supports.
Jealous is calling for additional investment in the public education system and “restorative investments” in the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities.
“When you look right now at the stagnant state of our economy, a lot can be traced back to the mismanagement of higher education,” says Jealous. “Student debt has skyrocketed. When people are making debt payments that big, they’re not buying new homes, new cars and this depresses the economy.”
Jealous says it’s important to begin a conversation with students as early as the third grade about various career opportunities that youngsters can prepare for.
“One of the things that is most painful for me as I travel the state is meeting young men in a trade apprentice program that feel like they’ve just discovered the holy grail,” says Jealous, adding that occupations in sheet metal, painting and plumbing are critically important to the state economy. “We should be making these careers plainly apparent.”
Jealous does not travel with a large entourage. On this day, he travels with a millennial— Jerusalem Demsas, his deputy communications director. Demsas, a recent graduate of William & Mary College, was the first Black woman to become a collegiate debate champion.
“Jerusalem is literally one of the smartest kids in her generation,” says Jealous.
While canvassing a Baltimore neighborhood, Jealous meets Donald Tyson, an artist who listens as the candidate outlines his platform.
“This is the first time I’ve actually met somebody in flesh,” Tyson tells Jealous, seemingly surprised to see a gubernatorial knocking on doors the old-fashioned way. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Speaking to a group of supporters later in the day alongside his runningmate, Susan Turnbull, Jealous in in full campaign mode as he brings his message home.
His campaign, he says, is about creating opportunity for Marylanders.
“Fundamentally, the changes we are putting on the table are about unleashing Maryland and unleashing opportunity in our state,” he says. “We are ending the indenturing of generations and getting back to the transformative power of higher education. Now, go fight and win!”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson