Ben Jealous campaigned all over the country for Bernie Sanders, but he has a platinum American Express card in his wallet. He got his first campaign experience as a 14-year-old volunteer for Jesse Jackson in 1988, but the presidential candidate from that year with policies he eagerly cites is Steve Forbes, whose proposal to ramp up vocational training in schools has helped inform Jealous’ own platform. He may be the lone liberal Democrat running this year who says he doesn’t want anything to do with socialism—while still endorsing “Medicare-for-all” and free college tuition.
Jealous is the first major player to come directly off Sanders’ 2016 campaign and have done this well in a campaign of his own. He’s the first leader of the NAACP—from 2008-13, the youngest in its history—to be this close to winning statewide office. He’s a test case to see whether someone with his kind of strident politics can win something more than a primary, even in a heavily Democratic state.
While voters elsewhere in the country seem to be tilting blue, Jealous is running way behind in polls in a state that has elected only three Republican governors in the past 60 years—and one of those was Spiro Agnew. Another is the incumbent, Larry Hogan, the steady-as-he-goes moderate who regularly ranks among the most popular governors in the country, and who, if victorious, would be the only one of the three to win a second term. (The third Republican governor was Robert Ehrlich.)
Jealous is sweating to persuade voters to ignore the attack ads that clearly make him angry. He’s a “socialist,” according to Republican Governors Association ads inundating local TV, a man who’s “too extreme” for deep-blue Maryland. The spots have images of dollar bills literally on fire, amid complaints that Jealous doesn’t know how to pay for his ambitious proposals and would blow a hole in the state budget.
For all the talk of socialism in the current political moment, Jealous, who works as a venture capitalist, isn’t sure that many of those who throw around the term really know what it means.
“It’s unfortunate if we get to a place where we believe that you have to be a socialist to simply want people to be treated in a way that’s just. I would not like to live in that country,” Jealous told me, in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.