Maryland voters favor Wes Moore, Anthony Brown in likely historic wins

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Only two Black people — Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia — have been elected governor in American history.

Now, Maryland voters are poised to elect a third, Democrat Wes Moore, after resoundingly rejecting Black statewide candidates for decades — except as junior partners to White men.

Polls show Moore, a former chief of an anti-poverty organization, and U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D), who would become the state’s first Black attorney general, with commanding leads heading into Election Day.

Their victories would set up a concentration of Black state-level power unprecedented in this country.

And they would govern from Annapolis — home to a statehouse that until 2017 featured a statue of Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sandford ruling, which said Black people, enslaved or free, could not be American citizens.

Democrat Wes Moore is poised to become Maryland’s first Black governor and Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), could become the state’s first Black attorney general. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

That Black leaders could hold four top statewide offices — including state treasurer and House speaker — is especially significant in Maryland, one of the most diverse states in the country and one of two to flip from majority White to majority non-White over the past decade. The full slate of statewide Democrats projected to win contains no White men.

“It’s a different day, a new day, in many respects,” said Republican Michael Steele, who made an unsuccessful bid for state comptroller in 1998 before becoming the first Black person elected statewide in Maryland, as lieutenant governor, No. 2 to Robert L. Ehrlich.

The projected wins for the Democrats would also place the home state of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass at the vanguard of an expected nationwide trend of diversifying political representation as demographics shift. The state’s Asian and Hispanic populations grew as the share of Black residents held steady in recent years, according to 2020 U.S. Census data, which show that a majority of Marylanders now identify as people of color.

Democrats’ statewide slate includes a woman for comptroller and an immigrant and woman of color for lieutenant governor — their victories would be the first such for Maryland.

As the nation moves toward becoming predominantly non-White — projections show minorities will make up the majority by 2050 — the sea change in Maryland could signal a turning point as the people atop power structures increasingly reflect the diversity of the nation they govern.

If the polls turn out to be accurate, said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, Maryland would represent “the promise of Democratic politics.”

Wes Moore tried to run away from military school. It changed his life instead.

Wilder, a grandson of enslaved people, avoided talk of race in his precedent-setting bid to lead Virginia 33 years ago. And while Moore campaigns on tackling issues that disproportionately affect people of color — childhood poverty, disinvestment in schools, career and job readiness — his identity is not a central feature of his appeals as he seeks to become Maryland’s 63rd governor.

“We’re not running to make history,” Moore, a best-selling author, recently told several dozen students gathered at Morgan State University, Maryland’s largest historical Black college.

“That’s not the assignment,” Moore said. “The assignment is — in this moment, we have a unique opportunity to make child poverty history. We have a unique opportunity to make the racial wealth gap history.”

Watch: Q&As with Md. governor candidates

Barriers to elected leadership

On the campaign trail, however, the historic significance of a potential Moore victory remains front and center for many supporters, including those who most recently made unsuccessful bids to be the state’s first Black governor.

A 90-year-old woman at an NAACP event wrote Moore a poem. Students tell him they see a future they were skeptical would ever arrive. Veteran politicians who deftly navigated racial dynamics to pave the way for Moore admire that he built a strong coalition of people across racial and economic lines.

Standing on the edge of an expansive brick patio at the home of former Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett recently, Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) shouted Moore’s introduction to the crowd, largely composed of immigrants:

“He is the embodiment of our own personal experience, hopes and dreams,” Lee said, noting Moore’s Jamaican heritage. “It is our time, right?”

The crowd cheered. A couple of Black women shouted “amen.”

Leggett, who spent decades mentoring other Black candidates, said Maryland has made enormous strides since his first run for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council 40 years ago.

Leggett, who like Moore is a veteran and a White House fellow, kept his face off campaign literature for the first six months of that contest.

A lawyer teaching at Howard University Law School at the time, Leggett was a political newcomer who “wanted [voters] to look carefully at my background and my experience,” not his race. “We may have overreacted, but who knows,” he said.

In more than a dozen interviews, Democratic and Republican leaders, political strategists and analysts detailed how Maryland has reached what U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) described as the impending “constellation of power” of Black political leadership.

They detailed the complex nature of running as a Black candidate in a state along the Mason-Dixon Line, long referred to as “America in miniature” for its geographic and demographic diversity and voters who span the political spectrum.

Some say candidates of color are held to a different standard by the voters, the media and party leaders, required to run near-perfect races. Others fault the state Democratic Party’s structure, saying it has failed to fully embrace Black candidates in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans.

Despite having faced a popular Republican incumbent with significantly more money and a moderate message, former NAACP president and 2018 Democratic nominee Ben Jealous does not lay the blame for his loss on his liberal message, as many Democratic leaders and analysts have. Instead, he largely faults former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who was the de facto head of the state Democratic Party, and a political machine that he said never fully rallied behind his candidacy. It’s an explanation that resonates with other Black leaders, too.

Then-Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who is Black and ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, criticized Miller during her campaign for describing her opponent, then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen, as being “born to the job.”

“The fact is, our country’s systems and institutions have largely been led by people who have always looked like that senior elected official, not like me,” Edwards wrote in a fundraising email. “I don’t believe anyone in this country was born to anything.”

Miller, the nation’s longest-serving state Senate president, died in January 2021. He was a country-boy Democrat who rose to become the kingmaker of Annapolis, an unmatched tactician with an uncanny ability to predict political outcomes. Miller, who led the Maryland Senate for 33 years, was known for ruling with an iron grip and at times sparring with Black leaders who pushed for more progress on issues important to Black people.

Alvin Thornton, retired chairman of the political science department at Howard University, said many Black statewide candidates faced resistance from Miller and others.

“A Wes Moore phenomenon would never have emerged during the period of vibrancy of Mike Miller. That, I think, would never have even gotten off the ground,” Thornton said. “Call it machine politics, call it the Breakfast Club politics, call it whatever, [it] certainly hurt and held back not only the Black community … it hurt the state.”

Jealous said that when he looks back on his race and Moore’s ascension, he often thinks about his grandmother and how she was harassed by Maryland State House police in the early 1960s while working as a social worker. They didn’t think she had the right to park in Annapolis where she did. The governor intervened and put her name on a parking space.

“I think of all the micro-steps along the way to build a state where this was possible,” he said.

Georgetown University government professor Nadia E. Brown, who chairs the women’s and gender studies program, said implicit and explicit racism lead voters to reject candidates of color in statewide races and party power structures to undermine or sideline them. The result is a nation with at least 39 White male governors, according to the Eagleton Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.

“Anyone who comes from a marginalized, historically marginalized background has a harder time convincing a larger population that they have the leadership skills and qualities and bring something worthwhile to the table. And so that’s why we see so few,” she said.

Earlier this year, a prolific Democratic donor who served as the state party’s deputy treasurer stepped down amid criticism after she emailed party insiders questioning whether voters would elect a Black candidate for governor.

“Consider this: Three African American males have run statewide for Governor and have lost. Maryland is not a Blue state. It’s a purple one. This is a fact we must not ignore,” the email read.

Former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III, who is Black and whose two attempts to run for governor were unsuccessful despite being backed by a lot of the state establishment, said at the time that “such comments merely serve to excuse and legitimize acts of institutional racism, whether at the voting booth, in our corridors of government or our institutions of business and civic life.”

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, an early supporter of Moore, recently recalled hearing that a member of a trade group hesitated to support him during the primary “because he’s Black.”

After the person met Moore, “the guy was blown away,” Jones (D-Baltimore County) said she was told. “And I thought to myself, what did you expect? But I did not say that.”

State Treasurer Dereck E. Davis, who served 26 years as a delegate in the General Assembly, said that Maryland has been plagued by “old thinking and stereotypes” but that this year’s election appears to be proving that the state’s residents “are making a conscious decision on who they believe is the best candidate.”

“There’s always sort of been, I believe, this belief that, you know, we can always be lieutenant this, deputy that, always be the number two but never the number one,” he said.

Brown, who lost a bid for governor in 2014 and leads Republican Michael Peroutka by 32 percentage points in the race for attorney general, said the state’s changing demographics alone cannot account for the barrier-breaking elections on the horizon.

There is also a change in people’s thinking in general, he said.

“We’re seeing a greater diversity, and a greater diversity of people’s views around who is competent, who is capable and who can lead this state,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s not just Black and Brown people who are going to elect Wes Moore and Anthony Brown. We’re going to have support across the board, among all Marylanders.”

A vision and ‘dual responsibility’

Earlier this fall, Moore recalled, a union leader told him about how she was getting ready for his campaign event while chatting with her young grandson, a Black boy of kindergarten age, whom Moore had met once.

“She said her grandson said, ‘So, is that the one that looks like me?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one who looks like you,’ ” he recounted in an interview with The Post.

Moore said having four Black people occupy some of the most influential positions in state government allows many people to feel as though their leaders know what their lives and struggles are like.

“To see people who understand our journeys, understand our past, there is a power to that,” he said.

Moore and Brown said that while they see themselves as leaders for all people in the state, they recognize what the state’s Black constituents see in them.

“As African American elected leaders, we have a unique, if not dual, responsibility,” Brown said. “We understand that we have to represent and fight for and govern on behalf of all Marylanders. But we have a unique responsibility to the African American community.”

Brown said that duality drives decision-making.

“This is a watershed moment in Maryland where having so many African Americans in key leadership positions is going to result in a greater emphasis on equity and inclusion throughout everything we do in the public sector, and, hopefully, it translates into the private sector,” he said.

The agenda pushed by Moore, Brown and other Democrats dovetails with the party’s broad national goals: child-care tax credits, advancing income equity and promoting social justice, taking aggressive action on climate change and child poverty. The slate hopes to quickly propel policies that moved incrementally under eight years of Republican governorship, enhancing funding of historically black colleges and universities, accelerating a hike in the minimum wage and implementing a statewide paid family leave program that squeaked into law after a gubernatorial veto.

The ticket is potentially a rare bright spot for the Democratic Party in a year in which the political winds nationally favor Republicans, Democrats could lose control of Congress and President Biden has low job approval ratings.

National Democrats have rallied around Moore. Former president Barack Obama starred in a campaign ad for him. Vice President Harris recently headlined a get-out-the-vote event in Moore’s home city of Baltimore. Biden will hold an election-eve rally.

While Maryland Democrats have elevated a historically diverse slate, however, Maryland Republicans have selected candidates at the fringe of their party.

Peroutka, the Republican candidate for attorney general, is a former member of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group. Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox, who has called the 2020 presidential election stolen, has not publicly committed to accepting the outcome of the gubernatorial election, which polling projects Moore will win by more than 30 percentage points.

But Democratic figures keep emphasizing: History is made only if voters show up.

Amari Jangha, 20, a senior at Morgan State University, was aware that Moore could make history and acknowledged his charisma.

But Jangha still wasn’t sold as he and a few dozen of his peers recently waited in the student center to hear Moore speak, as part of the candidate’s tour of the state’s historically black colleges and universities.

“It’s inspiring, it’s motivational and encouraging to see this kind of milestone be achieved, but it’s for naught if it doesn’t lead to the result that he’s promising,” Jangha said before the event.

Minutes later, as Moore talked about ending child poverty and addressing the disproportionate incarceration rates for Black men, Jangha nodded in agreement.

After the event, Jangha was all in, holding a Wes Moore button and plastic wristbands.

“It just makes me proud to be here,” he said. “Not necessarily at Morgan, but here in this moment.”

Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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