SILVER SPRING, Md. — 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.
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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 if 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 Republicans governor in the past 60 years—and one of those was Spiro Agnew. Another of those three 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 the 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.
If Republicans are calling him a socialist the same way they called Martin Luther King Jr. a communist and Barack Obama a socialist, Jealous said, “in that context, I take it as a compliment.”
He insists he’s focused on Maryland more than what national implications will be read into the results.
“The only burden I feel is to win—and we feel good,” he said.
Jealous’ campaign doesn’t have nearly the same kind of money that’s being pumped in for Hogan—at the end of August, the Jealous campaign had $386,000 cash on hand, compared with $9.4 million for Hogan, who’s also getting help from the RGA and other groups. What he does have are internal polls that show 25 percent of Democratic voters still don’t know enough about him to have an opinion on him, according to an aide who’s seen the numbers, but those voters overwhelmingly agree with him on health care, education and the general sense that there needs to be a shake-up in government.
His campaign is calling this a choice, much like it did during the primary he won, between the status quo and going big for new solutions. And much like in the primary, he’s running significantly behind. But unlike in the primary, he can claim justification in doubting the polls, since he was also well behind in June, and ended up winning by 9 points. His campaign, like those of Democrats all over the country, points to the high turnout during the primary—it was up 26 percent compared with 2014—as a promising sign for Jealous’ prospects in November.
Don’t, no matter any of that, compare him to Donald Trump, Jealous said. Even so, with all the other upsets that have continued rolling through races this year, Jealous sees a common thread: “The people who are upsetting the pollsters’ prognoses right now are the people who are tapping into the pain in this country.”
The politician Jealous talks about the most is Franklin Roosevelt, who he sees as the right mix in his mind of principles and pragmatism. The marriage of those two, says Jealous, is how he arrived at “Medicare-for-all.” A few years ago in his day job with an investment fund, Jealous was trying to help a Canadian company relocate from northern Canada to Maryland. It wanted to, but couldn’t cover the cost of health insurance for its employees—a burden which businesses don’t carry in a country with publicly funded health care. He sees a “Medicare-for-all” system as both a moral imperative and a practical one that would help boost American businesses.
“Medicare, we just have to admit, they leverage everybody in the system to get a better price on pharmaceuticals and they have a more stable price as a result,” Jealous said. “For me, it really is about business.”
He makes the same kind of argument about expanding education and the rest of his agenda. Most of his proposals look like they’re straight out of the left’s playbook, he says, and he does think about them as having roots in morality. But he swears, the policies he’s latched on to are all rooted in his idea of what works—where pragmatism meets principle.
He plays up being a nexus—someone who can live at the intersection of different worlds and can build bridges between them. It’s a theme throughout his life. He’s the son of a white man from Maine with ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and a black woman from west Baltimore whose ancestors include a former slave who became a Reconstruction-era statesman in Virginia. He grew up in California because his parents’ interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland, but spent every summer back on the Baltimore streets where his grandparents lived. He was suspended from college and then became a Rhodes Scholar; he was a social activist who is now an investor.
“The people of America are suffering under the heavy weight of a bunch of half-measures, not quite ever solving the problem. They’re eager for authenticity, people feel really comfortable saying that. But what that really means with voters is they’re eager for you to tell them the truth about how we actually move forward,” Jealous said. “Right now, so much of life in America is better measured in debt than in prosperity.”