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Ben Jealous: A Progressive Democrat Courts Moderate Voters

Mary Rose Madden

Ben Jealous has had the advantage in Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary of having prominent national figures show up to stump for him. There were senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris as well as comedian Dave Chapelle.

And he’s won the endorsements of liberal leaning national organizations, like SEIU and Friends of the Earth.

Yet he styles himself as a guy who spent childhood summers with his grandmother in West Baltimore.

He was the youngest ever CEO of the NAACP, credited with reviving the civil rights organization when its finances were a mess, and now is a partner in a venture capital firm, helping start-up companies get on their feet. 

But on a recent Saturday morning he was trying to connect with voters at a community center in Dundalk – a town that has gone decidedly red in the past few elections and not an easy place for a progressive Democrat to be looking for votes.

Nonetheless, Jealous says, when you look at the problems facing Marylanders, "we have more in common than we don’t."

He says he wants to have "kitchen table conversations" that are important to everyone – political leanings aside. How to provide the best education for our children, how to create well-paying jobs and a workforce ready to do those jobs, how to combat the opioid crisis that is affecting families of all backgrounds?

While he’s received the endorsements of some very progressive groups like Maryland Working Families and Our Revolution, he says he’s trying to connect with moderates and more conservative Democrats to get them to the polls to vote for him in Tuesday’s primary.

"We are pulling people together across every line they say is supposed to divide us," he said after talking to a crowd in Baltimore County.

Jealous grew up in California but his roots are in Baltimore. His mother and father lived in Baltimore when they met in 1966.  But as an inter-racial couple they were prohibited by state law at the time from marrying. They married in Washington, DC, and later moved to California, where Jealous was born and raised.

But he spent many summers with his grandmother, "Mamie Todd," at her home in West Baltimore.   She was a social worker who trained former Senator Barbara Mikulski.

"She told me, 'baby don’t half-solve a problem, because if you do, you still got a problem,'" he recalled.

For example, he says, health insurance is a problem that’s only half solved.

According to the non-partisan Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, healthcare premiums are almost the same as they were in 2014 for small groups but they’ve increased by 30 percent for individuals.  Jealous proposes that Maryland create a single-payer system—something on the order of Medicare for everyone--rather than the mishmash of group and individual insurance policies we have now.

"We are paying more for healthcare and getting less," he said. "I’m the only candidate with a plan for that."

But Vinny DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, isn’t so sure a single payer system is feasible in Maryland. He says premiums have skyrocketed on the individual market because President Trump has undermined the Affordable Care Act from the start "by saying he wanted to repeal law."

“The market does not like instability,” DeMarco said.

He says protecting the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, makes more sense than trying to create a single-payer system in one state.

"We share the goals of single-payer healthcare," DeMarco said. "But we think we can achieve those goals by building on the ACA. A single payer system is not something you can do with a federal government that says ‘no’.” 

Maryland would be the first state in the country to have a single-payer healthcare system if Jealous is successful.

As president of the NAACP, Jealous pushed for progressive initiatives in the Maryland statehouse—same sex marriage, the Dream Act, which grants the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition in Maryland colleges and universities, and repealing Maryland’s death penalty.

If elected, Jealous says he’d raise Maryland’s minimum wage from the $10.10 an hour that’s to take effect in July to $15 an hour, a proposal that’s been tossed around the statehouse for several years without much success.

Standing in front of a small boutique hair salon in Northeast Baltimore city, Jealous says raising the minimum wage is good for small businesses and would not cause them to shrink their payrolls, contrary to what some may think. And small businesses support him, he says.

“What the owners know – is that people spend their money within two miles of where they live,” he argued. “Trickle-down economics has never worked, bottom up always has.”

Ben Orr, from the Maryland Center for Economic Policy, says that jibes with a report they did last year called “What a $15 Minimum Wage Would Mean for Maryland.”

The organization analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and from the other cities that have already raised the minimum wage to well above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

Orr says they found that people who work in minimum wage jobs do spend their money close by.

“It makes a difference in the local economy and you see growth and you see greater prosperity for all,” he said.  

Maryland’s unemployment rate is about 4%, which is pretty good, Jealous says, but he asks, “Are they jobs you can raise a family on?”

Orr says the jobs that came back after the recession of 2007-2008 came back “at a lower wage." 

“What we have in our state is a structural crisis of hope. We have to make our public systems work better for all of us,” Jealous says.   

For example, he argues, the high cost of higher education makes high paying careers impossible for many young people. So, he proposes raising the state’s $2 a pack cigarette tax and the income tax by 1% on the state’s wealthiest 1% so Maryland can offer free tuition to community colleges.

Maryland last raised the cigarette tax and income taxes on the state’s wealthiest earners to close a projected $1.5 billion budget hole during a frantic special session in November 2007.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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