Oprah-Backed Newcomer Eyes Upset in Maryland’s Crowded Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

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Nine candidates on Maryland’s July 19 Democratic gubernatorial primary ballot seek the party’s nomination to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November’s general election.

As of early July, the nine had collectively amassed more than $8.5 million in campaign cash, with six garnering at least $1 million each as Democrats try to claim the governor’s seat in a deep blue state where Hogan enjoyed bipartisan popularity.

The field features well-funded candidates with lengthy resumes reflecting national and statewide name recognition: a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, a former state attorney general, a former Clinton White House official, and a longtime state comptroller.

But it is a first-time candidate who has generated the most excitement in the race—with an assist from Oprah Winfrey—and he is leading the pack in fundraising and endorsements while polling among frontrunners.

Wes Moore, a Rhodes scholar raised by a widowed Jamaican-immigrant mother, U.S. Army Airborne Ranger Afghanistan combat veteran, White House fellow, best-selling author, and investment banker who, as chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation, raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fight poverty, is toe-to-toe with more established rivals as Election Day nears.

The newcomer is vying for votes in a stacked primary that includes former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, State Comptroller Peter Franchot, former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., and Clinton White House official Jon Baron.

Epoch Times Photo
Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Franchot, elected to four consecutive four-year terms as state comptroller, speaks with voters on July 10 at the Southwest Baltimore County Democratic Club Picnic and Silver Spring Arts & Crafts Summer Fair. (Courtesy of Franchot for Governor)

The scrum survivor will face the winner of the Republican July 19 primary between Hogan-backed Kelly Schulz and state Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick), endorsed by former President Donald Trump, in November’s general election.

With the state’s July 7–14 early voting period drawing to a close, turnout for primary elections has been light, reports the Maryland State Board of Elections (MSBE). In addition to governor, the state’s primary slate includes inter-party races for attorney general, comptroller, one U.S. Senate seat, eight U.S. House seats, and state assembly.

In 2018, the last non-presidential election year, 872,207 people, about 24 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots in Maryland primaries, with 30,122 mailing them in.

For 2022’s midterm primaries, more than 500,000 Marylanders have requested mail-in ballots, with about 115,000 returned by July 12, according to MSBE.

Maryland law prohibits counting mail-in votes until the Thursday after Election Day. Conclusive results won’t be available until that day, the soonest, with late-counted ballots likely to determine the winners in the gubernatorial primaries and many other contests.

Epoch Times Photo
Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez meets with residents in Baltimore’s Patterson Park neighborhood on July 11. (Courtesy of Tom Perez for Maryland Governor)

A Goucher College Poll of 403 Democratic voters conducted on June 15–19 and published June 28 showed Franchot leading the pack with 16 percent. Moore and Perez netted 14 percent each. No other candidate polled above 5 percent.

But 35 percent were undecided, and more than six-of-10 who favored a candidate said they could change their minds by Election Day. Therefore, this race is wide open; the winner could advance to November with just 15 percent of the primary vote.

Moore, 43, is the first Black Rhodes scholar from Johns Hopkins University and was identified by Winfrey a decade ago as having the “it” factor after writing a best-selling book, ‘The Other Wes Moore.’

Moore, in campaign addresses, insists everyone deserves an equal opportunity to succeed, saying as a former Wall Street investment banker, he knows Maryland can become more competitive and more equitable so “no one is left behind.”

His platform includes a plan to combat climate change in his first 100 days in office. He vows to promote abortion, close the racial wealth gap, and help older residents and retirees to stay in Maryland.

Moore tells voters he and lieutenant governor running mate Aruna Miller, both children of immigrants, are the only ticket of the nine with legislative, executive, military, and nonprofit experience.

He has been endorsed by U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), state Senate President Bill Ferguson, state House Speaker Adrienne Jones, Prince George County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, and the state’s 76,000-member teachers union, among others.

Moore’s campaign has raised more than $2.5 million since January and had $2.1 million in its coffers in early July. He can also tap into a $618,000 Opportunity Maryland PAC fund.

In a June 14 Zoom call, 250 supporters paid between $100 and $6,000 each to hear Winfrey tout Moore’s candidacy. Winfrey also narrates a 30-second ad, saying, “This moment that we’re in demands a different type of leader. For governor in Maryland, you have one in my friend Wes Moore.”

Questions have surfaced about the veracity of accounts of childhood adversity in his book. Moore has dismissed the claims as smears orchestrated by primary rivals.

Franchot, 74, served in the Maryland Assembly for 20 years advocating for gun control, abortion, and increasing the minimum wage before being elected four times as state comptroller, a position he has used to foster widespread name recognition in the state.

He is a populist who describes himself as “an independent voice and strong fiscal watchdog” and “a real Democrat” who represents “the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”

A Vietnam War veteran, Franchot has frequently been critical of party leadership. Over the last eight years, he developed a close working bond with Hogan, deferring his long-anticipated run for governor until this year.

He and his lieutenant governor running mate, Prince George County Council member Monique Anderson-Walker, had $1.6 million in campaign cash in early July, and was leading, or among the top three, in every poll.

Perez, 60, served as director of the U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division 2009-13 and Labor Secretary 2014-16 in the Obama administration before leading the Democratic National Committee for several years.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he is a Brown University graduate with a joint degree from Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Perez describes himself as a progressive with ties to the establishment who is from the “GSD” or “get stuff done” wing of the party. On the campaign trail, he has addressed crime, wage disparity, mistrust of government and insufficient public transit, affordable child care, and education.

He has vowed as governor to address racial inequity in the state’s three-strikes law, worker protections against silica dust, better job training in high schools, and immigrant rights.

Perez and lieutenant governor running mate Shannon Sneed began July with $1.4 million in campaign funding with access to union-funded Maryland Opportunity PAC money.

House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Baltimore native, has campaigned on his behalf, and he has been endorsed by The Washington Post as being “light-years ahead of the rest of the field” who “has distinguished himself as the most clear-eyed, straight-talking and substantive contestant.”

Perez also has earned union endorsements, including by Communications Workers of America President Christopher Shelton, who said, “If Tom Perez wins, he will be the most pro-labor governor in the country.”

Gansler, 59, has served 23 years as a state attorney in various capacities, including as Maryland attorney general 2007-15, where he initiated environmental audits to identify sources of Chesapeake Bay pollutants, aggressively prosecuted gangs, and wrote an opinion that the state should recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

He claims to be the only “pro-business, pro-public safety, moderate Democrat” on the primary ballot with the demonstrated capacity to work with progressives “on progressive issues.”

Gansler maintains his moderate agenda, with an emphasis on fighting crime and protecting the environment, and will appeal to Republican and independent voters in the general election, noting Maryland voters have rejected progressive, liberal gubernatorial candidates in three of the last five elections despite being in “the most Democratic state in the country.”

In TV ads, he espouses a tough-on-crime “balanced approach to safety and justice,” pledging to hire 1,000 new police officers trained in violence de-escalation, install 10,000 new streetlights, and “get guns off the street.”

Gansler and lieutenant governor running mate, former Hyattsville Mayor Candace Bacchus Hollingsworth, began July with more than $1 million in cash, with $800,000 coming from a personal loan to his campaign.

King, 47, was U.S. Secretary of Education in the last year of the Obama administration after serving as New York State Commissioner of Education.

A Harvard- and Yale-educated attorney, he began his career as a high school social studies teacher and middle school principal. Although he has been appointed to administrative positions, this is his first time running for election.

King has been critical of Maryland’s “Hogan Democrats” for failing to improve education, help the uninsured, and combat climate crisis, telling voters it is time to “start acting like the party of FDR Democrats.”

He calls health care a “human right.” His plan includes universal, affordable child care, abolition of life sentences without parole for juveniles, emergency relief for renters, and collective bargaining for employees at public universities. If elected, he pledges 100 percent clean energy use in all Maryland public buildings by 2030.

King said education is the top issue with many voters, and in that realm, he is most qualified to address “the kind of made-up issue of critical race theory” Republicans use to divide voters.

He is endorsed by many liberal organizations, including Sierra Club Maryland, Pro-Choice Maryland, and Our Revolution Maryland.

He and lieutenant governor running mate Michelle Daugherty Siri entered July with $827,700 in their campaign coffers, with another $236,500 available through a PAC for the People fund.

Baron, 59, has worked in three presidential administrations, including under Republican President George W. Bush and as Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research Program director in the Clinton administration, in addition to serving as counsel to the U.S. House Small Business Committee.

An attorney with a law degree from Yale, he is a former vice president at Arnold Ventures, a nonprofit “focused on evidence-based giving in a wide range of categories including criminal justice, education, health care, and public finance.” He is the founder and president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

Despite spending 30 years in government, this is his first political campaign. To compensate for the lack of name recognition, he has used humor in ads to draw voters’ attention.

In one TV ad, Baron and his lieutenant governor running mate Natalie Williams pedal a tandem bike going nowhere while discussing the state’s perceived lack of progress in education and economic development. In another, he is walking up a Metro escalator going down.

His campaign calls for major “evidence-based” reforms in social spending programs. He vows to address stagnant wages through expanded job training and to pair first- and second-graders with retirees and recent college graduates for one-on-one tutoring.

Baron has raised $200,000, but he has put $1.7 million of his own money into the campaign.

Three hopefuls trail the top six candidates with little chance to win but great potential to affect who wins with every vote they receive in the crowded race. They are:

Jerome M. Segal, 78, a philosopher, progressive activist, former U.S. Senate candidate, and 2020  presidential nominee of the Bread and Roses Party, a socialist party he founded.

His platform calls for a legal guarantee of 32 hours of paid employment, a four-day workweek, and free education from pre-K through college.

Ralph W. Jaffe, 80, a retired educator and frequent gubernatorial candidate, says he uses campaigns to push ideas and as a “teaching device” for students.

Ashwani Jain, 32, a cancer survivor who has worked as a recruitment assistant at the White House, a U.S. Department of Housing liaison to the White House, and a local program director for the National Kidney Foundation.

John Haughey

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John Haughey has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government, state legislatures, and growth and development. A graduate of the University of Wyoming, he is a Navy veteran who fought fires at sea during three deployments aboard USS Constellation. He’s been a reporter for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida; a staff writer for Manhattan-based business trade publications.