If the Democratic Party establishment had its way, Ben Jealous, a progressive civil rights organizer and business-person, would not be running for governor of Maryland against incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
But Jealous, 45, defeated establishment candidate, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, in June’s state primary race; and he is focused on leading Maryland into a progressive future that centers both working class people and the unique challenges faced by occupied and oppressed Black and Brown communities.
“Our campaign started out in fourthplace and ended up in firstplace,” Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, told ESSENCE. “The last poll said we’d lose by 7 points, but we won by 10 points. Maryland is ready for change.”
Jealous, who has the staunch support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), has not shied away from his progressive politics in this fraught political climate, which has been exacerbated by the Bigot-in-Chief occupying the White House; neither has he been afraid to speak truth to Clintonian Democrats about the long-term failures of the Democratic Party.
Still, Jealous refuses to be painted as “extreme.” In August, when a Washington Post reporter asked if he identified as socialist, Jealous replied, “Are you f–king kidding me?”
He later apologized for the candid remark, tweeting: “I’m a venture capitalist, not a socialist. I have never referred to myself as a socialist nor would I govern as one.”
So how will Jealous govern, exactly?
In a wide-ranging interview covering issues from renewable energy to the legalization of cannabis, and the race vs. class political debate, Jealous spoke with ESSENCE about his plans for Maryland’s future.
ESSENCE: Let’s jump right in. You champion the legalization of marijuana, which unfortunately still has a lot of stigma attached to it—not just as a healthcare measure, but for recreational use. There is also the criminalization of Black and Brown people, while white people benefit from the Green-Gold Rush. What has been the response to your marijuana legalization platform in Maryland?
Ben Jealous: I did not start out planning to call for the legalization of cannabis for adult use. What shifted my thinking was a conversation with a retired member of the Baltimore Police Department. We hired him to speak with police commanders across the city to get their confidential assessment of what was driving the violence in the city since the Freddie Gray uprising. He found that there are a lot of divergent opinions about what’s been going on the last couple of years; however, they were in complete agreement that over the last 10 years about half of the killings in the city were caused by one set of marijuana dealers killing another set of marijuana dealers. So, we dug into it and found that shootings were, indeed, down in states like Washington and Colorado that have legalized marijuana.
Two-thirds of Maryland voters agree that it is time to move to taxing and regulating cannabis. And what the anecdotal evidence from local police—and the actual evidence from other states that have led on this issue—shows is that we would see shootings start to come down as well. Anything that is going to make us safer while taking money out of the pockets of gangs and cartels—and putting it into the pockets of business people and farmers—is a conversation that we should be having.
ESSENCE: What we see with the legalization of marijuana is that Black people who have been pushed into the Prison Industrial Complex are excluded from being able to participate in the booming cannabis industry…
B.J.: That’s where it matters having a civil rights leader lead your economy. I’ve been very clear from the beginning that not only would we ensure that the ownership is inclusive, but that the employment is inclusive as well, specifically providing incentives for people from the very neighborhoods at the epicenter of the war on drugs to be hired first into local employment opportunities.
ESSENCE: So, do you agree with retroactively reducing or rescinding the sentences of Black and Brown people who have been arrested for selling marijuana?
B.J.: Yes, for non-violent offenders. Absolutely. Again, there’s a lot of violence in the marijuana trade. If someone is in there for a violent offense, it’s a very different conversation. But for the non-violent offenders, absolutely we have to provide retroactive relief.
ESSENCE: Let’s talk about violence. We know that a lot of people sell drugs because they’re unable to find employment and they have to take care of their families, and that’s a kind of institutional and systemic violence. And where there is poverty, there’s crime. So, when we talk about violence, it extends to the violence inflicted on communities, as well, including the education system.
As a father of children in the Maryland school system, what do you think is the biggest issue facing the state’s education system and what role does institutional violence play in what you’re seeing in schools in communities across the state?
Jealous: You know, nothing stops a bullet like a job. We have to be very focused on bringing employment back to neighborhoods that have experienced persistent unemployment since the industrialization began, particularly when factories started closing. That’s one of the reasons why I’m focused on building a green energy economy, with Maryland being a leader in both the consumption of renewable energy and the production of green technologies. This would provide thousands of jobs for people who do best when they’re building things with their hands. It would provide thousands of new union jobs and empower families to send their children to college. That’s the way we have to be thinking—win-win-win solutions that allow us to deal with serious issues like climate change while also dealing with serious issues like persistent unemployment.
ESSENCE: What about punitive measures that affect Black children in the public-school system?
B.J.: We have to shift the way that we do school discipline and move to solutions on how to build a strong culture of ethical behavior and strong community within the schools. That’s why I’m a strong proponent of restorative justice. With restorative justice we turn each and every classroom in each and every school into a circle that is defined by shared values. And when there’s an infraction, young people are taught how to reclaim their space in the circle by making amends for their infraction. This is especially critical during these times when bullying is surging because of the hate that Donald Trump is spewing from the White House every day.
ESSENCE: We talk a lot about Donald Trump, but there is a lot of criticism of the Democratic Party not doing enough and being “the lesser of two evils.” There’s also a lot of conversation about race and class, specifically how to build broad-based, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-gender coalitions to push for the kind of changes that we need in society. What are your thoughts on building around class issues, especially in light of the so-called white-working class?
B.J.: We have to take an intersectional approach to politics. When the question is ‘is it race or is it class?” the answer is always “yes.” That’s my politics. That’s my life as an organizer of long-standing. It’s also, frankly, the way I grew up. My white uncle ran a lumber yard in a rural community, and my Black uncle ran a small business in the inner-city. And being both of their nephews, I quickly learned that they had way more in common than they didn’t.
ESSENCE: Still, a lot of criticism that the Democratic Party faces is around its failure to uplift the unique challenges that Black and Brown communities face—such as the state occupation of communities and police brutality.
B.J.: Well, I’ll be the first civil rights leader to be governor of a state. And I’ve run both as a business person and a civil rights leader. In addition to having a plan to build our economy, restore our prominence as one of the top three health and science economies—which we used to be, but no longer are—I have plans on my website to reform policing in the state and to end mass incarceration in the state.
ESSENCE: One of the big changes that you champion is single-payer healthcare—Medicare-for-All. What has been the response across the state to your healthcare platform?
B.J.: The response has been extremely strong and has gotten stronger throughout the campaign. There is a real crisis in our healthcare system. The costs keep surging, and family by family are looking for solutions and they’re all coming to the same conclusion: Medicare works much better than the corporate system and we need to move to a Medicare-for-All system. We’d all like to see the federal government do that under Donald Trump, but that’s not going to happen. So, in the meantime, states need to take the lead; and as governor of Maryland, I’ll be prepared for us to take the lead.
ESSENCE: What would you say to those people who say, “This sounds good, but how are you going to accomplish this without raising taxes?”
B.J.: Under a Jealous administration, you’ll pay less for your healthcare, you’ll pay less in sale taxes, and Walmart and hedge funds managers will pay their fair share, too. We need to create a tax system that’s more progressive. One of the most regressive taxes we have in Maryland is the sales tax. We will lower it. Our healthcare costs have been surging; we will lower those, too. At the same time, we’re pretty certain that Walmart doesn’t pay any state-income taxes while our small businesses do, and that’s not fair. We’ll change that. And hedge fund managers are paying a lower effective tax than their secretaries, and that’s not fair, either. We’ll change that, too.
ESSENCE: If someone asked, “Why should I vote for you Ben Jealous?” and you had to make it plain, what would say?
Jealous: I’ve been endorsed by the teachers to fix the crisis in the educational system. I’ve been endorsed by the nurses to fix the crisis in our healthcare system. I have a plan to fully fund our schools and I have a plan to move us to Medicare-for-All.
Though Gov. Hogan has the support of some Maryland Democrats who tow the centrist line, Jealous is committed to defeating him in November, ensuring that Hogan will not become the first Republican governor to win a second term since 1954.
“We won the nomination by building a bigger ground army that anybody else, and by putting out a positive vision that spoke to the kitchen table stress across the state,” Jealous told ESSENCE. “At this moment in history, people are looking for bold solutions to persistent problems, such as fixing healthcare and fixing our education system, and getting our economy unstuck for working families. That’s what powering us through our campaign; that’s what powered us through the primaries.”
Click here to learn more about Ben Jealous’ political platform.