When Ben Jealous spoke at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville on Sunday, the Democratic nominee for governor only appeared to be alone at the speakers’ table and behind the lectern.
His Republican opponent, Gov. Larry Hogan, was notably absent — he had been invited but chose not to come — but his presence was almost palpable as Jealous blasted his record as the state’s chief executive.
In addition to Hogan, two other political specters seemed to hover over the proceedings — President Donald Trump, whose spirit will be felt in most of 2018’s off-year elections, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the 2016 candidate for the Democratic nomination for president endorsement of Jealous helped him garner the gubernatorial nomination.
Still, Sanders name came up only once during the two-hour speech and question-and-answer session, in the context of Maryland’s special relationship with Israel. Sanders has been critical of some Israeli policies, noted Jonathan Salant, who acted as moderator and official questioner. If elected, he asked, would Jealous continue the special relationship between Maryland and the Jewish state?
“I support Sen. Sanders because we are both FDR Democrats,” replied the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He would build on the trade relationship because it is “good for both countries, good for the state.”
Israel came up one more time in connection with Hogan’s executive order barring the state from doing business with firms that cooperate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state. Would Jealous continue with that policy?
Noting that he opposes BDS and favors a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict, the Pasadena resident said he has “First Amendment concerns” about the executive order and would want “assurances that our attorney general believes it will pass First Amendment muster.”
Until the very end of his presentation, the Democratic nominee mostly ignored Trump, aiming his barbs instead at Maryland’s current chief executive.
During Hogan’s tenure, the state’s public schools have fallen from being ranked No. 1 in the country to No. 6, health care costs have soared and job growth has been less than the national average, Jealous said. And Hogan has no plan to deal with these declines, he added.
On education, Jealous proposes to deal with the problem of teacher turnover by raising their salaries by 29 percent.
He also would set up a system of free tuition for community colleges and for students at universities training in professions for which there are staffing shortages — he mentioned nurses, computer programmers, teachers, construction managers and first responders as examples.
He would fund those changes by taxing those making $500,000 a year or more an additional 1 percent.
Jealous wants to make marijuana use legal for adults. This would cut down on violent crime — marijuana “is a very valuable commodity that is not regulated by law, but regulated by bullets” — and the money raised by taxing it would fund free, universal pre-kindergarten education for every child in the state, he said.
Jealous believes Marylanders pay more and get less for our health care dollars. He therefore favors Medicare for all. He would get there, he said, by setting up a commission to study the problem and present a plan to the citizens of the state in two years.
In general, a small sample of the audience reached in the hallway reacted favorably to Jealous and what he had to say.
George Driesen, 85, found the nominee to be “full of interesting ideas and to be interesting as a man.” However, the Bethesda resident said that when he was head of the NAACP, Jealous and the organization embraced the idea of reparations, which Driesen views as racist in that it determines who pays and who receives money on the basis of race.
He is undecided for whom to vote, but said that if Jealous becomes governor, he would “move the state forward, especially in education.”
Jami Metro, 52, said she didn’t know much about the candidate before the talk and was undecided for whom to vote. The Potomac resident found him “dynamic with great ideas” and decided to cast her ballot for Jealous.
Jealous’ position on BDS bothers Bob Kaplan. The 67-year-old Rockville resident said that his First Amendment musings are simply a way for the candidate to justify killing Hogan’s executive order. However, Kaplan, a Republican who sometimes crosses party lines, found him to be “well spoken” and is still in the undecided column.
The candidate’s and the Democratic Party’s values, “which align with Jewish values,” are what swayed Fred Messing, 70. Jews were instrumental in establishing the American public education system, the Silver Spring resident said, and Jealous’ plan is to update it by making colleges free and reducing the cost of university education.
His ideas will benefit society and pay off economically, said Messing, who is firmly in the Jealous camp.
It is to values that Jealous turned at the end of his speech to pummel the president. Trump and his party are going back to “the playbook of divide and conquer,” the Democratic nominee said. “We have an opportunity to present a united people.”
Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.