IN CONVERSATION WITH…
BENJAMIN JEALOUS, Gubernatorial Candidate, Maryland
“You wake up one day, Donald Trump is president and the far-right controls every branch of federal government, and you find yourself feeling disoriented in the only nation you have ever known.”
Descendant of a black reconstruction stateman from Virginia, 9 revolutionary war soldiers from Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson’s grandmother’s other grandchildren who were his slave
Son of 2 Organizers: a black woman, a white man
The father of 2 kids
Former NAACP President and CEO
Democratic Nominee for Governor of Maryland
I was born on a bridge between black and white. Rich and Poor. Northern California and West Baltimore. The blessing of that was yes, that I learned how to talk to everybody, but most importantly was that I learned how to listen to everybody. Being able to recognize the wisdom that people carry regardless of race, class, or gender afforded me a slightly broader perspective than most people have in their lifetime much less their childhood. This has empowered me with the ability to communicate, to organize, and to unite with people across all the lines that are supposed to keep us divided. I am able to reflect their sameness back to them; helping them to see their similarities.
Ancestors were like action heroes to me growing up. I was blessed to grow up in a family where both sides had a real sense of purpose. My mom’s mom, MAMIE TODD, is 101 years old. Her grandparents were born enslaved. Her grandfather, EDWARD DAVID BLAND, was born enslaved, co-founded Virginia State University, and died a state senator. ARCHIBALD WILLARD, an ancestor of my dad, painted the “The Spirit of 76’”, and I am told that the model for the little drummer boy was a cousin. This notion that you could open a book and see a historic painting by one of your cousins, featuring one of your cousins, depicting a war that your family fought was energizing.
I can recall sitting with my mom at bedtime and her telling me stories about being in the South during the 50/60s, and having to get on the floor in cars to evade Klan patrols as they were on route to assist black farmers in Tennessee. My dad told me stories about being jailed for lunch counter sit-ins and the way that police officers would treat white people who chose to be allies of the black people during the Civil rights Movement. I was inspired to believe, to understand, that public service was the greatest calling for any of us and that all of us had the responsibility and opportunity to bend the moral arc of our nation towards justice.
I communicate this to my children. You want your children to understand their own agency and their own power. The thing that I struggle with, like a lot of black parents, is wanting my kids to be disciplined, respectful, and to speak when spoken to, but more than anything I want them to feel powerful, capable, and deserving to be heard. It’s why I push and prod sometimes. I have my 6-year old son watching ‘Eyes On The Prize.’ I just gave my 12-year old daughter CHIMANDE NGOZI ADICHIE’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ She devoured it within an hour and then looked at me and said, “Daddy, you need to read this.” Yes, that is exactly what a father should hope for.
I am the nation’s youngest retired Civil Rights leader. I run the Baltimore office of a Silicon Valley tech investment firm and I am running for Governor of Maryland. I still attend my grandparent’s church. I was raised with a great sense of responsibility for doing my part to make certain that the American Dream is accessible to all of us and that this American Experiment succeeds.
The DECISION TO RUN
You wake up one day, Donald Trump is president and the far-right controls every branch of federal government, and you find yourself feeling disoriented in the only nation you have ever known. You are immobilized temporarily and then there came a day in those weeks after Trump won the election that I could see clearly. I was walking down the street and a lesson that I learned as a youth in Judo class came to me; use your opponent’s momentum against them. I kept turning that around in my head, applying it to present day.
The momentum of the far-right has been a states’ rights movement. The reasons they control so many governorships today is because half a century ago they decided that if the Federal Government was going to enforce Civil Rights protections (Racial, Women’s, Workers’), they would weaken the federal government and strengthen the states in order to preserve their power to defy any enforcements. Therefore, any efforts to improve and change the system must start on the state level.
My campaign for Governor comes out of the realization that if we take a movement approach to governing we can get more done for working people. We do this by pulling them together around a vision that ultimately says the antidote to “divide and conqueror,” is for us to “unite and prosper.” My campaign is fueled by a vision that we can be the model for how America moves forward in the year of Trump, and it was my time with the NAACP that confirms this.
A lot of people in my generation made their mark by creating new organizations, and new non-profits new moment groups. My career was rebuilding old activist groups and making them more powerful. I started off in the mailroom of the NAACP legal defense fund when I was eighteen years old. I fell in love with the power of these old-movement institutions and the genius of those in residence: people who had dedicated their entire lives to serving others and advancing the cause of civil rights. When I came to the leading the NAACP, I came to it emboldened and knowing that we could make it much more powerful on a local and state level to win…
I remember people were fixated on the question of, “how?” How are you going to make it relevant again? How are you going to get people involved in the NAACP again? My answer was simple, “we are going to start winning again.” The results of which were:
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. STEVE HAWKINS and I redesigned the strategy for the Anti-Death Penalty Movement thereby taking it from losing into winning. In the process, I met JOTAKA EADDY who would ultimately finish it by getting it signed into legislation. We successfully abolished the death penalty in 6 states in 5 years.
Creating a network of 200 black community newspapers and rebuilding the national news service for the black press.
We worked with states like Georgia and Texas to build bi-partisan coalitions to significantly reduce the prison populations.
We got Walmart to become the largest employer of previously incarcerated people.
We helped PRESIDENT OBAMA pass virtually every major piece of domestic policy of his first-term and leading up to the second term helped to get him re-elected by bringing nearly 1.2 million unlikely voters to the polls.
Along the way we picked up a lot of new members, online activists, and donations. What drove the turnaround was our commitment to winning in ways that would transform people’s lives.
To have the national NAACP get back to routinely championing the cases of individuals who were wrongly incarcerated like the SCOTT SISTERS, JOHN MCNEAL, and TROY DAVIS seemed illogical to many people. They questioned why we would spend all that time on one person’s case when we could be seeking to advance a piece of legislation that could help more. To understand the NAACP history you have to understand that people commit because of a single case of injustice and then they follow through on that case and go beyond to make certain that it never happens again. The biggest doorway to a great cause is usually a terrible case of injustice.
We saw that with the Troy Davis case. I was laser focused on saving his life. Troy was deeply aware that Georgia would ultimately do whatever it wanted, and that meant executing him. He cautioned me, “do everything you can to save my life, but whatever you do make sure the people know my name because if they do kill me it will make it easier for us to make certain this does not happen to anyone else again.”
In 2011, I got Amnesty International on the phone and we figured out how we increase public awareness by going viral with the hashtag #2MuchDoubt. After he was tragically executed, the Gallop Agency took a poll and discovered that the approval had fallen to its lowest level since the Death Penalty was temporarily abolished in 1972 and they gave 3 reasons why: one of them was the Twitter campaign in Troy’s case. Our hashtag was second for the year only to #BeyoncesPregnant. There is a commentary in that about societal priorities, but let’s save it for another time. (laughter)
BALTIMORE: THE GUBERNATORIAL ROAD AHEAD
The only way into a brighter future is a realized vision that is implemented, but in order to get to that you must live in the truth so here it is:
The war on drugs has failed. We have the highest murder rate in the country although Chicago gets all the press. We must get back to:
Policing: prioritizing and solving rapes, homicides, and home invasions.
Scale up violence programs like Safe Streets that bring down shootings 26% in any neighborhood they are operating in, but are currently operating in less than 10% of the high crime areas in Baltimore.
Ultimately, we have to change the way that we recruit. We need to use personality tests to weed out those officer candidates who are prone to being unnecessarily violent. We need to develop an apprenticeship program that reaches out the public schools straight into the police department. Beyond that we have to change the methods for training, statewide standards for use of force, and the use of force training that is in line with best practices. Our officers should be trained every six months in:
How to use force
How to deescalate
How to not use any force as all
Priming is an area of psychology that has a real relevance to fighting implicit bias. One of the things we know that works is showing officers positive image of community members before they head out to their day of policing. All the evidence suggests that we have to be very focused on the psychological well-being and strength of officers.
Nothing stops a bullet like a job. We must revive the economy in a way that allows every person seeking an employment opportunity to get a job that offers a living wage. We must put people back to work.
Two years ago, I stared the conversations to bridge the technology divide. There would be no Google without Maryland, so why isn’t there a Google in Maryland when one of the founders grew up in Maryland and is a product our public school’s system and flagship university.
In the middle of my campaign, I gave Alphabet and Google teams a tour. What got them here is me showing how our strengths can help address their pain points. They are struggling to build a more inclusive work force (only 2% of their programmers are Black). In Maryland, 20% of our programmers are Black. They want to begin experimenting with building a vocational pathway through community colleges so that you can broaden the pipeline: no longer requiring people to get Bachelors and Masters degrees before they can become programmers. We have some of the most innovative community colleges in the country. They want to acquire more health companies. We have John’s Hopkins, which spins off new companies all day long.
It starts with listening, having a planning, and activating. My opponent has never really done any of those which why we are losing four Fortune 500 companies, including Discovery, from our area.
We are the richest state in the richest country so when it comes to education it is less a financial issue than it is a priority problem. Maryland schools are underfunded by $2.9 Billion a year if you include state and local levels. I am committed to ending the tyranny of zip codes over our children’s opportunities. As Governor, we will fund our schools first, before the budget, and I will keep us accountable to the promises we made. The current Governor promised that tax revenue from the new casino’s in Maryland promised would be used for education and it never was.
Our commitment must not be to the system as blanket statement, but to each integral member, and that means:
Recruiting and retaining the best teachers at a fair wage
Ensuring that every teacher is supplied with the resources they need to be optimal in their positions
Ensuring that every child has the resources (meals, transportation) they need to get an education
Ensuring that every child has the books they need
Ensuring that every child has access to the technology they need
Ensuring that every child has access to testing support
We are 53% women, 48.5% people of color, and have a 29% of government’s contracts goal designation to people of color and women. After a while that starts to look more like a ceiling than a floor. My commitment is to build a more inclusive system starting with opening up government contracts to everyone and making it more of a meritocracy. As Governor, I would be committed to taking that false ceiling and turning it into the floor it deserves to be. It is ridiculous that we would tell 75% of the population to aspire to be only 29% of the contracts.
INVITING INDUSTRY BACK
This is the only way to rebuild. We must lead industries again. Baltimore should be the leader of the Clean Energy Economy. We should be building turbines and then shipping them down the Chesapeake Bay for installations. We should be the hub for high quality, high tech freelancers. We already have the largest on-shoring operation in the country. We should be building on there. As home to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Center, we should be in the top 3 regional Health Science Economies. Maryland should be the capital of Cyber Securities industry. We are the home to NSA and Cyber Command. The only way to get there is to have a plan and a commitment to execute. People will always suffer from a Leader with no vision.
MID-TERM ELECTIONS: NOVEMBER 6TH
Hope is disappearing from the lives of the younger generations faster than we are comfortable admitting. Two separate instances and locations yet same response. I was in Baltimore and a young boy says to me, “I have seen to many dead bodies. When will it stop?” A month later, I was on the eastern shore when a little girl walks over with her tennis racket in hand and all she wanted to talk about were her three classmates whose funerals she attend within the past year because they overdosed on pills. Young people full of hope don’t kill one another. Young people full of hope don’t kill themselves.
Our families are suffering. The reason to vote on Tuesday, November 6th is that our greatest opportunity to move forward is to unite and not allow ourselves to fall victim to Trump and GOP’s self-interest. Regardless of one’s privilege, it is impossible to escape the impact of a nation where hope is in decline. And yet fundamentally, the past generations have taught us that if we are willing to come together with courage we can take a nation in decline, stop its retreat, and leap forward again. That is the faith that powered me to success as an organizer and powers this campaign.
Mathew 7:12 - So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
My grandmother, to this day, is my favorite conversation and source of inspired thinking. She is known to say, “our people were always free,” and literally speaking she is right. I remind myself of this often.
The Prophet by KAHLIL GIBRAN
Warrior of Light and The Pilgrimage by PAULO COELHO
If my life were a soundtrack, it would begin with Bad Bad Leroy Brown by JIM CROCE (my favorite song when I was 4) and conclude with Amazing Grace by MAHALIA JACKSON (a number of great versions are out there but this is my favorite).
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
Time with my kids: They just make me better.
Conversations with My Grandma: She turns 102 soon. My gift: winning this election.
Community Meetings: Real answer.
Time in the Kitchen with Family: I am a good cook: spoonbread, walnut pesto, brownies. Anything that Momma made