Commentary: Wes Moore seized this moment in history to become governor

Generational change in state politics laid groundwork for candidacy

Published on: January 18, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 18, 2023 10:39 AM EST

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On the weekend before Wes Moore was sworn in as governor of Maryland, “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a profile and interview.

“I’d never run for public office before,” Moore said, “but I’ve been a public servant all my life.” Moore also said he understood from the start of his candidacy that a life of achievements in other fields would in no way ensure a successful run for office.

“Politics is a very humbling business. When we first got into this race, I was polling at 1%.”

When Moore spoke during the interview with correspondent Kelefa Sanneh about how he intends to govern, he returned to the broad themes and inspirational language heard often during his campaign.

“It’s not about what program we can institute,” he said. “It’s about how we go about changing the human condition that people are existing in.”

Moore’s language and the kind of vision he presents to Marylanders would be fitting for the leader of an economic or social justice movement. When he talks about how problems of poverty and income inequality can be addressed, he discusses strategies used at the anti-poverty nonprofit organization he once headed, the Robin Hood Foundation.

His message and elements of his background and demeanor have drawn comparisons to Barack Obama. Obama is Ivy League-educated, and Moore is a Johns Hopkins graduate and Rhodes scholar. They both entered the public consciousness based on achievements that came before they entered politics.

After having been the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama wrote a best-selling memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” published in 1995. Fourteen years later, he was sworn in as the 44th president. Moore, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan and a former investment banker, wrote the best-selling memoir, “The Other Wes Moore,” published in 2010. Thirteen years later, he was sworn in as the 63rd governor of Maryland.

Moore and Obama span a generation of Black political leaders who, unlike their predecessors, didn’t first gain prominence as leaders of racial justice and civil rights efforts or as religious leaders. While they espouse positions seen as progressive, they emphasize their commitment to seeking common ground and building consensus. They both exhibit a public persona that, during their campaigns, connected with voters.

Like Obama, Moore tapped into the desire voters in Maryland and elsewhere have shown to be part of a movement, not just supporters of a political candidate, party or campaign. Obama treated Chicago as his hometown as he built his political base there. He often pointed to lessons he learned there working as a community organizer on anti-poverty efforts.

Moore made his connection to Baltimore central to his life story and to his entry into politics. He was accused during the campaign of overstating that connection and the idea that Baltimore was central to his upbringing. He says that criticism is unfounded.

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“I’m not a Baltimorean by birth, I’m a Baltimorean by choice,” he said in the “CBS Sunday Morning” interview.

To win, Moore didn’t need to issue specific policy prescriptions on pressing issues such as crime, education reform, economic uncertainty and inequality, taxation and the impact of climate change on Maryland’s coastline. Moore’s unifying message and his personal background and qualities clearly resonated with voters despite his absence of government experience.

Moore’s pastor, Bishop Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, said members of the congregation urged Moore to run based on seeing him as a consensus builder.

“We really felt like he had the moral compass and clarity, and he could build consensus around the state,” Hickman told “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Moore made history as Maryland’s first Black governor and the third Black person ever elected governor of a U.S. state, after L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. His election was made possible by a transformation of Maryland politics that has played out during more than a half century. Demographic changes and population shifts in parts of Maryland, particularly in the D.C. suburbs, played a big role in that transformation, as did Democratic and Republican party realignment in Maryland and nationwide.

The state that will now be led by a Black governor is the same state where the Democratic nominee for governor in 1966 ran on the campaign slogan: “Your Home Is Your Castle; Protect It.” Opposition to open housing and other civil rights-related policies was the defining theme of George P. Mahoney’s campaign. It carried him from perennial candidate to the Democratic nomination after he defeated two moderate Democrats in the gubernatorial primary. In the general election, many Democrats refused to support him, and he lost to Spiro Agnew, who managed to position himself as a relative moderate.

Moore is now governor of the same state where in 1972, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, one of the most outspoken segregationists in modern U.S. political history, won the Democratic presidential primary. A day before that primary election, Wallace was shot at the Laurel Shopping Center in Prince George’s County and left permanently paralyzed.

In 1964, Wallace had run for the Democratic presidential nomination against President Lyndon Johnson as the Civil Rights Act was about to be passed. Wallace won 42.7 percent of the vote against Maryland Democratic Sen. Daniel Brewster, the stand-in candidate who would pass along his support in the presidential preference contest to Johnson.

Since the 1960s, particularly since the 1964 presidential campaign, party realignment has meant the kinds of constituencies that supported Democrats such as Mahoney and Wallace now vote solidly Republican. The days of arch conservatives and reactionaries in the Democratic party in Maryland and elsewhere are no more. The days of liberal Republicans such as the late former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland are also long gone.

Democrats hold a majority in party affiliation and voter registration, with Republicans making up about one-third of the electorate. Former Gov. Larry Hogan was able to win two terms, running as a moderate who appealed to moderate Democrats. He consistently contrasted himself to former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

Moore’s general election opponent Dan Cox won the Republican nomination with the backing of Trump. Hogan supported Cox’s primary opponent and continued to ridicule Cox’s candidacy after he secured the nomination.

In the general election, Moore won 64% of the vote to Cox’s 32%. The outcome was viewed nationally as another example in which those who supported Trump’s false claims of a fraudulent 2020 election and other elements of the Trump message were repudiated at the polls.

Moore brings that level of support into office along with a national profile as a political rising star. As someone who inspired voters with his vision for the state, he also carries the burden of high hopes. He says members of the congregation at Southern Baptist remind him of the hopes they’re placing in him.

“Just don’t forget us,” is their message, Moore says.

Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.