Wes Moore is careful to say that he’s not in the Maryland governor’s race to make history. But if the Democratic candidate is elected, he’d do just that: Moore would be the first Black man to serve as governor of Maryland.
“It’s not lost on any of us, this idea that we’re all attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before, that I think the state is ready for,” said Moore, 43, who is facing Republican nominee Dan Cox, a one-term state delegate who is white. A handful of minor party and independent candidates will also be on the ballot.
Maryland has had 30 governors since the current method of electing governors by statewide popular vote was established in 1867. Every single one of them has been a white man. Nor has Maryland elected a Black candidate for its other statewide positions: U.S. senator, attorney general or comptroller. Former President Barack Obama did win the state twice.
In the history of the United States, there have been only a handful of Black governors, and only two of them got to the position by being elected. Moore, if successful, would be the third elected Black governor in the nation’s history.
While Moore recognizes his potential to make history and sees “a sense of pride” when he speaks with Black voters, he strives to appeal to Marylanders of all backgrounds.
“I’m not in this race because I’m trying to make history. That wasn’t a goal and a motivation,” Moore said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. “I’m in the race because I want to make child poverty history. I’m in the race because I want to make the wealth gap history — and those are the things that continue to drive me.”
It’s not for lack of trying, at least on the part of the Maryland Democratic Party, that there have only been white, male governors in the state.
In the last two elections, Democrats nominated Black men for governor — Ben Jealous in 2018 and Anthony Brown in 2014 — but both fell to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a uniquely popular politician who is now finishing his second term as governor.
Moore may be positioned better than his predecessors. There hasn’t yet been any independent polling for the general election, but earlier polling by the Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR indicated Cox would have a tough road to win over enough Democrats to secure a victory.
When the poll asked Democratic voters whether they might consider voting for Cox in the general election, an overwhelming majority — 84% — said they would not consider him at all. Because of Democrats’ numerical registration advantage, Republican candidates need support from about one-quarter of Democratic and independent voters to have a chance at winning a statewide election in Maryland.
“I think it’s long overdue that we elect an African-American to statewide office other than lieutenant governor,” said Brown, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor. He’s one of three Black men to have served as a lieutenant governor, an office that runs on a ticket with the governor and not elected individually, and now is a member of Congress. Brown hopes in 2022 to be elected as the state’s first Black attorney general.
While he doesn’t think racism factored into his unsuccessful 2014 run, Brown does think that race plays a role in electoral politics.
“It factors into people’s decisions of who they’re going to vote for. I’m not suggesting it’s the sole criteria, but it’s one of the factors that people take into consideration,” Brown said.
Even so, Brown said he’s gotten some flak on the campaign trail when it’s brought up that he’d be Maryland’s first Black attorney general.
“It’s common for someone to say: ‘Aren’t you going to be the attorney general for everybody?’” Brown said. “People start questioning whether they’re electing you because you’re Black.”
Electing diverse candidates is not about checking boxes; rather, it’s about building a government that better understands the people it serves, Brown said.
“When you have a more diverse group of people working together, you tend to have more innovative, creative and thoughtful solutions,” he said.
Brown said he thinks it’s more helpful when candidates don’t tout their barrier-breaking possibilities themselves. Rather, that’s better left up to allies and surrogates.
Brown is happy to sing Moore’s praises: “I think Wes Moore is the right guy at the right moment. He’s new to the public sector and state government, but he’s going to bring integrity, energy and excitement that will enable him to attract a competent team.”
To win the Democratic nomination, Moore bested a diverse field of 10 candidates that included candidates identifying as white, Black, Latino and South Asian. (There were no women, however.)
According to the last U.S. census, Maryland is the most diverse state on the East Coast, one of six states with a majority nonwhite population. About 30% of the state is Black, 6.8% is Asian and 7.8% reported two or more races, according to census data. And 11.8% of state residents told the census they were Hispanic or Latino. If two Marylanders were chosen at random, the census estimates there’s a 67% chance that they’d have different racial backgrounds.
Nearly two in every three voters who cast ballots in the last 9 elections did so from counties that rank among the 25 most diverse in the nation, according to a Banner analysis of state voter registration files and the 2020 census.
Moore is joined by other candidates in what may be the Democratic Party’s most diverse statewide ticket ever. In addition to Brown, who would be the first Black attorney general if elected, the ticket includes comptroller candidate Brooke Lierman, who would be the first woman in that role if elected.
Moore’s lieutenant governor running mate, Aruna Miller, immigrated to the United States from India as a child. While the state has had women and black men serving as lieutenant governor, there’s never been a woman of color or an immigrant to hold the position.
“The thing that I’m most proud of, as far as our ticket is concerned, is that we really look like America,” said Yvette Lewis, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. “There is somebody for everybody on our ticket that looks like America.”
And while the Maryland Democratic Party’s leadership is celebrating diversity, there have been lingering questions about whether race has been a hindrance to candidates. A longtime donor who held office in the party was forced out earlier this year after an email circulated in which she noted that African American men have repeatedly lost statewide races and suggested that should be taken into account in the party’s strategy. At the time, the party said that the email did not “represent the values” of the party.
Jealous was among those who bristled at the notion that race played a role in electoral losses.
“White men lose races all the time, but no one ever ascribes that loss to their DNA,” Jealous told The Washington Post earlier this year. “Black women and Black men are entreated to support the Democrats every single cycle. We are told that the Democrats are the party that stands for us. And then when we stand up to lead, we’re told that our race is an obstacle to us winning.”
Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first Black man elected as governor in the U.S., said it would be “a continuing step forward in American government” for Maryland to elect a Black man as governor.
But he cautioned that a campaign must be about more than that.
“Saying that I’m running for office and I want you to elect me because I would be making history — that, in my judgment, is not a criterion for election,” Wilder said.
Wilder served as Virginia governor from 1990-1994 and was lieutenant governor and a state senator before that. He was mayor of Richmond after he was governor.
“When I ran for office, I never had a ‘Black message.’ I never said to anyone that we would be making history,” Wilder said.
At the time he ran his first statewide campaign for lieutenant governor, Wilder said Virginia was 13% Black. “How are you going to get elected if you’re just going to talk to Black people?”
Wilder cautioned that Black candidates need to promote themselves to a broad swath of voters and articulate how they can help solve their problems.
Moore said that’s what he’s doing on the campaign trail, even as he’s aware that there’s an excitement and pride about his candidacy, especially among Black voters.
“When I’m talking to voters, what voters care about most is not necessarily what I look like or what my family lineage is,” Moore said. “What they care about most is, what are my proposals for their lives? And what can I do to impact their future, and their children’s future and their community’s future?”
Improving the future for Marylanders, however, involves being aware of race. Moore points out that race is still the leading indicator for poor health and economic outcomes. When government works on policies to help all Marylanders, it helps to have decision-makers who look like — and have similar lived experiences — the state as a whole.
“We are going to have a state government that actually looks like the state,” Moore said. “That’s important, because I think it’s going to make our state government that much more effective and connected to the people.”
Ryan Little contributed to this article.