Wes Moore had just finished marching in a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Annapolis on Saturday afternoon when he got an urgent message: Get back to College Park.
Hundreds of teachers and school employees holding a union meeting in a hotel ballroom near the University of Maryland had just voted to endorse Moore, a Democrat, in the 2022 race for governor — one of the most coveted and valuable endorsements in Maryland politics.
Moore, an author and former nonprofit executive, said he sprinted into the room just as Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost announced him as the choice.
Moore, who comes from “a long line of preachers and teachers,” said having the teachers union’s support is personally meaningful.
But in the nitty-gritty calculus of elected politics — 11 Democrats and four Republicans are vying for their parties’ nominations for governor this year — the 76,000-member Maryland State Education Association has an important role in influencing who voters believe are pro-education candidates. Having the union endorsement and showing up on the apple-themed ballots the group hands out “helps in every way,” Moore said.
“It means that we’ll have the manpower of the teachers and the support of them,” he said. Having the backing of the Maryland State Education Association is a win for Moore’s campaign heading into July’s primary.
But the teachers union isn’t the only player in the political endorsement game.
Bringing ‘institutional muscle’
For months, the leading candidates for governor in both parties have been working to line up endorsements from groups and individuals. Once an endorsement is sewn up, the candidates promote it to raise their profile, money and excitement among boosters.
From the state’s largest labor unions down to former council members from small towns, political candidates are not shy about touting their backers. But some endorsements matter more than others, political observers say.
At the top of the list in Maryland politics are the Maryland State Education Association and large labor unions, including units of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Each of those unions counts tens of thousands of members who can be marshaled to vote, but also show up to events, wave signs and knock on doors in support of the campaign.
Tom Perez, a former state and federal labor secretary, lost out on the MSEA endorsement but lined up endorsements from units of AFSCME and SEIU that have 125,000 members combined.
“It brings the institutional muscle of the unions to bear to help our campaign with boots on the ground,” Perez said. “I’m very honored to have that.”
Perez calculates that the winning candidate in the crowded Democratic primary will need 170,000 to 200,000 votes. Even though he acknowledges that not all 125,000 union members will vote for him, he thinks “a substantial percentage” will, pushing ever closer to his target.
Put another way: The 2018 Democratic primary for governor had nine candidates on the ballot. Winner Ben Jealous had about 60,000 more votes than second-place finisher Rushern Baker, who is running again this year. So having a bloc of tens of thousands of voters matters.
AFSCME Council 3 will push a pro-Perez message out to its members and encourage them and their families to get involved in the campaign, said Patrick Moran, the union’s president. Union members also can opt in to a political fund, and that money can be used to support Perez as well.
“This is a numbers thing, and it’s all about getting people out to vote,” Moran said. “It’s great if you get a city council person or a county executive. But the reality is: How much influence do they have on a voter’s individual household? It’s very different if you get a union endorsement, that’s a whole chunk of voters.”
Seeking to tip the balance
Endorsements from unions and big groups matter, said Justin Schall, a Democratic consultant who managed Anthony Brown’s campaign for governor in 2014. (Brown won a three-way primary but lost to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the general election.)
Other groups that reach blocs of voters include political arms of the Sierra Club, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and Fraternal Order of Police lodges.
“They bring validation on value statements, they bring organizational resources and they bring financial resources,” Schall said of endorsements. “In a multi-candidate field, in a fairly close, even race, those resources can tip the balance.”
When Brown won the teachers union endorsement in the 2014 campaign, Schall said, it helped solidify him as the front-runner over rivals Doug Gansler, who is running for governor again, and Heather Mizeur, now running for Congress.
The Brown campaign took an entire squad to the convention in Ocean City to win the endorsement. Under the union’s rules at the time, candidates were allowed to go from room to room to lobby union reps from each county.
“It was all hands on deck,” Schall recalled. “We had the candidates, I even think the wives were there, our senior staff was all there.”
This time around, candidates didn’t have that option. Each gave a five-minute speech on Saturday morning, after previously filling out detailed questionnaires and recording interviews with MSEA President Bost.
Some campaigns brought their ground game to the MSEA meeting, with volunteers and staffers handing out literature, waving signs and reciting chants outside the hotel.
Moore’s team chanted “Ready for Moore! Fired up!” while fellow Democrat John King’s group countered with “Maryland needs a teacher!” King started his career as a social studies teacher and rose to become a U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama.
While the teachers union deliberated its choice behind closed doors on Saturday, Peter Franchot was in Station North, rallying members of the Unite Here Local 7 union before a door-knocking campaign.
Franchot, the state comptroller and yet another Democrat running for governor, hasn’t picked up any endorsements from large unions. But he’s happy to have the support from several smaller unions, including Unite Here Local 7, which represents hospitality workers, primarily in the Baltimore area.
Franchot said endorsements can be “mental health for candidates.”
“Money only takes you so far,” he said.
Unite Here plans to offer people-powered efforts like door-knocking teams to help Franchot in the primary.
“We’re not going to be able to write huge checks. A lot of our members are still laid off, honestly,” said Roxie Herbekian, Unite Here’s president. “They do understand the importance of having folks in office that support public policies that support workers.”
Campaigns without large organizational endorsements put less stock in them.
King’s campaign manager, Joe O’Herne, said voters can differentiate between candidates promising “real, progressive change” and “insider, institutional deal-making.”
Baker’s campaign manager, Andrew Mallinoff, noted that endorsements didn’t help Baker much in 2018, when he was an “establishment favorite” yet finished second in the Democratic primary. Baker is positioning himself this time around as a candidate not beholden to special interests.
“People aren’t looking for old-school machine politics or to be force-fed candidates from insiders any more, when they can find all the information they need with a quick Google search,” Mallinoff said.
An ‘information shortcut’
Endorsements from unions and interest groups can serve as a guide to help busy voters sort out whom they want to support, said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist and pollster at Goucher College in Towson.
“It’s an information shortcut to your average rank-and-file voter that this is an individual that even if you don’t know much about them, you know they align with their values,” said Kromer, who directs Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics.
Many candidates are also hoping to leverage the support of current and former politicians to expand their geographic reach.
Moore, who is based in Baltimore, won the endorsement of Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, which he hopes will sway some of the county’s 468,000 registered Democrats. Baker, who served two terms as that county’s executive, was endorsed by the majority of the county council.
Baker, meanwhile, has tried to make inroads in Baltimore with the help of former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. At the city’s Northeast Market recently, Young introduced Baker as the future governor: “You’ve got to pass the word, you know, that this is who I am endorsing.”
Others have touted their association with powerful national political figures. A 30-second ad by the Perez campaign uses an old clip of Obama heaping praise on the candidate as “tireless” and “wicked smart.” The popular former president, however, has not officially endorsed anyone in the campaign.
Which GOP endorsement matters more
The leading Republican candidates for governor haven’t won over the big unions, which tend to favor Democrats. But they’ve got major names in their corners: Kelly Schulz is endorsed by Hogan and Dan Cox by former President Donald Trump.
Those two endorsements neatly encapsulate the divide in the state’s Republican Party.
Trump said in a statement last fall that Cox, a state delegate, is “an America First Patriot” who is “MAGA all the way.” Cox bused people to a rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, though he said his group left before Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election. He’s also regularly blasted Hogan and launched an unsuccessful lawsuit to end early-pandemic health restrictions.
Hogan, in turn, has criticized Cox as a “crazy Q-anon guy,” which Cox said is false.
“This whole attack and smear is not going to fly. People are smarter than that,” Cox said.
Hogan is backing Schulz, a former state delegate who served as his labor and commerce secretaries.
Several members of Hogan’s political team are working on Schulz’s campaign, and she’s promoted herself as his natural successor to “change Maryland.”
The two appeared on stage at an Annapolis hotel recently, hands clasped in the air as a show of confidence.
“I’ve been working with the governor for the last eight years, and we’ve been friends for a lot longer than that,” Schulz told reporters as Hogan looked on. “So on a personal and professional level, having him support this campaign as the future of the state of Maryland means everything to me.”