Jerome Segal wants to bring the best things in life — community, meaning and beauty — to the forefront of Maryland politics.

“Nobody ever died wishing they spent more time in the office, and that’s the American reality,” he said. “People understand that. But they don’t have a politics that is built on that.”

The 78-year-old Silver Spring resident is one of nine Democratic candidates vying for a win in July 19′s gubernatorial primary election. The self-described advocate for socialism says what sets him apart from the others is not the pursuit of just policies, but a reexamination of what amounts to a meaningful life. The philosopher’s agenda aims to reduce the hours that Marylanders spend working to foster “simpler lives with less stuff,” a culture that values community and environmental stewardship.

Segal studied philosophy and economics at the City College of New York, later earning a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan and a master’s in public affairs from the University of Minnesota. He’s taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, served as an aide to Congressman Donald Fraser of Minneapolis, and founded the Jewish Peace Lobby, which aims to bring about peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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His field of study would be central to his approach as governor, he said, pointing to his critiques of the Blueprint For Maryland’s Future, a plan to increase state education funding by $3.8 billion each year over a decade. Supporters of the Blueprint purport it will eradicate student achievement gaps. Segal is clear that, as a socialist, he’s concerned with equity, and believes the new formula is terrific — but says the Blueprint has too narrow a vision of the mission of schools and too strong a focus on standardized testing.

“I got better papers from freshmen on ‘what is education really about?’” Segal said. “The report says we don’t have a world-class system; they compared us to Shanghai, Singapore and Finland. How do you compare schools to Shanghai? What metric do you use? The ability to write a beautiful poem?”

Segal’s political consciousness was first stoked during his childhood in the Bronx, as the son of a dancer and a Polish immigrant. Segal’s Jewish father originally came to New York to visit family, but stayed permanently to avoid the Holocaust. In Poland, his father was an elected Socialist; in the U.S., he became a garment factory worker, pulling 60-hour work weeks to support his wife and their four children.

“He lived a vibrant political and intellectual life in Poland that collapsed, in some ways, by coming to America,” Segal said, adding that his upbringing also exposed him to the Greenwich Village arts scene. “I had this unique perspective really, on two different worlds, both of which struggled with these issues of work, time and money.”

His belief in policies to bolster material conditions that would, in turn, allow people to pursue deeper meaning led him to found the Bread and Roses Party, which took its name from a James Oppenheim poem: “Small art and love and beauty / Their drudging spirits knew / Yes, it is bread we fight for / But we fight for roses too.”

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In 2019, Maryland recognized Bread and Roses after thousands of state voters submitted signatures in support of the party. Segal ran as the Bread and Roses presidential candidate in 2020; that recognition ended late last year, after the party disbanded and Segal announced his run for governor.

Segal said Bread and Roses’ central thesis is still present in his Democratic campaign: He said he will push for a four-day workweek and tax breaks to create government-backed, zero-interest mortgages for small homes. “You’re living modestly, but your needs are met and secure,” he said. “You have more time to devote to those things in life that are really valuable whether it’s friends, family or church.”

Jessica Snow, a campaign supporter in Germantown, said the party’s focus on “an economy based on empowerment” is what led her to cast a ballot for Bread and Roses in 2020. She’d previously voted blue, but Segal’s bold policy ideas stood out to her.

“I kept putting my faith in two-party politics and realized that we’re just coasting down the same railroad tracks — literally, the two-party system is just two trains, coasting side by side,” the healing artist said. “If we stand together, we can change that direction.”

The gubernatorial race is not Segal’s first as a Democrat: He ran for office against Sen. Ben Cardin in the 2018 primaries, netting about 20,000 votes after heavily criticizing the incumbent’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Segal knows the odds are against him this time around, too, pointing to smaller cash reserves than other candidates, less name recognition and what he says is discrimination against his political beliefs. He was excluded from the stage of Maryland Public Television’s early June Democratic gubernatorial debate, a decision he is suing over. MPT invited candidates who polled at 3% or higher; a poll from The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore published shortly before the debate found him at 1%. A recent Baltimore Banner poll had him at less than 1%. Segal argued that the poll’s 4.1% margin of error means his numbers may be as high as 5.1%.

“They left me out, actually, because of idiocy,” he said. “I had 3.7% [of primary votes cast] against Cardin when I ran in 2018. They left me out because I’m a socialist.”

Spencer Goidel, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University studying large fields, said in a race teeming with many Democrats who are essentially in the same wing of the party, Segal may appeal to some voters by virtue of being the candidate furthest to the left.

“But even the people who support candidates polling at one or two percent might, on election day, look at a long list of candidates and decide, ‘I have to vote for the person with a chance of winning that I’m favorable of,’” he said. “Most people don’t waste their vote, and if someone votes for an uncompetitive candidate in this kind of race, it probably is a protest vote.”

Michael Neuschatz, a 74-year-old retiree in Riverdale, said that his plan to cast a ballot for Jerome is no such thing. “Usually a protest vote is motivated by being opposed to everyone else,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a protest vote in the sense that he has very sensible things to say.”

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He cites Segal’s condemnation of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and his emphasis on improving the quality of life of working people versus focusing on capitalist metrics, like consumer spending.

“He’s not as skilled a politician, in some ways, as some of the others, and he certainly doesn’t have a machine behind him,” Neuschatz said. “He’s the only candidate who isn’t playing to get more votes or attract donors. He is completely about the policies and ideas.”

Segal agrees with the heart of Neuschatz’s assessment. “My problem isn’t that I’m all the way in left field,” he said. “My problem is trying to get my ideas known.”

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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