Gov. Wes Moore is fond of saying that Maryland needs to “win the decade.”
Sitting in his office in the historic State House in Annapolis, Moore paints a broad vision of Maryland as a state with more economic opportunities, better schools and safer communities. He wants to eschew the “lazy” thinking of the past, and chart a bolder future for the state.
“When I say we’re going to win the decade, we’re going to be intentional, and we’re going to be bold and we’re going to make big investments,” Moore said near the end of a long day, sitting in an armchair, a mug of mint tea within reach. “But we’re going to do it in a way that has the core focus of being able to bring everybody along with us, every part of the state along with us. And not just picking who wins and who loses in a way that Maryland has oftentimes historically done.”
But three days after that interview, the challenges of plotting Maryland’s future were brought to the forefront when shooters fired into a crowd that gathered for a block party in Brooklyn. An astonishing 30 people, most of them teens and young adults, were shot. Two of them died.
Later that week seven people were shot at a party in Salisbury, including a 14-year-old boy who died.
Six months in office Tuesday, Moore finds himself balancing both his broad, long-term vision of success and the immediate threat of gun violence in which children are increasingly both the victims and the perpetrators.
Moore did a series of interviews with reporters ahead of the six-month mark discussing his successes so far and his vision for the future. He was Time magazine’s person of the week and recorded a podcast about patriotism for the occasion.
That quickly turned into Moore being stopped by local reporters at every public event, and asked about youth violence: Why didn’t he visit Brooklyn sooner after the mass shooting? Does he support stricter gun laws? Would he support a special legislative session to address crime?
“This is not a response to an incident,” Moore insisted in Brooklyn on a hot Fourth of July, as government agencies filled tables in a community center after the mass shooting. “This is a response to a chronic, chronic challenge that this community has been facing.”
The governor’s message soon morphed from one of support for the community to a pledge to crack down on crime to make communities safer.
“There’s no issue that we’re spending more time on than this issue of public safety, and making sure that people need to feel safe in their own communities,” Moore said several days later when questioned outside an event in Baltimore County. “And you know, for me, this isn’t a political issue. This isn’t about what Republicans are going to do or Democrats want to do.”
He’s been short on specifics, though, pledging to work “in partnership” with local officials, police and prosecutors. Moore, like Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, has faulted the “flow of illegal guns” into Maryland from other states. And he’s said that police recruitment needs to be improved to ensure there are enough qualified officers “helping to keep us safe.”
What Moore won’t do is call state lawmakers back to Annapolis for a special session to pass laws to address the issues of violent crime, despite Republican calls for action.
Moore has, however, repeatedly discussed the need for “accountability” for repeat violent offenders, but stopped short of endorsing any specific course of action. He said that he’d work with lawmakers on solutions.
“We’re not stopping until we get and keep these violent offenders off our streets and let them know that their days are done,” Moore told reporters.
“It’s promising to hear the governor echo some of the policy changes we have been calling for … but action is necessary,” said state Sen. Stephen Hershey, the top-ranking Senate Republican who has been among those agitating for a special session.
Republican proposals — which have been defeated before in the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly — include making theft of a firearm a felony and stiffening penalties for certain offenders found guilty of violent crimes.
“This has the potential to be a defining moment for him,” Hershey said of the governor. He cautioned that some officials have lost elections “because of the rampant and uncontrollable crime” in their communities.
Maryland is such a small state, and Baltimore plays such an important role, that whichever way the health and safety of the city goes “will be a direct reflection of the actions of the governor,” Hershey said.
Moore’s supporters, meanwhile, bristle at accusations that the governor’s not doing enough.
Privately, they note that former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan rarely, if ever, showed up in Baltimore neighborhoods that had experienced tragedy. And when the former governor spoke of Baltimore, it was often to criticize the city’s leaders.
Moore needs to balance the pressing problems in front of him and his long-term goals for the state, as well as his future political aspirations, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Eberly, who teaches a course in Maryland politics, rated Moore’s first six months in office as “pretty successful,” noting the governor’s wins in his first legislative session and growing national profile.
Moore has become a “go-to person” to give the Democratic Party’s take on culture war issues in national interviews and he’s also a key surrogate for President Joe Biden’s reelection effort.
“That’s not bad for someone in the first six months of their first elected office,” Eberly said.
Moore has also been taking his message national, regularly appearing on TV interviews to tout his work in Maryland, the Democratic agenda and Biden’s accomplishments.
He serves as finance chair of the Democratic Governors Association and has played a role in building relationships among the governors when they get together, said Meghan Meehan-Draper, the DGA’s executive director. He’s fundraised for the DGA, including at the Preakness Stakes, and at a confab of CEOs known as the Sun Valley Conference.
“One of the things that makes him a successful leader for the DGA is because he’s a good leader of the State of Maryland,” Meehan-Draper said.
Moore is the nation’s only Black governor and the youngest Democratic governor, so he brings important perspectives, Meehan-Draper said.
“When you are delivering the way he is delivering and when you are making such an impact on your state in such a short period of time ... it is no surprise that folks notice that,” Meehan-Draper said.
Among the Moore accomplishments championed by the DGA: his program to offer paid service options for young adults, and raising the minimum wage.
Moore still has plenty on his agenda, with 3 1/2 years to go in his first term. In his inaugural speech and first State of the State speech earlier this year, Moore promoted his “leave no one behind” vision with goals of eliminating childhood poverty and promoting community and public service.
“It is time for our policies to be as bold as our aspirations — and to confront the fact that we have been offered false choices,” Moore said during his inaugural speech. “We do not have to choose between a competitive economy and an equitable one.”
Moore also has nuts-and-bolts governing ahead of him.
The governor made a splash earlier this summer when he relaunched the planning process for the Red Line, a proposed east-west transit route in Baltimore.
But the project needs significant amounts of federal, state and local funding and it could be years before there’s tangible progress.
“I want to make sure that we have that up and running as fast as humanly possible,” Moore said in an interview. “We are going to make sure that we get this thing done and it’s going to have my personal attention to make sure that it gets done.”
There’s also the matter of rebuilding state government, which saw a steady increase in vacant positions under the two terms of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Back in January, Moore pledged to fill 5,000 vacancies in his first year.
The governor said he’s “very happy” with the progress on the issue, which he said he didn’t fully appreciate until he took office.
“We’re confident that we are in a good place to be able to get it done,” Moore said.
As he juggles crime, the budget, staff vacancies and more, delivering on the governor’s big promises depends on his ability to shape the economy — ending childhood poverty and improving quality of life.
“I feel like Maryland has tremendous assets,” Moore said. “I just feel like, as a state, we have a tendency to be lazy.”
By “lazy” he means that Maryland’s economic strength has long relied on the same industries: “the eds, the feds and the meds.” Translated, that’s the colleges and universities in Maryland, the numerous federal agencies and workers and medical institutions such as Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health.
Maybe, the governor said, Maryland can find inspiration from Massachusetts, with a booming biotech industry, or Georgia, where film and entertainment is flourishing. Maryland’s future could be built on its existing strong industries in life sciences, biotech or cybersecurity — or maybe the future could be in “film, entertainment and content,” Moore said.
Hand-in-hand with economic growth is improving educational opportunities to prepare the workforce of the future. A key part of that is the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an expensive and ambitious plan to revamp public schools that was put into place before Moore was in office. He acknowledges that it will be a challenge for the state and local school districts to meet the funding requirements in the Blueprint plan but promises not to propose taxes “on the backs of working families.”
Moore is bullish on his ability to bring all those pieces together to advance Maryland’s prosperity.
“We’re showing that we can do big things again as a state and we don’t have to move slowly. We don’t have to be caught up in in gridlock, and we don’t have to be caught up in this divisive political conversation that leaves us marking time and leaves people left behind,” Moore said. “I think we’re showing that we can actually get big things done and we can get it done together in an exciting way.”