Just a few weeks before he was elected governor, Wes Moore participated in an online fundraiser with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former presidential candidate, senator, secretary of state and first lady of the nation and the state of Arkansas.

The moderator asked Clinton — who has spent decades working in or adjacent to government — to give advice to the man who everyone in attendance expected to become Maryland’s 63rd governor.

Clinton cautioned that Moore should quickly get up to speed on the state’s emergency response capabilities, and put good people in key positions.

“Literally, you could get inaugurated and there could be a flood or a bridge collapse,” Clinton said. People will judge you more on disaster and crime response than on any public policies a governor might pursue, she told Moore and the virtual audience.

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More than a year later, a catastrophic emergency like Clinton had warned about struck, when a cargo ship smashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge and sent it toppling into the river below.

The bridge collapse, loss of life and subsequent closure of Baltimore’s port have presented the biggest challenge yet to Moore, a 45-year-old Democrat in his first 15 months of political office. He’s had to console families of those who perished, participate in an emergency response and inform and comfort shaken Marylanders.

The ordeal has thrust Moore into the national spotlight, putting further shine on a rising star in the Democratic Party who some have suggested is a future presidential candidate. His handling of the emergency presents both a political opportunity and a potential pitfall to his popularity if he makes missteps.

Gov. Wes Moore speaks at a press conference about the collapse of the Key Bridge last Tuesday, March 26. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Moore had been tested before, when 28 people were injured and two were killed in a hail of gunfire following a Brooklyn Day celebration last summer. The fallout from the shooting continues to reverberate in the South Baltimore neighborhood to this day, but it was only a brief blip on the national media radar.

Some criticized Moore for not showing up until two days after the shooting. And when he got there, he faced tough questions about whether the political cavalry would support the community long term.

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That wasn’t the case this time. When the Key Bridge collapsed around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Moore was in Boston where he was scheduled to receive an award Tuesday night. He hopped the first flight back to Baltimore and was on the scene before 8 a.m.

Moore’s hasty arrival helped him avoid a pitfall that other political leaders have made — think of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz flying to Cancun when Texas was hit by power outages, or then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio taking a trip to Germany after a police officer was killed.

Moore followed the tried-and-true crisis response for politicians: He met privately with the army of federal and state agencies, and spoke publicly at press conferences and on a round of the Sunday political talk shows. He canceled all other plans and instead offered prayers for the dead, support for the first responders, hope for the state’s future. He dodged questions about racist comments and pressed Congress to put partisanship aside to help pay for the response.

“When I saw how he handled last week, the first thing I saw was empathy and compassion, which is what you need in a crisis,” said Yvette Lewis, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Lewis said she’s been impressed that Moore has been clear that he won’t tolerate nonsense or allow racism or partisanship to interfere in the response to the emergency.

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“That is the governor I hoped he would be, one who doesn’t have time for foolishness,” Lewis said.

Gov. Wes Moore was in Boston when he learned the Key Bridge collapsed. Within hours, he was back in Baltimore, and his team posted pictures of the governor on the scene that morning, including this one. (Courtesy of Gov. Moore's Office/Handout)

Offering empathy and emotion is an important early step for leaders handling a crisis, said Sarah Oates, an expert in political communications and professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The bridge collapse has raised his national profile, potentially helping him if he wants to one day pursue higher office.

Oates said Moore was prepared to be a public communicator, given his background as a best-selling author who appeared on TV numerous times and gave countless speeches before he even got into politics.

“He is someone who can not only think on his feet and respond, but he knows how to respond in a way that the media need,” Oates said. “He does not ramble, he is to the point.”

But Oates also also cautioned that the job only gets tougher.

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“As time goes on, things become more difficult,” Oates said. “In the long term, he’s going to have to weather the storm of all of the cost and disruption that will come out of this.”

Before the bridge collapse, Moore already had a positive approval rating with Maryland voters. A survey released Tuesday from Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner put Moore’s approval rating at 54% with 28% disapproval. About 16% of those polled were unsure of their take on the governor.

The poll of 800 registered voters was conducted from March 19-24 — concluding two days before Marylanders awoke to the news of the bridge collapse and saw their governor all over the news responding to the catastrophe. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The new poll is in line with one conducted at the same time last spring by Goucher and The Banner, when Moore had 53% approval. Other polls have pegged Moore’s approval between 55% and 60%.

Not surprisingly, Moore is viewed more favorably by Democrats (71% approval) than Republicans (59% disapproval). Independent and unaffiliated voters were more split on their governor, giving him 46% approval and 32% disapproval, with 17% undecided.

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Moore, who is Black, had higher approval from Black voters’ — 67% — than white voters — 50%. He also did better in the D.C. suburbs (64% approval) and the greater Baltimore region (53% approval) than on the Eastern Shore, in Southern Maryland and in Western Maryland (46% approval).

Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics, said the poll results show that Moore is on solid footing with Maryland voters. The governor’s highly visible response to the bridge collapse will likely boost his approval rating, she said.

“Nationally, when we see this happen, we se a ‘rally around the flag’ effect,” Kromer said. “There’s no complaints about his leadership. He’s been visible and hands-on, he’s done the right things in the immediate aftermath.”

Kromer said it’s clear that Moore’s military experience — he was an Army captain deployed to Afghanistan in 2005-2006 — is informing his leadership now.

“Leading troops in the middle of a war gives you the same sort of leadership ability when an emergency happens,” Kromer said. “I can’t think of better training than military experience to address this sort of issue.”

William Jackson, a retired Baltimore resident who worked in marketing and took the poll, said Moore “is doing a fine job.”

Jackson, 80, is tapped into Maryland politics and is keeping up with the news regarding the bridge collapse. When watching Moore give an update on the bridge, Jackson said: “Moore did a fine job explaining what they are attempting to do in the aftermath.”

John Clifton, a 58-year-old Republican retiree from Phoenix, said he didn’t approve of Moore because he’s not conservative.

But Clifton said Moore has done a good job with the recovery operations following the bridge collapse.

“I can appreciate the fact that he comes off as he is in control of the situation,” Clifton said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore leaves a news conference in Dundalk on March 26, 2024 after providing updates on the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Moore has been getting praise publicly from both sides of the aisle in Annapolis, as well.

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican whose Baltimore County district is on one side of the bridge, spoke on the Senate floor last week to praise Moore for “making this personal.” Salling noted that that Moore had been in direct contact with local lawmakers.

And unprompted, Del. Adrian Boafo, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, offered in an interview: “It reminds me of why we elected Wes Moore. Everyone was on edge, and he got up and delivered and calmed the state.”

Baltimore Banner reporters Royale Bonds and Jess Nocera contributed to this article.

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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