Corporate interests trash Ben Jealous and progressive hopefuls in Md., D.C.
Unions, especially the Communication Workers and the Nurses, are out campaigning for Ben Jealous for the Maryland governorship. Anti-union corporate interests have targeted him and other progressives in Maryland and DC for defeat. | Paul Sancya/AP

WASHINGTON—Question: What do Democratic candidates Ben Jealous and Marc Ehrlich in Maryland and Elissa Silverman in Washington, D.C., have in common? Answer: They’re progressive hopefuls – challenger Jealous, open-seat seeker Ehrlich and incumbent Silverman – seeking high-profile posts and targeted by corporate interests and their political puppets for oblivion at the polls on Nov. 6.

And they’re targeted all because the three, including former Washington-Baltimore News Guild member Silverman, an independent, stand up for workers.

The three are involved in the only really contested races in the Maryland-D.C. area this fall, for the Maryland governorship, for Montgomery County (Md.) County Executive and for one of two at-large seats on the Washington City Council. (In the entire D.C. area, the real action is in Virginia.)

All the other races in both D.C. and Maryland are generally snorers: Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and down-ballot Democrats lead opinion polls by decent-to-enormous margins over underfunded and little-known GOP challengers in normally blue Maryland.

Ditto for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city council members in heavily Democratic D.C., where the mayor is equivalent to a governor and the council is the legislature.

Jealous, who comes from a union family and who openly declares his support for workers, unions and their allies, is the heavy underdog in the Maryland gubernatorial race against incumbent Republican Larry Hogan.

“What we’re trying to prove is that we can talk about poverty, criminal justice reform, paying teachers enough – and giving voters a reason to vote for something,” he told a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference.

Hogan has a “moderate” image but huge business backing. In his first run, four years ago, he catered to rural interests and to leaning-Republican Baltimore County, defeating then-Lieut. Gov. Anthony Brown (D). Brown, like Jealous — a former head of the national NAACP — is African-American, and Brown led pre-election polls. Jealous doesn’t.

The Communications Workers and National Nurses United got behind Jealous months before the 7-way Democratic primary. The Maryland AFL-CIO stayed neutral but endorsed him after he clobbered the establishment favorite, Rushern Baker, in the primary. Unionists undertook heavy precinct walking for Jealous in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

“You’re not supposed to mention unions south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Jealous said during the discussion with the other two African-American Democratic gubernatorial nominees at the CBC.

He does. His mother, Jealous explained, had a unionized job with the Baltimore school system. It let her and his father make enough money to get him out of the projects of West Baltimore, through college and – due to his brains – a Rhodes Scholarship. “But when you’re from West Baltimore, you never forget where you came from,” he added.

Except Baker and the state AFL-CIO, the Democratic establishment is sitting on its hands in the Jealous race. “The establishment first tried to disown me from my own state,” Jealous said.  That’s because he had to live with his father out of state: When he was born, Maryland banned whites (his father) and African-Americans (his mother) from marrying. He shuttled to his mother during school vacations in summer.

The national AFL-CIO left Jealous off its list of winnable races involving African-Americans, so it didn’t cut radio ads or print leaflets for him. President Richard Trumka said it turned over responsibility for supporting the Jealous-Hogan race to the A. Philip Randolph Institute, one of the AFL-CIO’s two constituency groups for African-Americans, along with the Maryland AFL-CIO and local unions.

CWA and NNU made their pro-Jealous stands clear long before the Maryland primary earlier this year, citing his support of progressive issues such as the Fight for 15 and a union, Medicare for All, workers’ rights and raising the minimum wage.

“As nurses, we see the devastating effects of a deeply flawed healthcare system on our patients every day,” said Sandy Falwell, RN, an NNU vice president and head of its Maryland affiliate. Jealous “shares nurses’ vision of a single payer/Medicare for All healthcare system that provides all Marylanders with the quality care they need, and because he shares nurses’ values of caring, compassion, and community.”

CWA Local 2108 Chief Steward Tamera Nelson told the union’s endorsement event that Jealous’s priorities, “are the same as the priorities of union members and other working people in Maryland: Good jobs with benefits and a future, affordable college for our kids, and higher wages including supporting the Fight for $15.”

“Jealous doesn’t just talk the talk – he walks the walk. He showed up to show support during workers’ 49-day strike at Verizon.”

NNU, the Washington Teachers Union and Service Employees Local 32BJ are also all-in for Silverman – who, along with Ehrlich, is a particular target of the business community. He’s also a particular friend of workers and unions, which earned him the ire of The Washington Post.

The paper’s endorsement carries particular weight in down-ballot races, such as those three, where the voters have fewer sources of independent information. And the Post has slammed Ehrlich, Jealous and Silverman, a former Post reporter and political columnist for the City Paper, an alternative weekly.

The Post virtually called Ehrlich, a county council member, a stooge for unions, and instead plumped for fellow council member Nancy Floreen, running as an independent, with backing from developers and highway builders – and opposition to unions and to mass transit. An asphalt lobbyist manages her drive.

“I am proud of standing with working people and proud to have championed minimum wage increases twice,” Ehrlich retorted in a Nov. 3 reply letter to the paper. “Raising the minimum wage lifts families out of poverty,” he said. That’s important in Maryland’s largest – one million people – and increasingly diverse county.

“Unions also worked with the council to pass the sick and safe leave bill. I also stand by our bill that gives raises to the people who pick up our trash, to address the realities of increasing costs for them and their families,” Ehrlich said.

Some Democrats fear Floreen could siphon enough votes to hand the county’s top post to Republican Robin Ficker, a rabble-rousing right-winger – and something of a crank — who won his first two elections in 1978 and 1980 for the state House and has lost 38 straight races for various offices in the years since. But his term limits initiative, which voters OKd two years ago, led to this year’s free-for-all.

The Post saved particular vitriol for its former reporter, Silverman, who used her inquisitiveness and reportorial skills on the council to hold Bowser’s administration to account on scandals ranging from no-bid contracts to Bowser allies to massive cost overruns in school construction. Bowser also has strained relations, at best, with the influential Washington Teachers Union, an African-American bulwark.

In response, Bowser launched a personal vendetta against Silverman, putting up one challenger to her and then, when that one was thrown off the ballot for fake petition signatures, endorsing and raising tons of money for another, business owner Dionne Reeder. Business interests promptly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, at Bowser’s request, for Reeder and against Silverman.

The particular target of their ire: Silverman’s outspoken championing of both paid leave and raising tipped workers, over time, to the citywide minimum wage, and eventually to $15 an hour. Silverman wears those fights – along with other pro-worker causes – as badges of honor.

“Elissa doesn’t accept campaign contributions from corporations or PACs,” says city Attorney General Karl Racine (D), who is coasting to re-election. “She listens to the concerns of D.C. residents and local businesses and turns those into effective policy. And Elissa believes we shouldn’t be writing blank checks to wealthy developers and contractors.”

“Our tax dollars should fund projects that will help solve our housing crisis” where the city is becoming unaffordable for working-class and middle-class people “and eliminate food and retail deserts,” he says.

There’s one more undercurrent: Race. Silverman is white; Reeder is African-American. D.C. used to be majority-black. Now blacks are a plurality, with whites, Latinos and overall population rising. That causes resentment, especially since the council is evenly split racially. And Silverman admits that during her first term, she hasn’t reached out as much as she should have to the African-American community.

Silverman adds one more issue: The schools. Test scores are rising – although there are questions about administrators falsifying some results and there is still an enormous gap between white and African-American students. “That’s why I ask the tough questions, to make sure we have the right strategies and resources in place so teachers can teach and students can learn,” she said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.