Can Ben Jealous win in Maryland and point the way forward for Democrats?

BALTIMORE —  On a cloudy summer evening in the Park Heights neighborhood in West Baltimore, about 100 people mill about an elementary school yard. They are drawn by free food, raffles and the presence of community groups who have set up shop as part of National Night Out, a nationwide series of events designed to promote public safety and violence prevention.

They are not there for politics, but Ben Jealous is here anyway.

The former NAACP president turned Maryland gubernatorial candidate makes his way through the crowd, shaking hands in a city that his family has lived in for more than 80 years. His presence brings a jolt of energy to a rainy evening and his banter with residents feels less like that of a politician schmoozing voters than of old friends reuniting.

“I know what it takes for a family to go, in a generation, from raising a child in the projects in West Baltimore, to saying goodbye to a child going off to Oxford University [on a Rhodes Scholarship],” he said. “You have to create a context where hard work is enough.”

In the car to the next National Night Out event located a few miles away, Jealous describes visiting family in the area growing up, when the houses had a fresher coat of paint and their original marble steps were still in place. Those days have long since passed, and West Baltimore has only nudged its way into the national consciousness through reruns of The Wire or when an article appears on the anniversary of protests sparked by Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody, which occurred in the Gilmor Homes housing project just blocks away from Park Heights.

Residents say they appreciate Jealous’ visit to their community, which tends to be ignored by the state’s political machine.

“On a very basic level, it shows a level of interest and affirming … that Baltimore is an important part of the state overall,” said Monica Watkins, president of the Baltimore alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which helped organize the event in Park Heights.

But the race he entered has the potential to turn messy. A half dozen Democrats have already thrown their hats in the ring, and other prominent state figures are weighing a run, enticed by a political climate favorable to Democrats, especially in true-blue Maryland.

But there’s also the matter of incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who enjoys a 65 percent approval rating, according to a March Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. This despite the…

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