Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous—who during this year’s primary was critical of the package of incentives offered to Amazon to attract its second headquarters to Montgomery County—pledged late Monday to honor the deal if elected the state’s chief executive next month.
“We have to have stability in our economy, and business leaders need to be able to make plans and expect they’ll be respected,” Jealous said in an interview at the end of a day of campaigning in Montgomery County.
Jealous did take a swipe at what he regards as a lack of transparency regarding commitments made by the state and the county to attract Amazon. “My biggest issue with the Amazon deal is that no one knows what’s in it. A Freedom of Information request came back, and every word was blacked out,” he complained, while hastening to add, “With that said, as the next governor of Maryland, I will respect any deal that this governor cuts.”
Jealous’ comments come as County Executive Ike Leggett has refrained from endorsing Jealous, who trails Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in public opinion polls with barely five weeks to go until the Nov. 6 election. In comments following Jealous’ June primary win, Leggett expressed reservations not only about Jealous’ stance on Amazon—but also about whether the nominee’s proposals for tax increases and changes in state school funding could negatively affect Montgomery.
Jealous on Monday indicated that he opposed proposals floated in the past to reduce state education aid to Montgomery County and distribute it to less affluent areas. ”I’ve been very clear we will make sure that everything we do benefits Montgomery County,” said Jealous, who noted that his two children currently attend Montgomery County public schools.
At the same time, he strongly a defended his plan to raise state income tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Marylanders—a proposal that would fall disproportionately on Montgomery County, where about 40 percent of the state’s residents in this income category live. “The richest 1 percent of income earners—people making more than a half million dollars a year individually—have received 27 percent of Donald Trump’s tax cuts, further expanding the gap in our society between the richest 1 percent and the rest of us,” he said.
During the primary campaign, Jealous criticized the Amazon incentives legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Hogan as a product of “fundamentally bad negotiation,” and said the money would be better spent on new business startups. He also suggested at the time that the neighboring jurisdictions of Virginia and Washington, D.C, stood to benefit the most if Amazon located in Montgomery County.
On Monday, Jealous reiterated that if Amazon—which is expected to make a decision on where to locate its second headquarters after the election—comes to Maryland, he would “really look at ways in which D.C. and Virginia will likely benefit from the deal, and ask them to pay their fair share, too.”
According to estimates by legislative analysts, the Amazon measure passed by the General Assembly contains in excess of $5 billion in tax breaks for the company, not including about $2 billion in infrastructure improvements to which the state has committed. “My understanding is that the leaders of Virginia, D.C. and Maryland have an understanding that should it come anywhere in the D.C. area, they’ll all get together and figure out how to share the burden and the costs in an equitable ways,” Jealous said.
Asked whether he was referring to the costs of infrastructure improvements—such as roads, transit and schools—that would be required, Jealous said: “Yes. We just need to look at the blessings and the burdens—and make sure that the burdens line up with the blessings appropriately. It’s not fair for three states to get the blessings—and only one state to get the burdens.”
Jealous, who worked for a California-based venture capital fund after his 2008-2013 stint as president of the national NAACP, also touted his efforts to attract other major employers to the area. “I brought Alphabet [Google’s parent company] to tour the Montgomery County/Prince George’s region as a place for possible expansion, based purely on the strengths of the region,” he said. “So I will be very focused on building a more robust Montgomery County. Montgomery County is one of the great engines of our state.”
Defending his proposal to increase taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of Marylanders—similar to a 2012 tax hike pushed through by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, which affected Montgomery County in disproportion to its 17 percent of the state’s overall population—Jealous said: “What I have proposed is that we make our community colleges tuition free, and that we pay for it by requiring the wealthiest 1 percent to pay 1 percent more. Again, their pockets are much heavier now than they were a few years ago, thanks to Donald Trump’s tax cut. And when we succeed in building an economy that lifts all boats in Maryland, they will do even better still.”
Declared Jealous: “It was free public higher education that allowed my family, particularly my grandparents and my mom, to get out of the public housing projects and tenements of West Baltimore. So I make no apologies for wanting to ensure that we end this massive student debt crisis, and that millennials and Generation Xers—and anyone seeking to retrain now—get the same deal now that the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation got then.”
With regard to elementary and secondary education, Jealous during his successful primary campaign said he would “fully implement—and if necessary, strengthen—the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission by passing a fair funding formula and policy plan in the 2019 General Assembly session.”
The deliberations of the commission, which is headed by former University of Maryland System Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, has created nervousness in Montgomery County, in part arising out of a 2016 report presented to it that included cuts to the county’s schools as part of changes in state education aid formulas.
Asked whether he would oppose cuts to current school aid levels for Montgomery or other jurisdictions in the state as part of any Kirwan Commission recommendations to be considered by the legislature, Jealous said: “Certainly. We have schools in every county that are struggling because of insufficient funding from the state level.”
He added: “I’ve always been confident that, given Rich Madaleno’s role in the Kirwan commission—[Rich] is someone for whom I have great respect—and the fact that Montgomery County leaders are on multiple key committees through which the recommendations will have to pass, that the ultimate plan that is produced as a result will be fair to Montgomery County.” Madaleno, a state senator from Kensington, was part of a six-way Democratic primary from which Jealous emerged victorious on June 26.
Asked whether he expects to receive Leggett’s endorsement prior to Election Day, Jealous replied: “Ike is an old friend. We had a thorough conversation, and I’m confident that my old friend will ultimately announce his support of our campaign—and, when he does, I hope that you will cover it.”
Leggett, who like many leading state Democrats backed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker during the primary, could not immediately be reached for comment.
On a day in which the Jealous gave speeches to a Montgomery County Democratic Woman’s Club luncheon in Chevy Chase and later to the Leisure World Democratic Club—as he promoted a newly issued endorsement from former President Barack Obama—the challenges facing Jealous’ uphill challenge to Hogan were also in evidence.
After finishing his speech to the Woman’s Democratic Club, his first question was from a member of the audience who noted: “I’ve had lots of conversations with friends of mine who are dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, and they are going to vote for Larry Hogan.” Her friends, she related, said they would not vote for Jealous “because he’s going to do exactly what Gov. O’Malley did, and he’s going to raise taxes.” She also said her friends were reluctant to support Jealous because “where’s his campaign?’ ”
Responded Jealous: “On the tax question … the answer is simply this—under a Jealous administration, your health care costs will be lower, the sales tax, which is the most regressive tax in Maryland will be lower—and Walmart and hedge fund managers will pay their fair share, too.”
But he also acknowledged that, from a standpoint of campaign strategy, he was faced with challenges unlike the past two Democratic governors—O’Malley and Parris Glendening—who emerged from uncontested or relatively lightly contested primary contests before facing a general election battle.
“We have had to do both—come through a crowded primary, where we spent every dollar to win it, and then go up against a well-funded incumbent,” conceded Jealous. “We cannot find a Democrat who has been elected governor of the state who has ever had to do [that.]. What does that mean? We spent every dollar [in the primary] and now we are raising up dollars while he [Hogan] is unloading on us.” Campaign finance disclosure reports filed in late August showed Hogan with a $9 million advantage over Jealous in available campaign funds.
“Here’s the rub—only 75 percent of Democrats know who we are and only 70 percent of Maryland voters [do],” he continued. “And what that means is our money has to be spent as efficiently as possible on getting people to know us—which means we have to spend it on television ads.” He said that a major TV ad effort would be running in the Washington market starting “in the next week” for the balance of the campaign.
He added to the audience of party activists, “But it does mean we have less money for yard signs than you might expect. We didn’t have yard signs because of a glitch at the printer until two days before the primary—and we won by 10 points. So it proved the old adage in politics that yard signs don’t vote.
“What’s important is that we get those ads up, and we raise the money to do that.”