The roughly three dozen adults at a Sunday afternoon pre-Halloween arts festival in a parking lot in Suitland, Maryland, weren’t expecting a speech. It was more than enough that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore—on the cusp of a likely landslide victory that could make him only the third Black elected governor in U.S. history—cared enough to come and chat with them individually about affordable housing, mental health services, and shared college fraternities.
Handed a microphone by an emcee wearing a black-and-white cow costume, Moore delivered a short speech that transcended the routine. Looking out at the largely Black crowd, Moore said that he was asking for something beyond their votes. “The other half is this,” he explained, “keep loving each other. Keep taking care of each other. Keep leading with a core understanding … that you are the human embodiment of everything that came before—[that] our ancestors fought for.”
The 44-year-old Wes Moore may well be the most important first-time candidate on the ballot this year who isn’t receiving much national coverage. It is hard to squeeze much breathless drama out of race in which Moore leads his Trump-loving, right-wing challenger, Dan Cox, by a better than 2-to-1 margin, according to a late-October Baltimore Sun poll. Outgoing moderate two-term GOP Governor Larry Hogan has not only refused to endorse Cox but has called him a “QAnon whack job.”
Part of Moore’s appeal lies in his touch-every-base life history: Raised in the South Bronx by a widowed mother in the middle of the crack epidemic, Moore hung around with apprentice drug dealers, was handcuffed by the police for spray-painting graffiti, and only attended school sporadically. As his young life spiraled downward, Moore was saved by being sent by his mother to an expensive military academy when he was 13. After obtaining a junior college degree, he transferred to Johns Hopkins University, where he won a Rhodes scholarship. He served two years in the paratroops in Afghanistan before becoming a White House fellow.
In 2010, he published the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, linking his life to another Baltimore resident who shared his name but had landed a life in prison sentence after killing an off-duty police officer. As Moore writes about himself and his namesake, “This book is meant to show how, for those of us who live in the most precarious places in the country, our destinies can be determined by a single stumble down the wrong path, or a tentative step down the right one.” Before entering the crowded Maryland gubernatorial primary last year, Moore served as CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, a leading anti-poverty organization largely funded by hedge fund billionaires.
Moore’s résumé hits almost every electoral sweet spot in the Democratic Party: childhood family struggles, Rhodes scholarship, glittering military record, bestselling book, and using private-sector resources to fight poverty. About all that is missing is Donald Trump screaming about Moore’s birth certificate. Moore has become a favorite of the White House with Kamala Harris campaigning for him in late October and Joe Biden scheduled to come to Maryland for an election eve get-out-the-vote rally. The commitment is entirely symbolic, since no one worries about Maryland going Republican even if things turn dire for Democrats elsewhere next week. Adding to his aura, Moore was invited to speak to the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting where he, as a veteran, urged the party not to cede patriotism to the Republicans as a political issue. Afterward, a leading DNC insider who was in attendance—not normally someone prone to gush—described Moore to me as “a future president.”
Ironically, Moore’s major rival in the hard-fought gubernatorial primary—which he narrowly won by 15,000 votes—was former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who chaired the DNC until Joe Biden’s inauguration. It was a race decided far more on charisma than major divergences on issues, with Moore boosted by Oprah Winfrey’s fundraising help and a key endorsement by Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader who is a revered figure in Maryland Democratic politics.
The months since he secured his party’s nomination in August have been heady days for Moore, as a general election victory seems assured and he doesn’t yet face the responsibilities of actually governing. In the campaign he has stressed a few visionary ideas (most notably, a $100 million plan for a trust fund for Maryland children born into poverty), but most of his agenda reflects the mainstream of the Democratic Party. With Hogan leaving office with a 70 percent approval rating, Maryland is a rare state where a change from a Republican to a Democratic governor does not require a head-spinning shift in policy priorities. In fact, Moore almost never directly mentions the incumbent governor in his campaign speeches.
The governing arrangements in Maryland under Hogan have been idiosyncratic with the Democrats holding 2-to-1 majorities in both houses of the legislature. The Republican governor has freely wielded his veto (rejecting, this year, bills protecting renters from eviction, liberalizing absentee ballot rules, and offering a tax break to union members) but sometimes has been overridden by the lopsided Democratic legislative majorities. While Moore’s policies are decidedly liberal, there is little sense that he aspires to be the East Coast version of Gavin Newsom.
After the arts festival and a wan rally for the entire statewide Democratic ticket, I interviewed Moore aboard his campaign bus—emblazoned with the repurposed military mantra, “Leave No One Behind.” We sat across from each other at a table as Moore wore an Under Armour pullover inscribed with the apt slogan, “Humble and Hungry.”
Trying to get beneath Moore’s veneer of coiled confidence, I asked him if there was something he wished he had spent six months learning before becoming governor. It was the kind of question where a safe answer might have been conversational Spanish or city planning.
Instead, Moore went off in surprising directions. “There’s nothing really on the policy front, because I feel like the policy stuff is what I’ve been doing all my life,” he said flatly. The candidate then veered into talking about his 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter as he brooded, “You can’t prepare your family enough for the thing that is politics and being in the public eye.”
All this was a prelude to Moore saying, “Let’s not forget what is at stake in this moment. And what happens not just if we get it wrong, but if we get it right? And that’s the thing, I think, that really has been exciting for the family as a whole—what could happen if we get it right in the moment?”
In his book, Moore credits three-term Baltimore reform Mayor Kurt Schmoke, for whom he interned, for encouraging him in the late 1990s to apply for a Rhodes scholarship. But what stands out is Moore’s portrait of a beaten-down Schmoke as “a former boy wonder who is now a seasoned and slightly cynical leader.” As anyone who has seen The Wire knows, this is the price of caring about Baltimore, a troubled city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation.
The national reputation of a Democratic governor in Maryland will largely rise and fall with what happens in Baltimore. “I’m going in with a real appreciation that Baltimore needs a partner—and we haven’t had that,” said Moore, who lives in the city. He went on to acknowledge, “I know that … we are going to have to think creatively about all the things that make a city thrive. It means that we’re going to have to focus on public safety. And that means getting and keeping these violent offenders off our streets. And keeping illegal guns out of the community.”
I keep harking back to The Other Wes Moore because—like Barack Obama’s first memoir, Dreams From My Father—it is the rare book by a political figure that was written without nervous aides sanitizing every sentence. (As authors, Obama and Moore were too young to have staff.) It is also a rare book by a Democrat extolling Valley Forge Military Academy, which Moore attended with money his grandparents scrounged from their home equity. As Moore writes of his transition from Bronx kid to uniformed cadet, “My mother had noticed the way I had changed since leaving for military school. My back stood straight, and my sentences ended with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’”
Intrigued by his life experience, I asked Moore whether he would have eventually pulled his life together without military school. “The honest answer is, I don’t know,” Moore said, after pausing in thought for a few seconds. Moments later, he added, “The book was about how thin that line is between our life and someone else’s life. How opportunity is readily available to some and just miserly apportioned to others.”
The moral for Moore is that “opportunities in life should not come down to luck. Luck should not be a prerequisite for success.… And so the thing that I fight for in the society that I want is that I do not want opportunity apportioned by luck.” Now hard work, discipline, and—yes—luck have given Wes Moore the opportunity to shine as a governor in the shadow of Washington.