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 downwards, 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
best-selling, 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 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 resume hits almost every
electoral sweet spot in the Democratic Party: childhood family struggles; Rhodes
Scholarship; glittering military record; best-selling 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. Afterwards, a leading DNC insider who
was in attendance—not normally prone someone 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 fund-raising 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
two-to-one 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 aptly appropriate 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 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 book, 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.