Wes Moore bets on Maryland

The former Robin Hood Foundation CEO and gubernatorial hopeful is counting on his charisma to win over Maryland voters

As the former CEO of New York City’s largest anti-poverty nonprofit, Wes Moore stayed loyal to his Maryland roots. So loyal, in fact, that he commuted to Manhattan from Baltimore throughout his four years at the Robin Hood Foundation. Now, Moore, a Democrat, is taking his love for the Old Line State to a new level, having entered the race for governor of Maryland. 

It’s Moore’s first time running for office, and polling indicates that most people in the state have never heard of him. But he is well-known to members of Baltimore’s tight-knit Jewish community: Moore spoke at the annual meeting of The Associated, Baltimore’s Jewish federation, in 2019, and traveled to Israel several years ago with the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. 

“He has a relationship with us, with the broader Jewish community,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the political and community relations arm of The Associated. 

 “I had a chance to see my mom struggle in ways that she didn’t have to. I saw the way that my grandparents were able to sacrifice for their grandchildren, and in many ways give up pieces and parts of their own American dream so I could fulfill my own.”

Moore, 43, joined a crowded field of longtime Maryland politicians running for the state’s top office, looking to reassert Democratic dominance in the state after eight years under the term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. With a compelling personal story and an optimistic outlook, Moore is counting on his charisma to win over supporters. 

“I knew early that I was going to devote my life to public service,” Moore told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “I had a chance to see my mom struggle in ways that she didn’t have to. I saw the way that my grandparents were able to sacrifice for their grandchildren, and in many ways give up pieces and parts of their own American dream so I could fulfill my own.”

Born in Takoma Park, Md., Moore spent much of his childhood in the Bronx with his grandparents — immigrants from Jamaica and Cuba — after his father died. His mother sent him to a military academy as a teenager following several run-ins with the law, an experience that Moore has described as transformative. He went on to attend Johns Hopkins University, and he later earned a Rhodes Scholarship. After serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Moore worked at the State Department as a White House Fellow in the George W. Bush administration and on Wall Street.

“I knew that throughout all those experiences, that I wanted to devote my life to making things a little bit easier for people,” Moore said. He wrote a bestselling 2010 book called The Other Wes Moore, about a friendship he developed with another Black man with the same name, also from Baltimore, who like Moore was raised mainly by his mother — but ultimately ended up in prison with a life sentence for murder. 

“[Moore has] a personal story that comes across really well, and it seems that a lot of people are really excited about him and drawn to him,” said Susan Turnbull, who was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018 and who has not yet endorsed a candidate in the governor’s race. “After four years of Trump and eight years of Hogan, people want to be excited about somebody.”

Sarah Berghorst Executive Director, Onegoal and Wes Moore Ceo, Robin Hood, speak at the Town & Country Philanthropy Series at theMART on November 14, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Town & Country)

The Democratic gubernatorial primary is in June 2022, and the filing deadline for the race is not until January, leaving plenty of time for the dynamics of the race to change in the months ahead. Seven other Democrats have declared that they are running, and several of them have long political histories in the state. 

A poll commissioned by Moore’s campaign found that the leading candidates are current Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. 

Moore was next in third place with just 7% support, and former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez followed with 6%. More than half of voters said they remain undecided, but among the third of voters who had heard of Moore, he was the top candidate. Former state Attorney General Doug Gansler garnered 4% in the poll, and Baltimore tech executive Michael Rosenbaum — who is self-financing his campaign — got 2%. 

“I do think many of the candidates have a long way to go to introduce themselves, not just to the Jewish community, but to the state. It’s early,” said Libit, who noted that his organization will organize forums for the candidates to speak to members of the Baltimore Jewish community. Gansler and Rosenbaum are Jewish. “Franchot, as comptroller, has been supportive of issues in our community and has long relationships” with the Jewish community, Libit added.

One of Moore’s closest friends in Baltimore’s Jewish community is Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, the rabbi at the Conservative Temple Beth Am in Baltimore City. “We met about nine years ago in Jerusalem when he was traveling to Israel with the Weinberg Foundation,” said Burg, who as a spiritual leader does not intend to endorse a candidate in the race. 

“It’s very hard to meet somebody in a one-dimensional box, and he just comes alive because he connects to people so quickly,” said Schrayer, who met Moore for the first time after he entered the race. “A lot of people don’t know him yet, and it’s a very big field. But people are really drawn to him.”

After Moore’s book came out, Burg’s synagogue, which is in a historically Jewish neighborhood that is now majority Black, hosted him for a number of events. A conversation about the bar mitzvah process led to another joint program, after Moore returned from a trip to South Africa inspired by a local tribal custom of adolescent boys spending a week in the bush to mark their official transition to adulthood. 

Together, the pair created “a platform and a program that focused on combining African American young men from West Baltimore, and also Jewish young men who are going through the bar mitzvah process, and saying, ‘What would this look like if we could have this cohesive relationship about what it means to enter into adulthood together?’” Moore recalled. 

Moore’s Jewish base of support is strongest in Baltimore. Darrell Friedman, the longtime former head of The Associated, is a personal friend of Moore’s who plans to “knock on doors, whatever it takes to get someone like Wes Moore into public service,” Friedman told JI. He has already hosted multiple events for Moore in New York City, where he lives now, and said he has heard of similar events being planned in California. 

“We share common values. He stands for everything that I think I stand for, and the Jewish people stand for,” added Friedman. 

Moore’s campaign treasurer, Lissa Muscatine, is the co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington and a former speechwriter for Democratic politicians including Hillary Clinton. Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition and a former AIPAC staffer, has hosted numerous Zoom events to introduce Moore to people in her community in Montgomery County.

“It’s very hard to meet somebody in a one-dimensional box, and he just comes alive because he connects to people so quickly,” said Schrayer, who met Moore for the first time after he entered the race. “A lot of people don’t know him yet, and it’s a very big field. But people are really drawn to him.” 

Wes Moore attends “The Humanity of Connection” New York screening at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 15, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Jeffrey Slavin, the mayor of Somerset, Md., a small town in Montgomery County just over the border from the Friendship Heights neighborhood in Washington, cautioned that Moore might be “better known nationally than he is in Maryland.” Slavin, who is supporting Moore, called him “the next generation who wants to make the world a better place.”  

In the interview with JI, Moore described his campaign as centered on “equity and fairness, and making sure that we’re protecting people and specifically the most vulnerable in many of our societies.” During his tenure at Robin Hood, the organization raised more than $650 million, including $230 million in 2020 to meet the increased need prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“He was very successful in the work that he did,” said David Greenfield, CEO of the New York-based Met Council on Jewish Poverty, a nonprofit that routinely collaborated with Robin Hood. “He was definitely highly respected and admired and was someone who you could just as easily have a beer with as you could discuss some of the most complicated issues around social policy and how to improve America’s social safety net.”

Moore intends to bring his data-driven approach from Robin Hood — which had been honed previously in stints at Deutsche Bank and Citigroup, and at an education-access nonprofit he started — to Annapolis. 

“I think the fact that I’m a very data-driven leader matters,” Moore argued. “I believe that we should have measurements of accountability through the nonprofit sector in the same way we have measurements of accountability throughout all other sectors.”

He expressed a desire to work closely with nonprofit organizations in the state, particularly after the pandemic obliterated the finances of some nonprofits in Maryland. 

“People have to remember that the largest provider for social services in our state are nonprofit organizations. It’s actually not the government. The government funds them,” Moore explained. “We have to make sure that as a state and as local governments, that we are paying them on time, and we are paying them fair value for the work they are providing.” 

But part of what motivated his run for public office was an acknowledgment of the limits of nonprofits.

“Part of the challenge that nonprofits are taking on is the fact that there are systems that are so ruptured that we continue to allow people to fall through the cracks, and nonprofits end up there, picking up the pieces,” said Moore. “Part of the job of the government is to make sure we’re addressing the systems, so we don’t have so many people who are falling through cracks and have this need, where we have our nonprofit organizations who in many cases end up having to clean up the debris that comes from broken systems.”

While at Robin Hood, Moore took a broader approach to fighting poverty than the organization had in the past. “When I became the CEO was the first time that Robin Hood very intentionally was making investments outside of the city of New York,” he said. “One of the first initiatives that we launched when I became the CEO was an initiative called Mobility LABs, which was working on, How are we addressing urban, rural and suburban poverty, and creating economic opportunities?”

This work often centered on Baltimore; the Weinberg Foundation was one of Mobility LABs’s early partners. It has allowed Moore to make the case to Marylanders that he never really left, even though he led a nonprofit focused on New York. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Baltimore City has a poverty rate of 21.2% — one of the highest in the nation — while the poverty rate in the state of Maryland is 9%, the second-best in the country

“Being able to really establish that core connection with the place that is my hometown, and the place where my wife and I are raising our kids, was incredibly important to me,” Moore said. (Moore’s wife, Dawn Moore, served as chief of staff to former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is now a member of Congress representing Prince George’s County.)

One feature of his work with Robin Hood that Moore hopes to bring with him as governor is an ability to study and learn from other municipalities. “There is no part of the country that has the market cornered on poverty nor the market cornered on good ideas, and so we really became a place that wanted to be a best-practice laboratory to understand what was working in other parts of the country and bring it to our localized jurisdiction,” he said. 

Wes Moore at the 2019 Beating the Odds Summit at Howard University on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

One of Moore’s key priorities is education, an issue he worked on earlier in his career as the founder of a company that helps remove barriers to access to higher education for poor students. 

“I think that we have to make sure that we are investing heavily in our public schools and our public school students, and that includes our charter schools, because the things that work need to be scaled, and the things that are not working need to be addressed,” said Moore. 

Since 2016, the state has offered private school vouchers to low-income students through a program called BOOST. When asked if he would support vouchers for parochial schools, Moore noted that the state just fully funded BOOST but did not offer a concrete answer on his policy: “This is something that’s going to be debated again with the legislature, and I just look forward to working with the legislature to come up with the correct answer,” Moore said. “My sole priority when it comes to education in Maryland is making sure that every child has access to a quality education.” 

Although Joe Biden won 65% of the vote in Maryland last year, the state was represented by a Republican governor. “Maryland voters have shown a willingness to consider the candidates regardless of party, so if you think about 12 of the last 36 years, we’ve had Republican governors for a pretty Democratic state,” Libit pointed out. 

“The whole unknown is, what’s Michael Steele going to do?” asked Slavin, the Somerset mayor, referring to the former Maryland lieutenant governor and a former chair of the Republican National Committee who opposed former President Donald Trump from the beginning of his campaign in 2015. Steele is not officially in the race, but has said he is seriously considering a run. “He’s also very charming and all that. I never agreed with his issues, although I was glad he was involved with the Lincoln Project [an anti-Trump PAC], and he’s so anti-Trump,” added Slavin.  

Moore isn’t yet talking about potential Republican candidates, or even his Democratic primary opponents. 

“We got into this race with a clear idea that we as a state just have to move faster, that we have to be bold and deliberate about how we meet this moment, how we meet the challenges that we’ve seen throughout the state,” Moore said. “It’s been very encouraging to see that people in the state feel the same.”

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