This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for Maryland governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.
The candidate: Wes Moore, combat veteran, author and the former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, a poverty-fighting organization.
Running mate: Former Maryland State Del. Aruna Miller
In a crowded field of Democratic candidates, Wes Moore has racked up a string of key endorsements (including U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Oprah Winfrey), leads in fundraising and is also sitting near the top in a recent Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll.
The candidate, a third-generation Marylander born in Takoma Park, Maryland, who wrote a 2010 autobiography, “The Other Wes Moore,” is the former CEO of the poverty-fighting organization, The Robin Hood Foundation.
Moore, a combat veteran, who describes himself as “data-driven and heart-led,” said his mission running for governor is to aim for a state that leaves nobody behind.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
WTOP: The Blueprint for Maryland, a 10-year plan for overhauling the state’s educational system, is not only becoming a reality, but turning to the heavy lifting. My question to all the candidates is, what will you do to make sure it works? And how do you provide for funding into the future?
Wes Moore: This is at the crux of my “why.” Because when I think about the reason that I got into this race, I know there were two things that saved me. One was a mom who just wouldn’t quit, and the other was an education that truly showed me that the world was bigger than what was just directly in front of me. And throughout my career, I’ve really focused my career on breaking down barriers to education for low-income and first-generation students and helping students to get the skills that they need to secure great paying jobs in the workforce and allow them to create pathways for work, wages and wealth, which really is the North Star for our campaign.
I’m thankful for the fact that we received the endorsement of MSEA (the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union). And really, that’s been because of the work that we’ve done together. The fact that I not only worked on the Blueprint (for Maryland’s Future), but I testified on behalf of it, and worked with countless legislators in the Maryland General Assembly to make sure that we could put that in place. And my commitment as the governor is: I will make sure that it is fully funded. But in partnership, we are going to work together that it is properly implemented.
That is going to mean we are going to have pre-K for every single child in need in the state of Maryland. As a leader, I’m data-driven and heart-led — and the data continues to show that 80% of brain development happens in a child by the time that child is 5 years old. So why do we have children starting school then? Makes absolutely no sense. We’ve got to start earlier. We need to make sure that we are introducing more programs, more platforms for apprenticeship programs and trade programs, so students have a chance at an earlier stage in their academic careers to be able to understand, if they want to go on to be an ironworker or a carpenter or work on HVAC, that they have platforms to do that.
We have to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. And we have to make sure that we are truly tackling disrupted learning and prioritizing students’ social and emotional wellbeing, while also ensuring that we have mental health supports not just for our students, but also for our educators and our para-educators and our ESPs (education support specialists). And we have a unique opportunity to get that done now, because we have new funding that is in place in addition to the fact that we have upwards of a $6 billion structural surplus in the state of Maryland.
We have billions of dollars that are coming from the federal government that are earmarked, $1.9 billion earmarked towards education. And so this gives us a unique opportunity to be able to ensure that we have proper funding in the out years; ensure that we can [have] 21st-century schools and also invest in community schools, which I did when I was CEO of one of the country’s largest poverty-fighting organizations — we invested in 74 community schools. Because it’s not just about curriculum. If we’re not also addressing things like dental care and eye care, and the high propensity of students who are going to school with asthma, we’re going to keep missing the point.
And so you will see that education is a core function of the work that we are looking to do, the work we’re looking to get done over the next decade. And while I will ensure that the blueprint is fully funded, I will work in partnership with our educators and our families to make sure that it’s properly implemented.
WTOP: We’re seeing demands on police departments both to reform and also deal with increased crime. Obviously, the problems within Baltimore City are well documented, but across the state, we’re seeing crimes rise, if not spike. First, do you have concerns about how policing and accountability will be carried out in each jurisdiction, as each county comes up with their own police accountability board?
Moore: We have to ensure that we are going to do both, right? That we are going to ensure that we have a policing force that moves with appropriate intensity and absolute integrity. And we’re going to make sure that all people within the state feel comfortable and safe in their own communities, in their own homes, and in their own skin. And I don’t think we can choose between those two things, we’ve got to be able to do both.
I think that the work that the legislature did last year with criminal justice reform and policing reform was important work and an incredibly important first step … Maryland was the first state to have a Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights. Now Maryland is the first state also to pull it back. And I understand why. There needed to be a way to reevaluate what protections were in place with a Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights; … we needed to ensure that our law enforcement were using body cameras. It’s not just important for the community, but it’s important for law enforcement officers. So there was a lot that happened in that police reform bill, which was really good and important.
And I think it’s important for this next administration, for our administration, to continue to build upon that. It’s also, though, important to understand the unique things that the state can do to be able to address these issues, because when we’re looking at this rise in violence, when we’re looking at this deterioration of public safety that people are feeling — and you’re right, it’s not just Baltimore; I mean, half of the state has seen an increase in homicides over the past four years; over half the state has seen an increase in rape — we’re looking at something that is not an urban issue, not a rural issue, not a suburban issue. We’re watching it across the state of Maryland, and we need to be able to address it with a measure of urgency.
That includes things like fixing a parole and probation system which is functionally broken, when you consider a third of the violent crime that’s taking place within our areas are being done by people who in some way, shape or form are in violation of parole and probation. Well, the important thing to know about that is, that’s a state function. That’s DPP (the Division of Parole & Probation) — and so when you’re looking at understaffing and undermanned departments, it’s easy to see why this issue of parole and probation violations are not getting the proper attention that they need. When you look at what’s happening in juvenile crime — you know, that is something that’s a state function. The Department of Juvenile Services is a state function. And once again, it is understaffed and it is underfunded. And so we’ve got to prioritize, making sure that people feel safe because there is no greater responsibility for any chief executive than the safety of their people. It’s something I take very seriously.
WTOP: How about recruitment and retention? What I’m hearing is anecdotal, but I am hearing from departments, from FOPs, that there’s a serious morale problem within the police departments. How do you attract police officers, knowing that they’re going to be under greater scrutiny?
Moore: Well, we also just need to change this narrative … We fall into this false dichotomy of saying, “Are you pro-police or pro-community?” These binary conversations that we’re having as a society are not just counterproductive; they’re dangerous. And I think it becomes important for us to have a chief executive who’s going to say that we’re going to support those who are choosing to run towards danger. Those who, in situations when the natural human instinct is to move in the other direction, they don’t just have a moral obligation, but they have an actual constitutional obligation to be able to move and support and protect a community. And I think that we have to come up with a way to be unapologetic about celebrating that, knowing that there is going to be accountability that comes along with people who take on that responsibility.
And at the same time, knowing that that is going to be a good thing for our community. Because the reality is — and this is just historic — a police siren has a different pitch, depending on what neighborhood you live in. And we’ve got to be able to wrestle with that; we’ve got to be able to wrestle with that history and that reality, but to know that we are going to support those who are putting their lives on the line for all of us. But knowing that support does not mean “Do what you will.” That support does mean accountability and transparency, and working in partnership, (so) that we can address those recruiting and those retention goals that we’re going to have to hit if we’re going to ensure measurements of public safety within our communities.
WTOP: What specifically in the public safety arena would you do?
Moore: I’m proud of the fact that we have probably the most distinct and, frankly, the most targeted public safety plan inside of the entire field. … We do highlight within our administration, and really, from Day One, what we’re going to do to swiftly and aggressively address gun violence. I applaud what the legislature did around ghost guns. But we can’t stop there. We are going to make sure we’re investing in violence intervention programs. I mean, there are violence-intervention programs that are working distinctly within our community, programs like We Are Us, Safe Streets, Ceasefire … They are doing some of the great work because so much of the violence that we’re seeing in our communities, it’s retaliatory violence, and they are the ones who have the greatest chance of being able to provide intervention.
Programs like We Are Us — do you know how much state funding they receive? Nothing. So we’ve got to make sure we’re investing in our violence-interruption and violence-intervention programs. We’ve got to actually improve reentry, and empower people who are coming home to be a part of our economy and reduce recidivism — 95% of people who are incarcerated are coming home. Right? Only 5% are there for life and long-term sentences. And so if you consider the fact that 95% of people are coming home, and about half of people will end up back in the system within the first three years of release, we know we’ve got a functional problem. And so it is everything about how we’re talking about addressing gun violence; how we’re addressing parole and probation reform; how we’re investing and reinventing violence intervention programs and ways we can support them. And also, how are we focusing on reentry and empowering people who are coming home, so they don’t have to be part of this larger revolving door of the criminal justice system?
Jobs and the economy
WTOP: Transportation is often seen as the thing that drives a company away from this region. So what are your plans on attracting businesses? And then tied into this? I need to ask you about a third span for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. What are your thoughts on that? And I-270 and 495, tolls or no tolls? What do you think?
Moore: When I talk about what are the things that we’ve got to get done over this next decade for the state of Maryland, it really breaks down into three different areas.
We’ve got to make sure that our state is more competitive while also being more equitable — and showing that’s not a binary conversation. We’ve got to close the racial wealth gap, which right now in the state of Maryland is eight to one. And it’s having significant impacts on our economy and our economic growth. And we’ve got to address the issue of climate. And I’m glad you brought up transportation, because that’s actually one of the functions we are going to have to be able to address all three.
You know, recently, I said, “OK, if I’m living in West Baltimore, for example, and I just got a job in Fells Point, which are just a few miles away from each other. How long would it take for me to get to work?” And the answer, taking public transportation, was an hour and 47 minutes. When I was CEO of one of the largest poverty-fighting organizations in this country, we invested tens of millions of dollars in job-training programs. But here’s the reality: If I can’t get to the job, then what’s the point? We have this incredibly Whack-a-Mole approach in the way that we have addressed transportation within our state, where we have a bunch of empty tunnels down in the D.C. suburbs called the Purple Line. And we have a bunch of dreams deferred up in the Baltimore region called the Red Line. We’ve got to do more to invest in public transportation and public transportation assets, and do it in a way that is equitable, and do it in a way that is fair.
And I’m proud of the fact that my running mate (is) Del. Aruna Miller, who is a seasoned and a deeply respected legislator out of Montgomery County and also a transportation and a civil engineer by training … We are going to be moving not just swiftly, but in partnership, to ensure that all of our transportation assets — whether we’re talking about 270 or the Chesapeake Bay expansion, or mass transit — that there’s three different lenses, that we are going to look at every single transportation project.
One is through the lens of equity. And that is both who is building it, and who can benefit from it? …
I’ve said publicly and repeatedly the issue that I have, for example, with HOT lanes, is the fact that there has not been an equity conversation either on who’s building it, or who can benefit from it. And so that immediately puts up a major red flag for me.
The second thing is the environmental concerns. We know that around 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions is coming from cars, from transportation. And so we’ve got to make sure that over this next decade, we’re going to reduce this reliance that we have on greenhouse-gas-emitting vehicles. We’ve got to invest in electrifying the grid. A promise that I have is, by the end of my second term, every single state vehicle will be an electric vehicle. And we are going to invest in transportation assets like green buses and solar buses that can move people around in a way that’s going to be better for the environment.
And then the third lens that we’re gonna make all these decisions on is going to be community involvement and community voice. I’m a big believer in this idea that the people who are closest to the challenge are the ones who are closest to the solutions — they’re just hardly ever at the table. And if you look at some of the challenges that happened with 270 — the fact that all (Maryland State Treasurer Nancy Kopp) was asking for was an environmental impact study. That’s all she was asking for, and didn’t get it because both the governor and the comptroller decided to move forward without that.
And also these decisions that were happening — particularly looking at the structure for the PPP (public-private partnership) — it’s being done without community voice. And so these are things that we have to ensure that when we’re looking at all transportation assets, whether it’s roads and bridges, or whether it’s mass transit, that those three elements — equity, the environment, and community involvement and community voice — are going to be prerequisites for anything that will move in our administration.
WTOP: So what do you think on the tolls?
Moore: That is a no. Especially when you’re looking at this idea of HOT lanes and having something that only a certain percentage of the population can benefit from — it’s something that I have a real challenge with. We have to deal with the issue of congestion, and I understand this idea that people are sitting there and, frankly, hurting the environment, while they’re just sitting there waiting in traffic to move around — we have to address that. But there are other ways to be able to address it, looking at the current footprint — and that’s everything from how we’re talking about reversible lanes to the uses of shoulders. There’s a lot that we can think through on this that, frankly, the process that we’ve gone through to get this done has not been sufficient, nor has it been thoughtful.
WTOP: Now, the last question I’m asking everyone is what in your background makes you the candidate that people should flip that lever for you. And I have to ask — I know you’ve been through the meat grinder here a little bit on everything from BridgeEdU and the way people have introduced you in the past — can you talk a little bit about why you’re uniquely qualified and about those controversies? What should the average voter think about those controversies?
Moore: I’m incredibly proud of the fact that if you look at BridgeEdU, we built a small but successful small business that was supporting first-generation students helping them to make it to and through college; that we were dealing with some of the highest at-risk populations inside of college and increased the retention rates by over 20%; that we served over 600 students. And at a time when African-American-led businesses — 80% of them will fail in the first 18 months — the fact that we built something that was venture-backed, served students, and then had a successful exit, I’m proud of that. And our team is proud of that. And I know that if you speak with students who are involved, they’re proud of the work that they were able to do. … You’re watching these desperate attacks that are being done, because people see the way this campaign is resonating with voters across the state.
The facts of my life are clear: I’m a very proud, third-generation Marylander. And I moved around a lot when I was a child because of trauma, because I watched my father die in front of me when I was 3 years old because he didn’t get the health care that he needed. And I watched my mother who was an immigrant, who was thrust into single motherhood, and didn’t get her first job that gave her benefits after my father died until I was 14 years old. And that job was in Baltimore, at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And that was when I fell in love with Baltimore and built a community here — and 25 years later, this is now the community where my wife and I are raising our children, here in Baltimore City.
And so I think this does go back to this idea of why I believe that we are uniquely ready and qualified to lead. We are the only ticket, myself and my running mate … that has actually led in the executive branch, the legislative branch, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and in the military. That the energy that our campaign is building, the fact that we received the support from everyone from the … local firefighters in Baltimore to the teachers, to having more endorsements by members of the Maryland General Assembly than anyone else, that we’ve received the endorsement of (House Majority Leader) Steny Hoyer.
And the reason that people are backing our campaign is not just because they believe in our vision and our values and they know that we’re going to work in partnership, working across sectors — the private sector, the nonprofit sector, the community — but also, they know we’re uniquely capable of winning. We know that these attacks are also coming from people who know that the playbook on defeating some of some of the other people in this race is clear. And we’re excited that the campaign and the momentum that we have within our campaign is also going to lead us to being successful not just in a primary, but also successful in a general.
WTOP: Now I know you’re proud of your background, and … there are a lot of accomplishments there. But for example, if I were to introduce you as a Bronze Star winner, or born and bred in Baltimore, would you correct me?
Moore: I would correct you. And here’s the thing I think to remember in the hundreds of interviews that I have given: When people on occasion have gotten anything about my bio incorrect, I have corrected people on multiple occasions.
I’m incredibly proud of my decorated combat service. I volunteered to lead soldiers in combat with the elite 82nd Airborne Division, and I served honorably in combat in an elite unit. I have no reason to exaggerate my military experience. I have no reason to exaggerate the fact that I was the first African American Rhodes Scholar in the history of Johns Hopkins University. I have no reason to exaggerate the fact that I led one of the largest poverty-fighting organizations in this country where just in my time as CEO, we allocated north of $650 million and worked with over 1,600 organizations.
And I know that our opponents are trying to portray my politeness in live interviews as somehow being disingenuous or exaggerations. The thing that I know is this: While that is not true and, frankly, again, these are desperate attacks, I also know that in the military, we were taught something — and it was an important mantra that I’ve taken seriously. And that mantra was this: Leave nobody behind, ever. And that’s what this campaign is about. That’s why I’m running. And I’m going to make that the mission for the state of Maryland. We are going to be a state that is not going to leave anybody behind, and I’m not going to let desperate attacks distract me from that.
Interview conducted by Kate Ryan; editing by Jack Moore