Wes Moore, Maryland’s First Black Governor, Is The Real Deal For Democrats

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BALTIMORE — Wes Moore has a resume that not even George Santos on his best day could’ve invented. A single mother raised him in the Bronx. He’s an army vet. He’s a Rhodes scholar and New York Times best-selling author. The list goes on: TV host, nonprofit CEO, banker, entrepreneur, Baltimore resident and booster, husband, father, and a friend of Oprah.

Moore, 44, achieved what’s arguably his biggest accomplishment this week when he became Maryland’s first Black governor and the third Black governor elected nationwide since Reconstruction. Yet, it’s hard not to interpret Moore’s trajectory as calculated career-climbing in service of this very moment and maybe, possibly, one day — but not for another four or eight years, of course — running for president.

But Moore says his only focus right now is governing Maryland. And he means it.

Still, Moore has a way of denying he has loftier ambitions that reinforce the very thing he’s trying to downplay. “I don’t know how anyone could look at what I’ve done and think it was planned out. You don’t plan out the journey,” Moore told HuffPost at his mauve-toned transition office overlooking a misty downtown Baltimore last weekend. “When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, I was definitely not leading them thinking, ‘Man, this is going to be great when one day I run a big nonprofit.’ Or when I was running a business helping first-generation students, I was not there saying, ‘This is going to be awesome when one day I run for governor.’ That’s not how I work.”

Moore’s double-digit win last year against a GOP hardliner who not even the state’s popular retiring Republican governor endorsed cleared a space for Moore on Democrats’ national bench alongside a crop of other ambitious governors: Colorado’s Jared Polis, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, and Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro.

I asked Moore if he’s been in touch with any of his state-level peers. He paused to think about this, then cited his well-known relationship with Deval Patrick, who, as a two-term Massachusetts governor, was the second elected Black governor in the U.S. Between Patrick and Moore was New York’s David Patterson, who took over for the disgraced Eliot Spitzer in 2008. Patterson was also the first blind person sworn-in as governor but was never subsequently elected to a full term.

Moore said he talked to Patrick twice weekly, mainly about the nuts and bolts of setting up his office and transition team. The advice that most stuck with Moore: “You need to move with urgency, but don’t move so fast that you don’t have a chance to look around.”

Even after earning the most votes in Maryland history, Moore has a challenging term ahead that will require appeasing legislative Democrats who spent the last eight years chafing under Republican gubernatorial rule. “The challenge is he really doesn’t have a target for opposition,” said former Maryland GOP Chairman Bruce Poole. “He has a legislature packed with Democrats who have been bottled up with all sorts of ideas for the past eight years and a lot of money on the table. So unfortunately, no matter how much money you have, you’re probably not going to get to what people’s expectations are.”

Wes Moore delivers remarks during his inauguration.
Wes Moore delivers remarks during his inauguration.
Michael A. McCoy for HuffPost

Moore — who has previously described himself as socially liberally and fiscally conservative — has pledged to create ambitious programs to raise wages, train workers and alleviate child poverty, tapping resources in a state he calls “asset rich and strategy poor.” On Thursday, the governor’s first day in office, he released $69 million in allocated spending that had languished under his predecessor, Larry Hogan.

“It’s been a pretty improbable journey,” said Moore, gazing out onto downtown Baltimore from a window in the purple transition office, the cord controlling the shade wrapped tightly around his fist. Moore was talking about his upbringing and discouraging early primary polling that showed him in the single digits with a middling name ID. “I have a pretty remarkable opportunity right now in front of me to do something I’ve been working my whole entire adult life on,” Moore said.

The best way to understand Moore’s adult life is to understand his childhood. His book “The Other Wes Moore” presents Moore’s upbringing alongside that of another Black man named Wes Moore, a Baltimore native serving a life sentence for his role in the murder of a police officer in a jewelry store robbery. The relationship bloomed after the politician read about the other Wes Moore’s crimes in the newspaper. Moore has received some pushback for seeming to falsely suggest in the opening copy that he, too, was born and raised in Baltimore. Moore’s mother only relocated there while Moore was away in school, but Moore has spent much of his adulthood in Charm City.

Wes Moore hugs Oprah Winfrey, who introduced Moore at his inauguration. "I trust you," Winfrey told him during the event.
Wes Moore hugs Oprah Winfrey, who introduced Moore at his inauguration. “I trust you,” Winfrey told him during the event.
Michael A. McCoy for HuffPost

Moore’s story begins in Takoma Park, Maryland. His father, Westley Moore Sr., was a radio news anchor who met his mother, Joy, on the job. When Moore was 3, his father died suddenly of a rare viral infection that caused his windpipe to swell and close. In the aftermath, Moore’s mother moved the family to the Bronx, New York, to live with her parents. Moore’s grandfather, a Jamaican immigrant on his mother’s side, was the first Black minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

Joy struggled to raise Moore and his two sisters in a neighborhood swept up in drugs and violence. “Even the name of the street we walked down — Gun Hill Road — suggested blood sport,” Moore wrote. His mother managed to enroll Moore in a prestigious Bronx private school, but Moore’s behavior was so bad she eventually sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Moore credits the school with unleashing his leadership capacity — an experience seemingly denied to the other Wes Moore.

“I’m decades away from being an 11-year-old kid with handcuffs on my wrists,” Moore said, a line he revisited in his inauguration Wednesday. “And now I’m days away from becoming the governor. I’m kind of playing with house money right now, you know what I mean?“

Moore attended the junior college at Valley Forge before enrolling at Johns Hopkins University. He went on to study at Oxford University, earning a fellowship at the White House, become an investment banker, deploy overseas as captain of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and write several books. The “Other Wes Moore” put Moore on Oprah’s radar. Winfrey promoted the book and tapped Moore to host a show, “Beyond Belief,” on her OWN Network. “I trust you,” Winfrey told Moore in front of thousands Wednesday. “I trust your vision. I trust your leadership.”

Moore also led the Robinhood Foundation, New York’s largest anti-poverty organization, from Baltimore, where five years ago, Moore and his wife, Dawn, who worked for previous Democratic administrations in Annapolis, purchased an 8,000-square-foot home for $2.3 million.

Presidential buzz has followed Moore since his time at Valley Forge. Former classmates told the Washington Post they expected to see Moore in the White House one day. In addition, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, an early mentor, indirectly encouraged this path, urging Moore to apply for the Rhodes scholarship and enter public service.

Thousands of people attended Moore's swearing-in as Maryland's 63rd governor. "The first Black man to be elected governor is awesome," one person said.
Thousands of people attended Moore’s swearing-in as Maryland’s 63rd governor. “The first Black man to be elected governor is awesome,” one person said.
Michael A. McCoy for HuffPost

“Here was someone who was committed to the world’s fight in some aspect, whether that was running for office or having a great corporation that’s going to employ a lot of people and make life better for others,” Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, told HuffPost. “I wasn’t sure that he was interested in elected office. I really thought he would, at some point, be involved in public service. But I strongly encouraged him to also spend some time in the private sector.”

Schmoke described Moore as a “pragmatic optimist” from a young age. “Some of the things he talked about in the early part of his career depressed him. But he couldn’t stay depressed,” Schmoke said. “You know, losing his father, not doing very well in school initially, having to live with his grandparents — for some people, those negative factors they don’t overcome.”

If there’s a criticism to be made of the “Other Wes Moore,” it’s that Moore doesn’t draw his own conclusions about why one Wes Moore thrived while the other didn’t. However, observers of Moore’s life point to his college-educated mother, a relentlessly hard worker with a strong support system in place following her husband’s death. Moore credits his mother with inspiring him to enter public service.

Moore's inauguration was a historic event for many.
Moore’s inauguration was a historic event for many.
Michael A. McCoy for HuffPost

“I just saw how my mom went through this whole spiraling of struggles that for years was just really unfair, so I knew these were the issues that I wanted to work on in my life,” Moore said. “Where the military was really helpful to me is it taught me to be a leader. In the military, they’re intentional about putting you in charge of something small and then having this graduated sense of responsibility, which I think I really needed because you realize there’s an addiction to it. I wanted that. I wanted to be the person who, at the end of the day, has to make the tough decision and then get up the next morning and make another one.”

Moore’s inauguration in Annapolis drew thousands of people who wanted to witness the historic swearing-in of Maryland’s first Black governor. “We’ve lived in Maryland a majority of my life, and it’s wonderful to see the diversity, the change, and the progress Maryland has made,” said Edward Martin, a retired educator who told me he was a cousin of Moore’s father.

“It’s historic,” said Lorna Forde, a 64-year-old entrepreneur. “The first Black man to be elected governor is awesome. People of color they’re subjected to so much, and it’s not always positive. To have an event like this, where you have someone who looks like you being in the highest office in the state — there’s just no feeling that can describe it.”

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