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The Washington Post’s Campaign to Keep a Republican in the Maryland Governor’s Office

Ben Jealous faces stiff competition in Maryland's gubernatorial race and not just from incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The Washington Post – which dominates D.C.’s media landscape – has set its sights on defeating Jealous.

In 1966 Ann Todd and Fred Jealous couldn’t get married in their home state of Maryland because they were an interracial couple. Five decades later their son Ben Jealous is the Democratic nominee for Maryland governor.

If Jealous wins in November he will become Maryland’s first African-American governor, and the nation’s third-ever elected black governor. (Jealous hopes to share this latter distinction with fellow Democrats Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia, who would also be the first-ever black woman governor.) There are presently no black governors in office.

Jealous, the former and youngest-ever head of the NAACP, faces stiff competition, and not just from incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The Washington Post – which dominates D.C.’s media landscape, including vote-rich Maryland suburbs in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties – has set its sights on defeating Jealous.

This may seem bizarre. Why would the Post throw its weight behind a Republican instead of an historic candidate like Jealous? Especially when the Post’s aggressive reporting on President Trump has led to record-breaking readership and heaps of praise from Democrats.

But the Post’s resistance to Trump is a mirage, and the paper’s politics remain far from progressive.

Once Trump isn’t around, what will be left for the Post to resist? Surely not war, the Post supports all of them. Not climate change, where the paper’s record is mixed at best and includes support for both fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline. And not inequality, as the Post is owned by the richest man alive, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Like Amazon, the Post is anti-union– that is, against workers collectively organizing to improve their lot, an essential tool in addressing inequality.

It’s these stances – along with the Post’s record of targeting candidates with strong African-American and progressive support – that help explain the paper’s backing of Hogan and over-the-top opposition to Jealous (who I am supporting). Still, the extent to which the Post is willing to go to sway the election is surprising. 

‘The Un-Trump Republican’

The results from Jealous’s stunning victory in the Democratic primary were barely in when the Post reported that many Democrats “appeared inclined to back Hogan this fall.”

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Maryland has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, so Hogan needs strong Democratic support to win reelection; and the Post is determined to see that he gets it.

Hogan, the Post explains, is widely admired for his “winning personality” and “personal appeal.” He’s just a regular guy who is “real down-to-earth,” “follows his gut” and “knows his way around a barroom.”

With fawning coverage like this it’s unsurprising that Hogan is “astonishingly,” “stunningly” and “hugely” popular, as the Post tells it. (The word “popular” is used so much one reader asked if the Post had exchanged it for Hogan’s first name.)

Still, there’s a possibility of Hogan losing, particularly with Trump so unpopular in deep-blue Maryland. That’s why the Post tells readers the governor is not only popular but also “centrist” and “moderate.” He’s “pretty much the opposite of Trump” – “The Un-Trump Republican.”

Hogan didn’t support Trump’s candidacy and has distanced himself from a number of the president’s harsher policies. (He’s even offering $8.5 billion in public goodies to get Amazon – a company regularly in Trump’s crosshairs – to locate its second headquarters in Maryland.) But Hogan and Trump actually have quite a bit in common.

Like Trump, Hogan has an eponymous real estate company which he refuses to place in a blind trust but instead placed in a trust run by a family member (his brother Timothy Hogan). Since Hogan took office in 2015, Hogan Companies – which has done over $2 billion in deals since its 1985 founding – has entered into many new contracts and made the governor a tidy $2.4 million, on top of his $180,000 salary, the Baltimore Sun reports. (The Post continues to turn a blind eye to this arrangement.)

Hogan doesn’t just have Trump-like business practices, he also shares the president’s approach to those he disagrees with.

When Maryland’s teachers union objected to Hogan withholding funds from public schools while freeing up money for private schools, Hogan called them “thugs.” When Maryland legislators sought to trim the governor’s powers, Hogan accused them of being like college kids on spring break. “They come here for a few weeks,” Hogan said, and “start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.”

On his official Facebook page Hogan banned users and deleted their comments if they questioned his policies, prompting an ACLU lawsuit. Among the 450 banned users were those calling on Hogan to condemn Trump’s Muslim travel ban (which the governor declined to do).

Meanwhile Hogan was quick to go after two teen suspects accused of raping a 14-year-old girl at a Montgomery County high school. The rape charges against the teens were dropped, but not before Hogan used their immigration status to help kill a ‘sanctuary city’ bill before the state legislature. (The Post tried to put a positive spin on this.)

Soon after, Hogan doubled down, writing in a fundraising letter, “Let me be very clear: we cannot allow Maryland to become a sanctuary state.” He called on supporters to “help me push back against a far left agenda and the worst instincts of an increasingly liberal and out-of-touch State Legislature.”

In addition to downplaying Hogan’s similarities to Trump, the Post also gives short shrift to the governor’s policies. And for good reason: they’re unpopular. But the Post tells readers Marylanders “like him anyway” and “appear willing to overlook such policy differences.”

What’s behind this Hogan anomaly, which allows the governor to remain popular despite his disliked policies?

The Post claims Hogan is single-handedly pulling this off. He’s so good that he’s somehow “inoculating himself” from Democratic backlash against Trump. “It’s as if he has a cloaking device or something,” the Post quotes a Maryland professor as saying.

But the Hogan anomaly is actually the predictable result of the Post’s coverage, which buries his disliked platform under mounds of accolades. What’s not to like about a “a frustrated Everyman”?

Meanwhile the Post’s reporting on Jealous has a decidedly different tone.

‘The Coup Leader’

Ben Jealous’s platform – which includes a $15 an hour minimum wage, single-payer health care and free state college tuition – is liked by Marylanders. So the Post downplays these policies (which it opposes), and paints Jealous as a “coup leader” who is too radical to vote for.

Jealous’s “left-wing advance” is “irresponsible” and “anything but… centrist,” the Post tells readers. His “craven,” “reckless” “left-wing platform” will “blow a Chesapeake Bay-sized hole in the state budget.”

When Jealous outlined how he will fund his policies, the Post unabashedly steered voters away from him:

“To pay for it all, Mr. Jealous would soak the rich — read: Montgomery County — by raising taxes on the top 1 percent of taxpayers; legalize and tax marijuana; and slash spending on roads (by building fewer of them) and prisons (by overhauling the criminal-justice system).”

If you peer through the Post’s vitriol, what’s left is a popular platform funded in part by taxing the wealthiest. Instead of conveying this the Post distracts readers by hyping up how Jealous is creating “upheaval” among Democrats.

Until Jealous’s “insurgency” the Maryland Democratic Party was one big happy family, according to the Post. Now there’s “intraparty tension” and “a fissure between the party’s establishment wing and the restive, left-leaning faction.”

A Post reader took issue with this “misleading” characterization, calling it a setup to “rationalize a ‘Democrats for Hogan’ movement” – which certainly appears to be the Post’s goal.

As another reader points out, “The ‘Democrats for Hogan’ are mostly older, white men.” But what these old white guys lack in numbers and diversity they make up for in press coverage. The Post seems to have a standing offer to Maryland Democrats: ‘Praise Hogan or attack Jealous and we’ll put you in the paper.’

Meanwhile the Post is eagerly investigating whether Jealous is a socialist. This one shouldn’t take long to sort out since Jealous has repeatedly said, “I’m a venture capitalist, not a socialist.” But the Post keeps at it, turning this line of questioning into a line of attack. Anytime the Post can put “socialist” and “Jealous” in the same sentence it helps push moderate Democrats into Hogan’s warm, “bipartisan” embrace.

When it comes to Jealous’s secret socialism the Post and Hogan are on the same page. The Republican Governors Association – where Hogan serves as vice-chairman – has already spent over $1.4 million on TV ads attacking Jealous, including one ad that quotes him as saying, “Go ahead, call me a socialist,” but leaves off the second part of his statement: “That doesn’t change the fact I’m a venture capitalist.”

At an August press conference a Post reporter followed up on the Republicans’ false ad by again asking Jealous if he was a socialist. Jealous responded: “[Hogan] calling me a far-left socialist is what the Tea Party called President Obama. It’s what Barry Goldwater called Martin Luther King.”

More recently it’s what Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for Florida governor, called his African-American opponent Andrew Gillum. DeSantis’s statement – “The last thing we need to do is monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.” – drew attention for its use of a racial slur. But notably he was also echoing Hogan’s and the Post’s charge against Jealous: that he’s a socialist.

The morning after the Florida primary Trump also weighed in, calling Gillum “a failed Socialist Mayor.”

Back at Jealous’s press conference, having addressed the socialism accusation for the umpteenth time, the candidate was ready to move on. But the Post was not, and their reporter’s persistence paid off when an exasperated Jealous finally responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

And now Post readers can expect “f-bomb” references sprinkled throughout stories on Jealous from here till election day.

The Post’s Targets

The scary part is that it’s only August and Jealous is well behind in the polls. As the race tightens in the fall the Post is likely to go even harder at Jealous, as it has done to past targets – most recently in the Montgomery County executive’s race.

Despite the Post’s repeated attacks in the closing weeks of the election, Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich, a democratic socialist with strong union backing, eked out a win in the Democratic primary. Elrich’s victory so unnerved the Post that its headline didn’t name him but instead talked up how “Business leaders back possible independent bid” against him.

In 2016 another progressive candidate, then-Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, sought to become just the second black woman to serve in the Senate (a distinction since earned by Kamala Harris). Despite strong black support, the Post thwarted her bid, telling voters she was a “Democratic facsimile of Sen. Ted Cruz” who was “pandering to black voters.”

In 2014 the Post targeted another official backed by black voters, then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. Gray led in all polls until the week before early voting, when the Post’s coverage went from partisan to insane, with a banner front page headline declaring him guilty of a crime for which he would never be charged, dooming his reelection bid.

One of Gray’s backers was Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist who is now supporting Hogan. It’s worth examining how the Post handles this tricky situation. With Gray, the Post qualified the support by noting Bereano’s past “troubles with federal authorities.” (Bereano served a 10-month sentence for mail fraud.) With Hogan, Bereano is described as a Democratic lobbyistwho loves the governor.

The Post doesn’t just omit Bereano’s past, it also hides a more crucial fact: Hogan named Bereano’s son to the bench.

With the Post’s omissions, the story is about another Democrat supporting Hogan, and not how the governor and a lobbyist with a questionable background are involved in a possible pay-to-play arrangement.

Rest assured, if Bereano switches his support to Jealous the Post will rediscover his past – as it did when he backed Gray.

A single instance of this type of biased coverage can have an impact. But when it’s part of a coordinated effort, like the one the Post is undertaking against Jealous, it can swing an election.

Pete Tucker is a journalist based in DC. He can be reached at his website.