Benjamin Todd Jealous first made a national name for himself in 2008 when, at age 35, he became the youngest leader of one of America’s oldest and most esteemed civil rights bodies, the NAACP.
Before Jealous began his five-year tenure of the then-99-year-old organization, it was clear that the NAACP had calcified into a shell of its former self. Its enrollment numbers were down, its membership skewed older, its finances were in shambles, and by many accounts, it had abdicated its position as a formidable leader in the fight for black advancement.
While at the NAACP, Jealous was able to leverage technology so that its online membership increased by more than half a million people, from 175,000 to 675,000; its donor base increased more than eightfold; and it registered hundreds of thousands of new voters and mobilized 1.3 million people to turn out to the polls in 2012—a significant factor in getting Barack Obama re-elected. Most presciently, the organization also began to build coalitions with other civil rights, labor and environmental groups, also finding common ground with staunch conservatives and even the Tea Party, especially around issues such as mass incarceration and criminal-justice reform.
As head of the NAACP, Jealous was most astute in recognizing the fact that the game had changed since the days of de jure segregation and open racial terror. Under his steady guidance, the outfit took on more contemporary issues such as the abolition of the death penalty, gay-marriage equality, black economic empowerment and police malfeasance such as New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. The kicker is that the NAACP didn’t just raise awareness about such issues but lobbied and fought so that real change occurred. For all of this, Jealous was named to the No. 1 spot on The Root 100 in 2013.
In May, Jealous announced that he was seeking the governorship of Maryland in 2018. He and his family have a long history in the “Old Line State.” His grandparents came to Baltimore from southern Virginia in the 1930s, and his parents met in the state as well but eventually moved to California, where Ben was born, because interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland in the late 1960s.
Jealous says that his work as both president and CEO of the NAACP, as well as his years as a community activist and, most recently, as a principal in a venture capital investment firm that funds socially conscious startups, have prepared him for this moment in time.
“I’ve been a community organizer my entire adult life. I’ve spent my life pulling people together to hold government accountable and get things done,” he told The Root. “As national president of the NAACP, I led several victories—here in Maryland, that included abolishing the death penalty, passing the DREAM Act, and passing marriage equality and voting rights in the same year.”
His strategy for victory includes making the most of partnerships between traditional civil rights organizations and progressive groups he was able to court during his tenure as the co-chair of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in the state.
“That’s my approach to this campaign,” he says. “My campaign is rooted in the civil rights networks that I and my family has been a part of for decades in Maryland and in the networks we created in the Bernie campaign. You put those two things together, and that’s a decided advantage over every other candidate in this field.”
He continues, “The Holy Grail of American politics is always get working families of every color on the same side of the table confronting the problems we have in common, as opposed to working against each other across lines of race, religion and region, where those problems just get bigger and bigger. If we don’t, we’ll be facing more incarceration, discrimination, and stagnation.”
The 44-year-old has presented a truly progressive platform, including free-to-low-cost higher education, a $15 minimum wage, better school systems and dignity for working families. He says he plans to make those plans a reality by “closing corporate tax loopholes, cutting waste and abuse and making sure our money is managed better.”
Jealous promises to roll out “a bunch of endorsements in the next months,” including those from the national Democratic Party leadership (he already has Bernie Sanders’ backing), unions, progressives, religious leaders and business and environmental groups.
“I’ve spent my life building big robust coalitions to make real change in real time for real people,” says Jealous. “It’s the same way we are approaching this campaign.”
The Root 100 2017 will be announced Sept. 18.