The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gov. Wes Moore gets a lot of love. Can the allure survive a second year?

Maryland’s governor spent his first year in office building relationships. He’ll spend the next navigating tougher seas.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) speaks to reporters in Annapolis at the State House before the opening of the General Assembly session on Jan. 10. (Michael Robinson Chávez for The Washington Post)
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The Wes Moore-for-president talk started before his inauguration a year ago. Barely a month into his term, a top House leader had to tell Democratic members of Congress at a Baltimore retreat that the “Wes Moore selfie line” needed to sit down so that President Biden could speak.

All year, attention followed the lone Black governor of a U.S. state, a new-to-politics politician, whose charisma overshadowed obvious minor defeats. Rapper LL Cool J played at his birthday party; famed portrait photographer Annie Leibowitz captured him for Vogue.

Moore is not close to accomplishing his moonshot goals — among them, eliminating child poverty and reducing the overincarceration of young Black men — but has faced little criticism for it. He heads into a second year with less-favorable financial headwinds and even more aspirations. Among them: growing the state’s economy, helping women who want to rejoin the workforce and fixing a yawning affordable housing crisis — complex problems that take time and deep resources to address.

At times the national buzz has rubbed fellow Democrats the wrong way. Some missteps — such as announcing a yet-to-be-finished deal with the Orioles via Jumbotron as the team clinched the division title — drew widespread media scrutiny and elicited private concerns among lawmakers about whether he could pull it all off. A few once-fervent supporters are frustrated that he has not gone further on the promises for systemic change that put him in office. And a few allies privately grumble that his policy goals are unrealistic.

But much of Maryland’s power structure remains charmed by Moore, his relentless enthusiasm and his invocation of the word “partnership” like an incantation.

“You just see his smile. He says, ‘Hello, y’all.’ And you know, he’s got you right there,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D), whose 56-year career has spanned 10 governors and who views Moore as an outlier who “brings a personality and an energy and a positivity that welds people together.”

Hoyer spent 14 years strategizing how to bring the FBI headquarters to Maryland, but he credits Moore with executing the vision and delivering the enthusiasm that closed the deal.

“Watch out for being near Wes Moore,” Hoyer said. “You’re going to catch hope.”

Moore may need it.

In addition to the goals he set for himself, the state needs billions annually to pay for promises Democrats already made.

He wants to spark new high-growth industries such as making Maryland the “offshore wind capital of the U.S.” and a hub for cyber jobs, and to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, among other things. And he has redoubled his commitment to the grand ambitions he laid out in his inauguration speech to tackle systemic problems created over centuries.

“We’re an ambitious bunch, right?” he said during a recent interview in his State House office.

At the same time, allies are increasingly willing to speak up when they disagree, testing Moore’s governing philosophy, which he describes with the proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

During his first year, Moore traveled Maryland and the country raising cash for Democrats and unabashedly trying to persuade companies and power brokers that Maryland, a small and reliably blue Mid-Atlantic state with a stagnant economy, was actually a place on the brink of greatness.

“We have a distinct advantage on everybody in this country,” he said in his office, listing historically Black colleges, federal installations, the state’s port and airport, and even its geographic features. “I think that we have greater assets than everybody. I think we have a very powerful story to tell.”

He’s particularly bullish on beating Virginia — whose leaders covet the FBI headquarters — both economically and otherwise. Moore challenged Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to a one-on-one basketball game, which Youngkin only agreed to on X, back when it was Twitter.

“You got his number?” Moore jokingly asked. “He doesn’t call me back anymore.”

Moore has leveraged his personality and power as a storyteller in improbable ways.

When he warned fellow Maryland government officials that the economy was puttering along and that budget cuts were ahead, his speech received a one-minute standing ovation.

After he cut $3.3 billion worth of transportation projects, some leaders found nice things to say about Moore stimulating important policy discussions. “It’s like: How do we fundamentally create something that works?” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said.

A lot of powerful Democrats who admire Moore keep their criticism to themselves.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), for example, explains, “I knew the governor before he was the governor.” When he does something she thinks is off base, she texts him directly. “I have no qualms saying, ‘Okay, that doesn’t make sense.’”

Even when Moore unquestionably failed, he cast it as a learning experience or used it as a chance to demonstrate that he listens to others.

He promised to rebuild the state’s workforce by hiring roughly 5,000 people but brought on only 1,300. And while he noted that it was a tremendous turnaround from his predecessor, Republican Larry Hogan, he called it a “lesson learned” about “setting the wrong metric.” He said he should have focused on making an effective government.

“I don’t think that trying to build someone else’s government is a mark of success for my administration,he said.

When he fell short of other goals, he declared victory and complimented his opponents for what they accomplished together.

He pushed Maryland lawmakers to automatically hike the minimum wage with inflation, describing it as a critical anti-poverty tool. The General Assembly roundly rejected the idea, although — as Moore notes — it did, at his request, accelerate a minimum-wage increase. He has dropped, for now, his vow to seek automatic hikes again.

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Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) said lawmakers noticed how Moore handled that defeat.

“He had every opportunity, if he had wanted to, to blame the legislature because it wasn’t exactly what he wanted,” Waldstreicher said. “Instead, he praised us for what we were able to accomplish, and we praised him for the leadership he showed in making it happen.”

Moore’s joyful willingness to share credit can stretch the bounds of credulity: “Since we’ve come on board, the [Baltimore] Orioles have become the elite champs and outperformed. The [Baltimore] Ravens are now the AFC champs and outperformed. I’m just saying there is a direct correlation about what’s happening in Maryland right now,” he said in an interview.

Still, some supporters see the governor declaring unearned victories when the stakes are too high.

“Wes Moore won my vote because he talked a lot about child poverty,” said Nate Golden, a ninth-grade math teacher in Baltimore who also helps run the Maryland Child Alliance, an anti-poverty group. “He talked about not just reducing child poverty, but ending child poverty in the state of Maryland.”

When Golden hears Moore call his record a “full-out assault” on concentrated poverty, Golden finds it “really frustrating.”

“We really want to believe the governor when he talks about these things. But at a certain point, our policy has to match that rhetoric,Golden said.

In addition to boosting the minimum wage a year earlier than scheduled, key pieces of Moore’s anti-poverty record include a $200 million program that made permanent a pandemic-era earned income tax credit that, on average, gives low-income working families about $65 month. Another program expanded a narrowly drafted child tax credit.

Golden points out that the earned income tax credit goes only to families with jobs and at least a $16,500 income, leaving out some of the poorest students he sees who, for example, are being raised by grandparents who do not work.

A starting point would be for Maryland to just catch up to some of the other states,” he said. “You go to work every day, and you see the failures of our government. We are subjecting children to the trauma of poverty, and it impacts them in every aspect of life.”

Moore, who ran the anti-poverty nonprofit Robin Hood foundation before he got into politics, keeps his message sharp, calling the state’s generational poverty “disgusting” and pointing out that policies the legislature passed in his first three months are not his mark on the issue. “I’m obsessed with us getting this right, he said.

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This year he has proposed using state cash and new incentives to build more affordable housing — the lack of which is a key driver of poverty — and trying to help parents return to the workforce by pouring $270 million into a child-care subsidy program.

The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, the largest in the nation, criticized how Moore planned to make the program sustainable as it ramps up: by charging a co-pay of up to 7 percent of a family’s income for a program that is currently free to everyone who qualifies. The move would raise about $24 million, which Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City) said in a Black Caucus news conference Thursday “could make the value of the program less potent.”

In an interview, she later called it “an odd place to raise revenue, from working families who need help.”

(Moore glossed over the co-pays when he discussed the program, instead focusing on it being “the largest single-year investment in child care in our state’s history.”)

The mild fissure with the Black Caucus on a lone issue represents a turning point for Moore, as the state’s financial pressures complicate his to-do list.

“The honeymoon period is over,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “A lot of the problems that existed, you get to a point where they’re now your problems. They’re not the last administration’s problems.”

Smith said that, as expected, Moore is “still learning the ropes a little bit” about how to govern. Moore brought in a diverse cabinet, most with experience outside of state government in Annapolis.

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“You want ambitious governors. You want ambitious leaders,” Smith said. “That ambition has to be coupled with detailed, sophisticated plans and an ability to execute upon those plans. And that remains to be seen.”

Moore does not run out of examples of how he feels he’s moved the needle, even if there’s further to go. He’s used his post to ramp up how many minority-owned firms win state contracts, with those businesses receiving $102.7 million more in 2023 than in 2022, even though the state spent $5.9 billion less overall.

Moore suggests that sometimes publicly reframing long-standing problems as urgent ones is, in itself, some success.

On closing the racial wealth gap, for example, he said, “This is the first state where we talk about this openly, right?”

He similarly explains the relentless overincarceration of young Black men, a nationwide problem in which Maryland established the worst record. “The solution to our society’s questions is not to remove as many Black boys from the equation as possible,” he said. At the same time, he’s trying to boost public safety by encouraging more people to fill the depleted ranks of law enforcement.

“Being the only African American governor in this country, it’s a complicated dance, right?” he said.

Moore said he’s not strategically building political capital so much as operating an inclusive leadership style. As Maryland launched his signature initiative — the nation’s first state-level service program, Moore threw a red-carpet pep rally with a college band and cheerleaders, and invited people from all over the state who made it possible. One high-ranking lawmaker privately joked, “Are you sure this isn’t the launch to Mars?”

“The best conclusions always come from inclusive processes,” Moore said. The party “was a real way of highlighting the importance of the process that, I think, is the thing that’s going to keep on driving results for the state.”

Last week, on the day Moore unveiled a spending plan “rebasing” a host of Maryland programs to close a roughly $700 million budget gap, he was also texting with Jack Coburn, the Republican mayor of the Western Maryland town of Lonaconing, population 800.

“We text around once a week, twice a week. He’s very easy to get ahold of,” said Coburn, a longtime mayor who first met Moore a year ago when the town’s water filtration system failed. A friendship blossomed after Moore eventually came to town, brushing off aides trying to move him along and instead personally thanking and then shaking the hand of every firefighter who had handed out water in town.

“That took a lot of time. But he did that, and he has won the hearts of so many people in our area because of his kindness to the people,” Coburn said. “I always say, he’s not a Republican governor. He’s not a Democratic governor. He is the people’s governor.”

Coburn said he helped film a National Governors Association promotion with Moore, telling the camera just that.

At times, though, Moore’s star power left some lawmakers questioning his motives. Moore raised $4 million for himself and Maryland Democrats in 2023, his campaign said, and took on the role of fundraising chair for the Democratic Governors Association, traveling to Idaho’s Sun Valley Conference — a gathering of investors known as “billionaire summer campand hosting events for Biden. In 2024, he’s among the surrogates the Biden reelection campaign will dispatch.

“It’s challenging to work with an administration that already has their sights set on the next rung on the ladder,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), who is currently running for Congress. “It doesn’t seem like he’s that interested in the mechanics of governing. … Some people are beginning to feel like he’s the Democratic version of Larry Hogan that, you know, you’re just kind of in it for the next job … if your goal is to run for president.”

Asked whether he hoped to position himself to run for president in 2028, Moore responded with the shortest answer of a 30-minute interview:


Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.