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Baltimore bridge collapse has put the spotlight on Maryland's young Black governor

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore speaks to reporters near the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 27, 2024 in Baltimore, Md.
Anna Moneymaker
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Maryland Gov. Wes Moore speaks to reporters near the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 27, 2024 in Baltimore, Md.

In Maryland, a complicated and dangerous cleanup effort is starting after the collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday. The tragedy has put the state's young governor, Wes Moore, in the international spotlight.

Moore, a Democrat, made history last year when he was inaugurated as Maryland's first Black governor.

"Baltimore is being tested right now, but Baltimore has been tested before. And every time we stand up on two feet, we dust ourselves off, and we keep moving forward," Moore said during one of many press conferences this week. The bodies of two construction workers who were on the bridge have been recovered. Four others are missing and presumed dead.

Since the Key Bridge was struck early Tuesday morning by a cargo ship, Moore has been ever-present, visiting the site of the disaster, meeting with families and first responders, and securing federal assistance.

"We are Maryland tough, and Baltimore strong," Moore said on Tuesday morning, at the first press conference after the bridge collapse. Since then, the phrase has caught on, repeated by President Joe Biden, and printed on t-shirts for sale.

A make-or-break moment

"When you look at tragedies and you look at crises, there is a potential that it's either going to lift you up, or pull you down," says Kaye Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. "We tend to rank some of the greatest presidents and governors based upon what they do during a moment of crisis."

Moore, 45, is only the third Black person to be elected governor of any U.S. state. Though Moore had no prior political experience, he came into office with a lengthy and impressive résumé. He was a college football star, a Rhodes Scholar, a bestselling author, an Army captain who served in Afghanistan, an investment banker, and most recently, CEO of a major anti-poverty nonprofit, Robin Hood.

When Moore got into the 2022 race for governor, he was polling in the single digits. He went on to beat some of the biggest names in Maryland politics, including two former Obama administration cabinet members, a former state attorney general, and a former state comptroller. The political newcomer had some star power on his side: He's friends with Oprah Winfrey, who helped him campaign and raise money nationally.

This week's tragedy, Whitehead says, is a moment for Moore to rise to the occasion.

"I believe we are watching the door open for him to make that next step towards national politics. He is going to run for president. I would be surprised if he does not."

The question of higher office

Indeed, even since before Moore's inauguration, there was speculation about an eventual presidential bid. Many have compared Moore to former President Barack Obama: the two men have numerous parallels in their personal lives, including being sons of immigrants, growing up with single moms, and gaining fame through their memoirs.

David Karol, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, says Moore has seemed in his element this week. "He looks empathetic and he looks in charge, and I think it plays to his rhetorical strength and his personality," Karol says.

But, Karol says, the real difficulties may come as the months and years of cleanup and construction drag on. It's likely the bridge won't be rebuilt before Moore is up for reelection in 2026.

"The governor has tried to lower expectations a little bit. He said this is not going to be fixed in days or weeks. But it's going to be a very big challenge," Karol says.

Matthew Crenson, a longtime Maryland politics observer and professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he was a faculty advisor to a young Moore, when the future governor was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins. Crenson recalls one particular conversation with Moore during that era.

"We were talking about his political career, which didn't exist yet. I suggested that, like all people with political ambitions in Maryland, he should run for the House of Delegates. And he said, no, he would prefer an executive position. And, of course, that's exactly what he got, right out of the box."

But regarding comparisons to President Obama and Moore's possible presidential future, Crenson has words of caution.

"It's easy to oversell somebody like that, because from the outside, they look perfect. Once they get in office, they have to face a lot of messy issues that will sort of spatter them with mud," Crenson says.

"So far, he hasn't faced any really devastating challenges until this, and I think this will be the test. We'll be able to see whether there's really steel behind that résumé."

At the same time that Moore is dealing with the aftermath of the bridge collapse, the governor is also facing multi-billion-dollar budget deficits in the coming years, possibly bringing tax hikes to the state. All this has the potential to get in the way of Moore's campaign promises, which include fighting poverty and crime, and creating more affordable housing throughout the state.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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