BALTIMORE — The president of the United States was backstage, minutes away from speaking to a hotel ballroom here packed with House Democrats, their spouses and staffers.
But at the front of the room, the line to take a photo with Maryland’s young, new Democratic governor, Wes Moore, was showing no signs of dissipating.
“We’re going to have to suspend the Wes Moore selfie line. Governor, we’re going to have to ask you to take your seat shortly,” the Democratic caucus chairman, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, joked from the podium. “You’ll be seated next to my wife. I’m sure she’ll ask for a couple selfies there, too.”
Moore was just sworn in as governor in January, but Democrats already see him as a rising star and are buzzing about him as a future leader of the party and a potential presidential candidate in 2028.
“I saw this young man — and I’ve been in politics for 120 years — I said, 'This guy’s got it,'” quipped Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a former House majority leader who introduced Moore on Wednesday at the House Democrats’ annual issues conference in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Moore, just 44, has a young family, served in the Afghanistan war as an Army captain and a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, was a Rhodes scholar, was CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, and made history as the first Black governor of Maryland. His win in November reclaimed the governor's office from the GOP.
In an interview after his speech, Moore said he is focused on doing the job he was elected to do.
“I’m proud of the fact that … I was the first Black governor in the history of the state and only the third ever elected in this country’s history. I also know that that wasn’t the assignment," Moore said in response to a question about his ambitions, including a White House bid. "Right? That the assignment, the reason that the people of Maryland elected me, was because we’ve got big things to get done in the state of Maryland."
Moore said he is pushing for Maryland to be the first state to offer a “service year” for all high school graduates and create new “economic pathways” for Marylanders who didn’t earn college degrees. He also wants the state to expedite a $15-an-hour minimum wage for workers by this year and to tie future hikes to inflation.
“I’m excited to be out there and continue to make good things happen for the state of Maryland,” he said. “And I’m excited for Maryland to be a national example about how we can create pathways for everyone in the state and not just some.”
Generational change is happening in some quarters of the Democratic Party. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York replaced Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California this year after her two-decade run as leader of the House Democrats. Hoyer and former Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina also have stepped down from top jobs in the party.
But asked whether Joe Biden, 80, the country’s oldest president, should represent Democrats on the ballot in 2024, Moore didn’t hesitate to endorse him.
“I’m excited to support the president in his re-election bid,” Moore said in the interview.
“Because if you just look at the first two years, about the jobs that are created, the economic activity that’s been generated and the fact that Maryland has been a core beneficiary of the work of this administration," he said, "I’m excited to go around and spread that around the country about how important this administration has been to me as a governor, but also just to the people of our state.”
Moderate Republican Larry Hogan had occupied the governor’s mansion for eight years before Moore’s election and was term-limited from running again. Moore said his campaign was successful because he traveled all over the state and spoke to Democrats, independents and Republicans. Democrats in Washington will be successful in 2024 if they follow that road map, he said.
“We went to every single corner of the state, from western Maryland all the way to the Eastern Shore and everywhere in between, and we were able to win not just Democrats — we won independents, and we won a good chunk of Republicans,” Moore said.
“We’re going to be right on the issues when we talk about creating pathways for work, wages and wealth. When we talked about getting rid of the false choices of saying we want an equitable economy or a growing economy, one that’s good for workers or good for businesses,” he continued, “we said you can have it all. But we’ve got to make sure we have a plan, and we’ve got to make sure we’re communicating to everybody.
“That’s what we did in 2022. And I think that’s what the Biden-Harris administration is going to do in 2024, and that’s why they’re going to be successful.”
Moore’s speech to House Democrats served as an introduction of sorts. He said his father died when he was 3 years old. “I also felt handcuffs on my wrists when I was 11 years old,” he said, referring to an experience he has written about and talked about of being detained for graffiti. And his mother didn’t have a job with benefits until he was 14.
“By all accounts, I was not destined for public service. And I was definitely not destined to become the 63rd governor of the state of Maryland,” he told Democrats.
But he said teachers, sports coaches and ministers put him on the right path: “The only reason that I can stand before you today is because there were people in my life who stepped up even when they weren’t called. ... Those were the real patriots."
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., a former National Teacher of the Year, said she was moved by Moore's message about service and patriotism, standing and applauding him several times throughout his speech.
"I felt like he has everything. He is the complete package," Hayes said in an interview. "As I was watching him, I was drawn in, and my metric for evaluation of any candidate or public official is: How did they make me feel personally? So I was very excited to hear him speak."