ANNAPOLIS — Democrat Wes Moore took the oath of office as Maryland’s 63rd governor Wednesday, becoming the first Black person to lead the state and promising an economic agenda that includes closing the “racial wealth gap.”
In his inaugural address on the steps of the State House, Mr. Moore called for raising Maryland’s minimum hourly wage to $15 from the current $13.25 and proposed moving to a 100% clean energy economy by 2035.
He also proposed a service year option for all high school graduates.
“We do not have to choose between a competitive economy and an equitable one,” Mr. Moore said. “We should not tolerate an 8-to-1 racial wealth gap, not because it only hurts certain groups, but because it prevents all of us from reaching our full potential. Maryland can be the best place in America for employers and employees.”
Mr. Moore, a political neophyte who has garnered favorable comparisons to former President Barack Obama, is thought by some to be destined for high office.
The governor envisions changes in the criminal justice system and policing strategies. He referred to a brush with the law as a youth. “I know what it feels like to have handcuffs on my wrists,” he said. “I felt that when I was 11 years old.”
He called for police forces that operate with “appropriate intensity” but said, “We cannot and will not militarize ourselves to safety.”
The governor said the state must change “the inexcusable fact that Maryland incarcerates more Black boys than any other state in the country.”
“We do not have to choose between being a safe state and a just one,” Mr. Moore said.
Aruna Miller was sworn in as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, the first Asian American and first woman in the state to hold that office. She served eight years as a state delegate.
Mr. Moore didn’t outline how he intends to pay for any new initiatives. The state has a budget surplus of roughly $2.5 billion, plus an unusually large rainy-day fund of about $3 billion.
Among the VIPs on the inaugural platform was Oprah Winfrey, who introduced the new governor to the crowd. Acknowledging that it is Mr. Moore’s first turn in elected office, Ms. Winfrey referred to his leadership of a New York charity that was favored by hedge funds and his service in the Army.
“This might be his first day as a public official, but Wes Moore has been a public servant his entire adult life,” she said.
Mr. Moore succeeds two-term Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who left office with an approval rating of 77%. Mr. Hogan attended the inauguration ceremony.
The new governor’s shattering of a racial barrier was a prominent theme of his inauguration. Mr. Moore is the only Black governor in the nation and just the third Black person to be elected governor in U.S. history. The others were L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 in Virginia and Deval Patrick in 2006 in Massachusetts.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman noted that one of his ancestors in the region “made his fortune in the tobacco industry on the backs of enslaved men, women and children from Africa.”
“The healing that this election could offer was presented as if by a higher power, like a portal to a brighter future,” Mr. Pittman said.
Saying the imagery of Maryland’s past is “very personal and emotional to me,” Mr. Moore took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass. He also used a Bible that was his grandfather’s.
Before the ceremony, Mr. Moore, 44, underscored his historic inauguration by attending a wreath-laying at a dock in the port city where enslaved Africans, including Kunta Kinte of “Roots” fame, once arrived in chains.
Mr. Moore insisted that his inauguration was not about race.
“This journey has never been about making history; it’s about marching forward,” he said. “Today is not an indictment of the past. Today is a celebration of our collective future. Maryland is asset-rich and strategy poor. For too long, we have left too many people behind.”
A veteran of the Afghanistan War who says Democrats should profess their patriotism more often, Mr. Moore is viewed as a rising star in his party. He attracted major campaign dollars from Hollywood, Big Tech and Wall Street, and his name is already mentioned among Democrats as a possible contender for national office.
“My thought is that he probably has ambitions for higher office down the line,” said Chryl Laird, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Ms. Laird said Mr. Moore is emblematic of changing demographics in the U.S.
“Maryland has a fraught history with respect to communities of color, especially African Americans,” she said. “It was a slaveholding state. And so I think this is a significant stride. He is somebody who’s done basically everything right and done it well, with grit and courage and through adversity, and came up the ranks in a way that is very reminiscent of other Black historical figures who were not starting from positions of power or access.”
Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said Mr. Moore’s race is irrelevant.
“I think that whatever he does will have a tremendous, positive presumption on the part of the electorate,” Mr. Vatz said. “It’s hard for me to imagine him being able to do anything that would cause him to be an unpopular governor. [But] he will have consistent opposition from conservatives.”
Given high crime rates in cities such as Baltimore, he said, Mr. Moore should emphasize steps to keep families together.
“I have not seen any indication that he’s going to be harsh on those who continue to have more and more children outside of wedlock and those who continue to have single-parent families,” Mr. Vatz said. “The concern about violence and the concern about the education system, and the terrible schools that we have in some areas of Maryland — the answer to all those things … is to shore up the family and to shore up fathers, and it’s just never done.”
Mr. Moore didn’t provide details of his proposed service year option for high school graduates. He said the program would “prepare our young people for their careers and also provide our state with future leaders, public servants we desperately need.”
Mr. Moore won a crowded Democratic primary last year that included former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. In the general election, he easily defeated Trump-backed Republican Dan Cox, a former state delegate.
Mr. Cox pointed out Wednesday that he won Maryland’s counties by a more than a 2-to-1 margin over Mr. Moore, who won bigger vote totals in the state’s more populated cities and counties in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
“All of Maryland must be represented, respected and our rights protected by Gov.-elect Moore,” Mr. Cox tweeted. “Mr. Moore’s family upbringing of faith and military service makes me hope that he will keep his word.”
Having lived in Baltimore, Mr. Moore, first lady Dawn Flythe Moore and their two school-age children will now live in the governor’s residence in Annapolis.