Alec Ross first came to Maryland 23 years ago when he was assigned to be a sixth-grade teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School as part of the Teach For America program. He had just graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in history, and he immediately developed a strong affection for Baltimore.
Since then, the West Virginia native has invested himself in bettering his chosen home, from community development work as a special assistant to the president of the Enterprise Foundation, to co-founding his nonprofit, One Economy, which facilitates technology education for low-income people around the world. Presently, he’s a distinguished senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Now, he wants to be your governor.
Although Ross has never held public office, he seems to fit the profile for a life in politics. A married father of three, young and idealistic with strong ties to Maryland, he has an eye toward the future and an impressive resume that includes time in the Obama administration as senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In our deeply entrenched Democratic state, his list of qualifications would normally be more than enough to ensure him a strong shot at the nomination.
But this isn’t a normal election year. The Dems face the daunting task of unseating Larry Hogan, who enjoys one of the highest approval ratings of the nation’s governors. Additionally, the list of Democratic gubernatorial candidates only continues to grow.
We recently spoke with Alec Ross to learn more about his goals and what sets him apart as a candidate.
What sets you apart in the crowded field of Democratic challengers?
First, I think it’s important to talk about why I’m running. I think that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. I moved to Baltimore 23 years ago to teach sixth grade at Booker T. Washington Middle School. I saw the same talent in my students in West Baltimore that I saw among my colleagues sitting across the table from me in the White House Situation Room. We need to fix that, and I think that we aren’t doing our best to connect talent and opportunity. I’ve dedicated my career to expanding educational and economic opportunity to those who currently don’t have it.
Over the past five months, I’ve traveled throughout the state from Garrett County in Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore to Montgomery County and Baltimore City. No matter where I travel, everyone talks about how they want new faces with new ideas. People are ready for a new generation of leaders in Annapolis.
I’m running to bring that new perspective to this race. We’re focused on running a positive campaign and putting out serious policies, including how to reform our elections, bringing computer science education to the 60 percent of Maryland’s K-12 schools that don’t offer it and making it easier for our parents to access quality, affordable childcare. Democrats don’t have a shot at winning without new ideas, and I’m making sure the voters know where I am through serious policy proposals.
What’s your response to critics who say you lack experience serving in elected office?
I may be new to running for office, but I’m not new to government. My executive branch experience lines up well with the kind of experience one would look for in a governor. During the years I served as a senior official in the Obama administration, I managed very large programs designed to find innovative solutions to some of the world’s most challenging diplomatic and national security problems. This involved thousands of government employees working from across the federal government including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Treasury Department and more. The programs I managed touched the lives of millions of people and demonstrated that I’ve got something of a knack for making good things happen within the sprawling apparatus that is government.
Gov. Hogan has avoided criticizing or praising the Trump administration. Would you approach the job differently?
Donald Trump is a terrible human being and a terrible president. Having said that, the governor of Maryland is in the business of advancing the interests and values of Marylanders. When any of the evil coming out of Donald Trump’s administration contradicts those interests – such as on health care or trying to end the Chesapeake Bay cleanup – the governor needs to speak up and take action to fight Trumpism. When it does not, a governor is better off doing the work of governing than engaging.
What would you do to address crime, police, and sentencing reform in Baltimore, in whatever capacity the governor’s office can?
I’ve lived in Baltimore for 23 years, and it’s clear that what we are trying isn’t working. Ten of my students from my first year teaching at Booker T. Washington Middle School were murdered within 10 years.
I think there are a few areas to focus on, but let’s talk about policing first. If you want a war, you recruit soldiers. If you want peace and safety, you recruit peacemakers. We need to do more to recruit police offers who are working in the communities that they call their home. We have too many police officers coming in from Southern Pennsylvania. We need more officers who are women, who are people of color, who are comfortable walking the streets in the communities they serve.
The state also has the ability to help with resources. We need to provide more training to our officers, and we need to provide more state resources towards proven solutions like body cameras.
We also need to do more on sentencing reforms. This means making it tougher for hardened criminals to get back on the street, but it also means looking at reforming our antiquated drug laws so that we don’t create a situation where a 17-year old kid who is in the wrong place at the wrong time loses their economic opportunity because of a minor offense.
How would you expand Maryland’s reliance on renewable energy?
I think it’s important that we are moving towards a future that is focused on renewable energies. I support the work of the [League of Conservation Voters] on their Forward With 50 initiative to have 50 percent of Maryland’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030.
This means making strategic investments in green technologies and allowing some minor usage of wind farms off the coast of Maryland. We also can do more to make it easier on families that want to use solar in their homes, and we need to install more electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state.
The state and the Baltimore City Health Department have waged an ongoing battle with opioid addiction. How would you assist?
First of all, our health commissioner, Dr. Wen, is one of the best in the business. She understands that addiction is a disease and this year she asked for help with Bupe [Buprenorphine] that is an essential part of the treatment regime. We know what works with treating addiction and when I am governor, I will work with the medical professionals like Dr. Wen to get the resources that they need to treat the disease. We will partner with pharmacies on take-back programs because we know that pharmacies have a role to play in safe dispensing and taking back those unused drugs that are a common first opioid drug for young people.
We will help the police by coordinating statewide taskforces that can stop the flow of drugs into the state and city and work to stop the synthetic opioids that have a high rate of mortality among addicts. We know that best practice in treatment is to follow the lead of medical professionals, even when it seems counterintuitive with needle exchanges and the ready availability of Narcan. But if we want to deal with the problem we will be solution oriented and not punishment oriented.
What’s your favorite spot in Baltimore?
My backyard. When the weather allows it, we like to fire up our old-fashioned Weber charcoal grill and my wife, and I fill up the backyard with friends for good food and good drink. There’s a trampoline back there that the kids jump on and a little fire pit for roasting marshmallows and keeping warm during fall or spring evenings.
If we’re not at home on the weekends, I love trying out all of the amazing small breweries in Baltimore and around the state! Some of my favorites are Union, Waverly, Denizens in Silver Spring, Burley Oak out on the Shore and Flying Dog in Frederick.
If you don’t get the nomination, who are you backing to run against Hogan?
Anybody who is imagining not getting the nomination is definitely not going to win it!
There have been three times in my life where I’ve taken on an uphill challenge that felt just right. The first time was when I helped start a technology-focused nonprofit 17 years ago that aimed to help low-income people connect to the digital economy. People thought we were crazy, but it worked. The second time was when I joined Barack Obama’s first campaign in the winter of 2007 to run technology policy. Everybody told me there was no way Barack Hussein Obama would be elected President, but it just felt right. This run for governor is number three!