Photo via Krish for Maryland

Krishanti Vignarajah, 38, is proud of the factors that distinguish her from her competitors seeking to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the November general election. Beyond the most obvious difference—aside from her, it’s an all-male Democratic primary field—the former Obama administration State Department senior advisor and policy director for Michelle Obama says she stands alone as the only immigrant in the running, having left civil war-plagued Sri Lanka with her parents for Baltimore when she was a child.

“I had the luck of living a life that allowed me to go from Woodlawn High to the White House,” she says. “And I don’t want my life story to be the exception. I want it to be the rule.”

Since entering the race in August 2017, Vignarajah has prioritized providing paid leave for new moms (she’s one herself) and universal pre-K education in her campaign platform. She’s made inroads in western Maryland with frequent visits (more than 30, a campaign spokeswoman says) and, as of last week, a plan to bolster economy activity and education, among other efforts, in Maryland’s most rural region. The attention appears to be paying off; she finished second in a straw poll at an annual Democratic summit in Flintstone, Maryland, on Saturday, behind only polling leader Rushern Baker.

Vignarajah spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl last week about coming up in the Baltimore area, her plan for addressing Maryland’s daunting education-funding deficit, her love for Lexington Market and more. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.

Baltimore Fishbowl: It’s a crowded field. What do you think sets you apart in the field of Democratic challengers?

Krish Vignarajah: I’m the only woman running against eight men. I’m the only immigrant. I’m the only candidate who went through Maryland public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. (Editor’s note: Ralph Jaffe, running with his sister Freda, said on a phone call that he also attended Maryland public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.) And I’m the only one who has had a career in law, business and executive office in government at the highest levels. What that allows me to bring is that unique perspective, insofar as I’m an outsider because I’m not a career politician, but I’m an insider as far as I have managed a $51.6 billion budget in the State Department. I have launched and led multi-billion dollar initiatives at the White House.

But I’m also unique–and this is why I kicked off my campaign in Edmondson Heights outside of the basement apartment that I grew up in in the Saint Agnes Apartments—because my family lives the struggle that four decades later, Maryland families still struggle [with]. I’m the only candidate who is the daughter to Baltimore City public school teachers, and I am the only candidate who is running with a lifelong teacher, Sharon Blake, who was the former president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

BFB: Do you have a response to critics who might point to a lack of experience serving in elected office?

KV: As I’ve said, we shouldn’t conflate elected experience with career experience. I have worked at the highest levels of government, I’ve worked in law and in business, and I’ve lived the very experience of our community. I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck; I grew up in a family where, because we couldn’t afford a car, my parents got to work using public transportation. But I had the luck of living a life that allowed me to go from Woodlawn High to the White House. And I don’t want my life story to be the exception. I want it to be the rule.

BFB: On the topic of the White House: Gov. Hogan has generally avoided conflict with the Trump administration. Would you approach this job differently?

KV: That’s a great question. I have been titled “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare” in article after article. I believe true leadership requires us to stand up and fight back against the frankly un-American direction in which I think Trump has taken us. So when Hogan is asked about Trump, and his response is, “That’s not my job,” I believe that’s an abdication of his responsibility.

On issues ranging from health care, the tax bill, [Secretary of Education Betsy] DeVos and her education efforts, immigration, environment—on all of those issues, I will, as governor, stand up and speak out for all Marylanders and make sure that Maryland is leading the charge against this Trump White House. It’s partly why I’m running for governor.

BFB: You’ve made education funding, specifically for pre-K as well as public schooling in general, a key part of your platform. There was a bill passed that, if approved by voters, would put 100 percent of casino funds toward education by 2023. Do you think that that will help? Would you do more beyond that?

KV: I think it will help, because Hogan has been a reverse Robin Hood, robbing casino revenues intended for public schools at the same time that our children are literally freezing in schools like Frederick Douglass [High School], where my dad and Sharon Blake, my running mate, both taught. This is a fundamental issue to me because—it’s Frederick Douglass’ quote, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

Our schools are underfunded by $3 billion. As governor, that will be a top priority for me because education is not a line item on the budget, as Governor Hogan treats it as, but a springboard of opportunity. I know that because that’s my life story.

BFB: What would you do to address violent crime and police reform in Baltimore, in whatever capacity the governor’s office can?

KV: I rolled out a community policing plan last week, the third anniversary of Freddie Gray’s [arrest], because we have to figure out a way that our police officers and our community come together to make our streets safer while also maintaining the dignity and freedom of our residents. For me, we have to acknowledge that crime is not just a criminal justice issue; it’s an education, public health, economic and opportunity issue. We need leadership that is willing to tackle this issue head on.

So first, mass incarceration is not a winning strategy, and this is where our moral and monetary interests align. We can’t lock up our neighbors and fail to provide the basic treatment many of these folks need. Each time we put a person in prison, it costs us $33,000 to $38,000. Each time we put a person into the drug treatment, it costs us $5,000 to $10,000. I want us to change an industry of mass incarceration into a paradigm of public health.

Second, we need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, which is why I will reverse the funding cuts to Operation Safe Kids and I will increase support to programs that have worked, like Safe Streets. I will focus on bail reform because right now a third of our incarceration population are in jails, not prisons.

And finally, when it comes to gun violence…I want to make sure that weapons of war will not be allowed on our streets or in our schools–and we shouldn’t be debating bump stocks and armor-piercing bullets.

Second, I want laws on the books to protect our people by ensuring that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands, including supporting “red flag laws.”

Third, I want to make sure that we close loopholes—so it is great that we have finally prevented guns from being in the hands of domestic violence abusers, but we also have to make sure that a politicized gun review board doesn’t overturn what our state police decide in denying permits.

And finally, I want to make sure that Maryland shows real leadership, because half the guns that come into Maryland and are confiscated are from other states. That’s where, as governor, we need to work with neighboring states knowing that gun violence and the issues of illegal guns and gun purchases, are addressed at the regional level.

Part of why I have gotten support from Moms Demand Action is because we put out comprehensive policies on these issues, including one that we’re rolling out shortly focused on how to ensure safe schools, which also addresses investing in preventative behavioral and mental health in our schools.

The sad fact is we have a mass shooting in Baltimore literally every month. The fact that in a city of 615,000 people, where we have experienced a death nearly every day for the last three years, it is sad that we make headlines by having a ceasefire that lasted 12 days. As governor, I’m going to make sure we change that.

BFB: You have pushed for guarantees for working mothers for paid time off. The battle over paid sick leave endured for years before the General Assembly enacted a measure—and only by override of Gov. Larry Hogan–this year. Would you expect similar pushback on your proposal to guarantee working mothers three months off?

KV: I suspect there will be some folks in Annapolis who will want to stand in the way of supporting working families, but we’ve got to look at the facts. America is the only developed democracy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave. By denying paid family leave, we put parents in the position of having to choose between taking care of their child and putting food on the table.

We have seen state after state—New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California—institute these programs because we know that it is a win-win-win. Children who have a parent during those first few months of their lives grow up healthier and more confident, parents go back to the workforce more productive and businesses can retain and recruit better talent.

And so my point is that staying with your child after birth should not be a luxury for only the rich because right now, most lawyers, doctors, engineers receive generous paid family leave benefits, while folks working in the service sector do not. That’s unfair, and I’m gonna fix it.

BFB: What’s the best piece of advice you have received regarding a run for office?

KV: There will be good friends who disappoint you and complete strangers who surprise you. It’s been amazing for me the number of moms, dads, students, immigrants, teachers who had never met me before and were inspired by the campaign, and have devoted countless hours to helping. That has been a pleasant surprise.

BFB: Given that you grew up here, do you have a favorite spot in Baltimore City?

KV: I think it’s going to be Lexington Market. People call Maryland “America in Miniature,” and I feel like Baltimore in many ways is Maryland in miniature, and I think Lexington Market is Baltimore in miniature. [laughs]

BFB: Like a Russian doll kind of thing.

KV: Exactly [laughing].

BFB: Are you concerned about changes to the market from planned development?

KV: I just hope we maintain the authenticity of the fact that Lexington Market has always been both the literal and figurative face of Baltimore. And so I hope we preserve that local feel and flavor, but also the diversity and uniqueness that has always been Lexington Market.

BFB: If you don’t get the nomination, who are you backing to run against Gov. Hogan in this election?

KV: Whoever our Democratic nominee is.

This story has been updated to reflect that both Vignarajah and Ralph Jaffe attended Maryland public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...