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Profile: Krish Vignarajah’s Potentially Historical Campaign for Governor

Krishanti Vignarajah, or Krish as she goes by on her gubernatorial campaign, told The Point News that if elected she would bring a new generation of leadership to Maryland in terms of environmentalism, infrastructure, education and diversity.

Concern about the future motivates Vignarajah to run for office; “I am worried that my young daughter and all of our children … will not have the same opportunity that I had growing up in Maryland.”

Raised in Baltimore County, Vignarajah says the Maryland she grew up in was much better than the one she is currently in. When Vignarajah’s parents immigrated to Maryland from Sri Lanka, she was only nine months old, and Sri Lanka was on the brink of civil war. According to Vignarajah, her parents came to the state with very little: “no job and about $200 in their pockets.”

“My parents were going to move to northern Nigeria, the same region where Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls,” Vignarajah told Glamour Magazine, but an uncle in the United States helped them to get green cards to come to Maryland instead. “The truth is, I am everything President Trump denunciates and denigrates, and I am proud to be.”

Vignarajah says they were “blessed” to be in Maryland, a state which she claims “led the nation in job creation, school performance and pioneered in many ways the environmental conversation.”

Yet, Vignarajah says a lot of that has changed since her childhood. “Our economy is flatlining as we just stagnate even while neighboring states to the north and the south prosper,” Vignarajah says of Maryland. She highlights terrible commutes, educational gaps and a dearth of adequate infrastructure as Maryland’s current shortcomings.

Growing up, Vignarajah’s parents were public school teachers. She resided in Woodland, Md. for her entire childhood, eventually attending Woodlawn High School. Vignarajah’s high school is now relatively famous as it was the setting for the podcast, Serial. Vignarajah says she played soccer with some of the people referenced in the series.

On Feb. 27, Vignarajah formally named a former president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, Sharon Blake, as her running mate. Blake says, “Prioritizing education and our children is key to addressing and solving issues facing Maryland. Where does it all start? In our schools,” according to The Washington Post.  Blake continued, “Maryland’s children are our future, and our state budget and priorities must reflect that.”

According to Glamour, Vignarajah attributes her parents’ jobs to her focus on educational policy. Vignarajah believes that Maryland’s current governor, Larry Hogan, has reallocated funds away from the neediest public schools. Per Glamour, despite Woodland’s relatively low public school rankings, “government investments in STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] at her school …. helped her make it into Oxford and Yale Law School.”

Vignarajah holds degrees in political science and molecular biology from Yale College, a master’s of philosophy in international relations from Oxford University, as well as a Juris Doctorate from Yale.

Vignarajah was a senior advisor at the State Department under Hillary Clinton’s tenure. She moved from the Harry S. Truman State Department building a few blocks over to the White House in 2015 when she became First Lady Michelle Obama’s policy director. Since former President Barack Obama’s term ended in 2016, she created and ran her own company, Generation Impact. According to Little India, Generation Impact is a policy firm that specializes in developing strategies for companies and non-profit organizations.

Because of her time working at the White House, questions have arisen about Vignarajah’s eligibility to run for governor. Bethesda Beat reports that in order to be eligible a resident must be registered in the state for five years before an election. “The requirements to run couldn’t be clearer,” Vignarajah says. “I have been a resident and registered voter for far more than the required five years.” A spokesperson for her campaign compared the assertion of her ineligibility to the “outlandish attacks” on President Obama’s birthplace. Vignarajah filed a lawsuit to certify her eligibility but subsequently dropped the case, according to the Baltimore Sun.

She says that, during her tenure in the White House, Michelle and Barack Obama taught her that a “fresh perspective and a new generation of leadership can change the world,” which she continues to say is what “the Democratic party needs … at the state level now more than ever.”

She stressed to The Point News (TPN) that she is “not a career politician,” and she says that gives her the edge on her competitors in the Maryland gubernatorial race. Her experience rather is in the fields of law, both as a general practice lawyer and a clerk, in academia as a foreign policy an international law professor at Georgetown University and in public service.

Vignarajah, who is an ivy league educated daughter of immigrants and has worked in the private and public sectors, says she wears the title Upworthy gave her of “Donald Trump’s Worst Nightmare” as a “badge of honor.” But she also says that being anti-Trump is not enough to beat Gov. Hogan.

To beat Hogan — and become Maryland’s first non-white, female governor — Vignarajah plans to focus on issues “that affect all of us day to day.” She continued, “yet they don’t get nearly the attention they should, and they’re why I think we can tangibly feel that we are falling further and further behind.”

At her campaign announcement, Vignarajah explicated that these policies will include providing full-day, universal pre-kindergarten; revamping transportation and technology infrastructure, private sector job growth and increasing spending on education and guaranteeing parental leave.

According to the United States Census Bureau and the Capital News Service, Maryland was tied in 2017 for the worst commute times in the nation.

Vignarajah blames this on Maryland’s “1950s budget.” She says that Maryland is spending too much money on roads when the state should be investing in public transportation. “We should be debating Hyperloop and maglev and making investments in infrastructure, and we’re not.” Vignarajah says, “we have some of the worst commutes in history, literally the worst.”

This is an issue her opponents, both Democratic and Republicans, have also proposed solutions to. Gov. Hogan’s plan is to expand highways while Sen. Madaleno has proposed reversible traffic lanes.

Vignarajah says her policy initiatives are driven by “evidence-based decision making.” She supports a universal pre-k plan. She says that there is a 30-times factor return on investment when brought into a program like universal pre-K.

The nonpartisan think tank New America says that universal pre-k works well to combat three issues commonly associated with early schools: the high cost of care for families, the impoverishment of caregivers and the rocky transition to kindergarten for children. New America endorses publicly funding universal pre-K.

Guaranteeing free community college is another priority for Vignarajah. She says financing this plan comes from a restructuring of budgetary priorities. “Right now, we have been spending about as much on prisons and policing as we do on higher education.”

According to the Baltimore Sun, Vignarajah’s plan is “more modest” than that of her opponent Ben Jealous, who supports free four-year tuition. Free tuition at two-year community colleges plans has also been endorsed by at least Jim Shea and Sen. Madaleno.

Higher education affordability for non-community college students may be aided, under Vignarajah’s plan, by a state-issued, one-percent loan program.

In terms of environmental protections, she says “I will take stronger climate action than anyone out there.” She says, if elected governor, Maryland will be a leader in combating climate change. She plans to immediately sign up for the climate alliance lead in combating climate change through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and set ambitious targets for cutting carbon emissions.

She also plans to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Vignarajah mentioned her affinity for the tributary to TPN, mentioning that she and her husband got married on the Choptank River. Vignarajah is married to Collin O’Mara, who is the CEO of the United States’ largest nonprofit conservation advocacy organization, the National Wildlife Foundation.

Vignarajah says that if she’s elected as governor, Maryland will invest in an outdoor economy. She says this will mean job creation and sustainability. “We have some of the most pristine[ly] beautiful natural resources in the country,” Vignarajah says, “and as governor, I want to make sure that we have the best hunting, biking birding, fishing, camping, east of the Mississippi [River] and that everyone knows that.”

Promoting diversity and inclusion was likewise stated as important by Vignarajah, who puts “her gender at the center of her candidacy,” according to The Baltimore Sun.

Vignarajah hopes to bring more diverse leadership to Maryland. She points out that out of Maryland’s 14 federal and statewide publicly elected offices — attorney general, comptroller, senators, representatives, governor, et cetera —  none are women. Out of all the people officially declared as running for governor, she is the only woman. As previously noted, the 62 previous governors of Maryland were all white men. “We have the same level of female representation we had 100 years ago,” Vignarajah told Glamour, “when women didn’t have the right to vote.”

“Let me be clear: part of why I am running is because we need more women in public office,” Vignarajah said at her campaign announcement. She continued, “and the policies of our state reflect our absence.”

Vignarah told TPN that she is running to make “history this year by having Maryland elect its first female governor [and having] the Democratic party elect [its] first woman of color.”

“It’s about having folks at the table who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences,” Vignarajah told TPN, “but part of it is also, today more than ever, not just having … a seat at the table, but actually being at its head.”

At a forum hosted by Goucher College on Feb. 2, Vignarajah said that the lack of gender diversity lead her to announce a policy to combat sexual assault and harassment. According to Vice Impact, the plan will help bring #MeToo accountability into law and aims to make sure sexual harassment is no longer tolerated in government. The plan, among other things, includes a proposal for the creation of an Office of Sexual Harassment and Violence, according to The Diamondback.

If elected governor, Vignarajah told TPN she promises that she will appoint “the most diverse cabinet that we have ever had in history.” Vignarajah and Blake make up Maryland’s first-ever gubernatorial ballot with two women of color.

Before Vignarajah can appoint her cabinet members, she has to beat eight primary opponents, including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, Ralph Jaffe, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, State Senator Rich Madaleno, former advisor to Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, businessman Jim Shea as well as the incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings was also in the running to be Maryland’s first woman of color governor, but according to The Washington Post, she dropped out of the race due to “personal considerations” after her husband, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, was hospitalized.

Anyone interested in learning more about Krishanti Vignarajah’s campaign should know that she plans to visit St. Mary’s College of Maryland on March 19, 2018. Look out for emails with more details. Her website is krishformaryland.com.

This article is part of a series of TPN’s gubernatorial election coverage. We have published an overview of the election, as well as a profile of Sen. Rich Madaleno. We hope to interview as many candidates as possible prior to the Nov. 6, 2018 election.  

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