Krish Vignarajah is the only woman in Maryland’s gubernatorial race — but that’s not the the only reason she stands out.
When she an infant, Vignarajah’s parents moved from Sri Lanka to Maryland to work as schoolteachers and eventually retired from the profession.
She graduated from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County and later received degrees from Yale and Oxford universities. She also worked as a policy director for former first lady Michelle Obama.
Vignarajah, 38, isn’t concerned about a lawsuit she withdrew in January to maintain her eligibility on the ballot. Although she’s registered to vote in Maryland, she also voted in the District while working for Obama. However, no one has challenged her eligibility.
“Honestly, folks don’t ask me about it,” Vignarajah said. “I’m out talking about the issues that I think we all care about.”
Vignarajah is part of a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls looking to oust Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the November general election, including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. of Montgomery County, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, Baltimore attorney Jim Shea, educator Ralph Jaffe and James Jones of Baltimore City.
Although many have welcomed Vignarajah’s straightforwardness during recent candidate forums, particularly when discussing the environment and sexual harassment, recent polls have her near the back of the pack.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Towson, said the poll numbers suggests Vignarajah’s name recognition among Marylanders remain low.
“But she has a great back story,” Kromer said. “She is the candidate that went to the public schools. She is a fantastic public speaker. While she makes a positive impression, it is really hard for her to break through a large outreach in a race with [so] many candidates.”
After a Feb. 24 gubernatorial forum in Baltimore, the Gaithersburg native sat down to discuss her campaign, touching on topics such as sexual harassment, housing and education. Here are some of her thoughts, in her own words:
I applaud the [Maryland] Women’s Caucus [for taking] this issue on. They had serious and substantive deliberation before they put out their recommendations. Candidly when I talk to women across the state, none of this is news to us. This kind of environment has been in boardrooms or classrooms, in Hollywood, or in Annapolis. For me, it’s why I rolled out a policy on sexual harassment and violence. It is very much aligned with what the Women’s Caucus substantively put out. For me, the focus has been on three main areas. One, to create the first-ever Office of Sexual Harassment and Violence. It is really focused on making sure survivors come forward and they find a system that will support them. There will be wraparound services provided and addressing related issues like the backlog on rape kits. Second, establish a standard that every person running for office, every person seeking a public commission, every business seeking to do business with government declares they have never engaged in sexual harassment or violence, or sought to cover it up. That’s the gold standard we should be expecting of our electors. It’s just a matter of disclosure. It’s the same way if you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re required to disclose that. If you’ve committed sexual harassment or violence against woman, you should be required to disclose that. The third part of it is making sure we undertake educational efforts. Not just at the high school level, but at the middle school level. It is also when our children are mature enough to understand these concepts of appropriate and inappropriate behavior of consent and a lack of consent. When it comes to educating our children what’s appropriate behavior. It is really important just as we educate them about public health, sex ed, etc. We need to educate boys and girls about sexual harassment, mutual consent and those kinds of issue.
We have tens of thousands of homes under foreclosure. We have vacant lots. We have homes that become dilapidated, especially in the city [of Baltimore]. We spend something like $70 million to address dilapidated homes. It’s one of those things that’s a domino effect. If you see one home foreclosed on, it’s more likely in that neighborhood you will have prices depressed. It’s about three things. One, how do we better coordinate between the local, state and federal levels? They are programs that are in place to try and address to help people. Because it is such a messy system, no one knows where to go for what kind of help. The home buying incentive, for example, is a great way for a distressed property and we help people purchase those properties, we would do a lot better than what we are doing right now. When it comes to a lot of the broader redevelopment that we need to see, that’s where public-private partnerships need to come in. There are developers who want to take on those properties. There are government properties as well as private homes that need some help and yet, we are not putting those pieces together. When you are a first-time buyer, it is not clear what department, or office you need to go to. There are tax incentives. People don’t know the initial point that there is a tax incentive if you are first-time homebuyer. Second part of it is figuring out the financing. This is where a government can be a matchmaker to help people out how to get a mortgage. The third piece of this is figuring out because there are tax incentives for certain properties in certain areas. Let people know geographically where they should be looking. I just think there are some real opportunities on all three of those fronts.
Sometimes we stigmatize those kids who are going to come out of high school. If they can get the vocational training they need, they can become plumbers, electricians. That is a great track for them to go. We shouldn’t assume, or expect, or require, that every kid has to go to a two-year, or four-year college. Every kid who wants to go to a two-year or four-year college, I want to make sure they can. I want to provide free community college. There are a few community colleges that do that, but not all across the state. This is where if we can make it free, the kids will come. At Woodlawn High School, I went back to talk to the kids recently. They now have a program where you can get your [associate’s] degree in high school. Kids are signing up because they know our economic climate is becoming so much more competitive. It sure does help if you come out with some kind of degree. What we [must] prioritize: investing in universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. It’s going to be about fixing the funding in inequities. Rebuilding our crumbling schools. I learned this from Michelle Obama: no child can give their teacher full attention on an empty stomach. I want to make sure that every child can have a hot, healthy breakfast and lunch [before and after care program]. I also want to invest in science and technology, engineering, arts, civic education and math. Not just at the high school level, but also the middle and elementary levels. [Trump’s election] taught us if we don’t start teaching our kids to be productive, engaged citizens, then we’re going to have a more divided and disengaged electoral base, and that’s a problem. Trump’s election should be a rude awakening for us of what happens when we don’t educate our kids to be citizens.