Krishanti Vignarajah launched her campaign for governor Tuesday outside the basement apartment in Baltimore County where her parents brought her as an infant after fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka.
With her 3-month-old daughter nestled in her husband’s arms, Vignarajah pitched herself as the embodiment of the American Dream, an immigrant raised by public school teachers to become an Ivy League lawyer and policy director to former first lady Michelle Obama.
Vignarajah laid out an aggressive list of campaign promises to a crowd of about 50 people gathered at her childhood home: providing full-day universal pre-K, cutting rush-hour commutes in half with better mass transit, building the Red Line in Baltimore, offering statewide access to high-speed internet, creating 250,000 new private-sector jobs, spending $2.9 billion more on education every year, and guaranteeing every new parent three months of parental leave.
As the only woman in the crowded Democratic field challenging popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Vignarajah put her gender at the center of her candidacy.
“They say no man can beat Governor Hogan,” she said. “Well, I’m no man.”
She pointed out that Maryland currently has no women elected to any of its 14 federal and statewide offices. The state has never elected a woman for governor, though a few from both parties have run.
"Let me be clear: part of why I am running is because we need more women in public office,” she said. “And the policies of our state reflect our absence.”
As examples, she noted that Maryland is among a handful of states that grants parental rights to rapists and that Annapolis lawmakers have fought for years over requiring companies to provide five sick days to workers.
Vignarajah, 37, is among a wave of Democratic women in Maryland and across the country seeking public office in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to President Donald Trump in November.
Political scientist Todd Eberly said that Democratic primary voters “are going to be eager to find and elect women,” which creates an opportunity for Vignarajah to stand out from the six men who also are seeking the Democratic nomination.
He added that Vignarajah, a Yale- and Oxford-educated lawyer and former State Department adviser who has never held public office, will still have to persuade donors and activists she has a chance to win and has a plan to enact all her promises.
“The fact that she is the only female candidate running won't automatically catapult her past, for example, two people who have been county executive,” Eberly said.
Democrats hold a 2-1 registration advantage in Maryland, but lost the governor’s mansion to Hogan in a 2014 upset that showed a Republican can win handily with a centrist message if a chunk of Democrats stay home on Election Day, analysts said.
“You're in a state that is progressive like this, and you have this open contest, and there's not a ready bench of Democratic women ready to run?” Eberly said. “We're finding that we have no shortage of men.”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, state Sen Richard Madaleno, author and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and former Venable law firm chairman Jim Shea already have launched campaigns.
Another woman, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who runs a political consulting firm in D.C. and is the wife of Rep. Elijah Cummings, has said she is considering a bid. She did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on her plans.
Vignarajah’s campaign launch comes amid questions about whether she meets Maryland’s residency requirements. Candidates for governor must demonstrate they have lived in Maryland and been a registered voter here for at least five years.
While she worked at the White House, she registered to vote in Washington in 2010 and last voted there in 2014. At the same time, she also was registered to vote in Maryland and maintained a home here. She said has not voted more than once in any election and did not think being registered to vote in two locations made her ineligible. She lives in Gaithersburg.
She declined to take questions about the residency issue Tuesday, though in the past has likened the controversy to the birther movement that questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Her campaign issued a statement saying she “laid out her vision for Maryland's future. She will be on the ballot, and her speech — full of bold ideas — is the message to the people of Maryland today."
Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland GOP and Hogan’s campaign lawyer, issued a statement saying that “yet another candidate has shown that Democrats can’t get their act together."
"By refusing to take questions or answer charges after many years as a Washington D.C. insider, Krishanti Vignarajah does not even meet residency requirements and has shown she simply doesn’t have what it takes to lead our state."
Her supporters describe her as a charismatic and engaging speaker who represents the sort of change Democratic voters upset about Trump’s presidency wished they could send to Washington. And that the best response is to help build a pipeline of female candidates.
“It’s important for people like me, who didn’t get what they wanted at a federal level to fight for what we want at a local level,” said Kami Burns, a 31-year-old from Harford County who brought her infant son to Vignarajah’s announcement. “It’s exciting to see women and a young mom like myself who could lead the state.”
Beside her, Stephanie Hennes, a 34-year-old attorney from Silver Spring, brought her 4-year-old daughter. Hennes said Vignarajah’s message about climbing to success from humble beginnings resonated with her.
“Economic diversity matters too," she said.
Democratic activist Nick Kyriacou from Annapolis said he initially leaned toward another candidate until Vignarajah visited his local political club.
“Once she got up and spoke, I was hooked,” he said. “Done deal.”
Vignarajah told supporters she was motivated to run by the birth of her daughter, Alana, and the fact that Hogan has not been an outspoken critic of some of Trump’s policies.
“As I look into the eyes of my daughter, I cannot help but wonder if stories like ours would still be possible for the next generation,” she said. “Had my parents fled a civil war today, would they still be welcome in Donald Trump’s America? And had they come to Baltimore, would there still be the same opportunities in Maryland for them when the current governor stays silent when it matters most?”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ulysses Muñoz contributed to this article.