Democrat Alec Ross, tech expert and author, says as Maryland governor he'll focus on 'what's next'

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of profiles of Democratic candidates for governor.

Alec Ross has been a lot of things: a night-shift janitor, a Baltimore school teacher, a technology expert in the Obama administration and a best-selling author.

Now he wants to be Maryland’s governor.

The Baltimore resident was unknown in Maryland politics when he launched his campaign last summer, but Ross says his eclectic career path will make him a more inventive governor than the six major Democrats he hopes to defeat in the June 26 primary.

His rivals, he says, are stuck in decades-old Democratic positions while he has a track record of implementing innovative strategies to improve government. Call him a political futurist — not a future politician.

“The thing that distinguishes my candidacy is that it’s really focused on what’s next,” Ross says. “When you think of a world with more automation, a world of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, a world of a more connected economy, I think the challenges are going to be different than they were in 1968 and 1998.”

Ross, 46, says he can get “bored to death” hearing other politicians talk about the “oversimplified binary” of Democratic ideas vs. Republican ideas.

On gun control, for example, Ross supports better background checks, a common Democratic refrain. But what he really wants is “smart gun” technology that prevents weapons from being fired by anyone other than their owners.

On combating heroin and opioid addiction, Ross supports expanded treatment, as most candidates do. But what he really wants is to push Maryland toward helping patients relieve pain without narcotics to avoid becoming addicted in the first place.

While he advocates more affordable child care, he pitches a complex plan for working parents to take out loans for child care that would be repaid based on their income.

It’s not clear whether his big ideas are resonating with voters. In polls, he remains stuck at single-digit support from likely Democratic voters. The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the November election.

On a rainy night in Laurel this week, Abbie Chessler listened as Ross made his pitch to about a dozen workers for tech companies. Chessler was a co-host of the event with her husband, Ernie Falcone, but says she hasn’t made up her mind about which Democrat to support.

Chessler, president of a company that designs museums, said she likes that Ross is young, progressive and has a genuine interest in helping Baltimore.

“He seems to understand politics and policy and how to get things done without being a career politician,” she said. But, she added, “I’m really looking ahead to who can beat Hogan in the fall.”

Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said Ross faces a challenge in convincing voters that his experience in the nonprofit sector and the federal government is relevant in Maryland. While some voters like outsiders, others prefer candidates with track records in office, she said.

“Alec’s issue is being able to get voters to make a connection that his experience will be good for governing the state, that his background is appropriate,” Kromer said.

Ross was raised in Charleston, W.Va., and attended Northwestern University near Chicago. Back home for the summers, he worked as a “midnight janitor” and on a beer truck.

After obtaining a history degree, Ross landed in Baltimore as a Teach for America teacher and never left. He spent two years teaching at Booker T. Washington Middle School, where he met his now-wife, Felicity, who still teaches in city schools. They have three children.

In 1994, The Baltimore Sun chronicled Ross’ first year as a teacher, documenting his efforts as a white man from West Virginia to connect with mostly African-American students from Baltimore.

“He’s determined to succeed,” Ross’ supervisor told The Sun at the time. “You can tell it in talking to him. I’d bet on him.”

Ross says his background growing up in coal country and experiences teaching help him feel comfortable around all types of people — even as he name-drops inside-the-Beltway politicians and refers to working for “my friend Hillary Clinton.”

“You can drop me in any community in Maryland; I feel at home and people know it,” he says. “It will take somebody who people from across Maryland would see as their governor to beat Larry Hogan.”

After Teach for America and a stint with Project Vote, Ross helped found an organization called One Economy, which advocated for helping underserved communities by expanding high-speed internet service and creating websites with information about health, finance, employment and more. This was in 2000, a time when the internet, websites and e-commerce were just taking off.

One of Ross’ top accomplishments at One Economy was a campaign called Bring IT Home to get state housing agencies to push developers of affordable housing to include high-speed internet as an amenity for tenants.

Ross left One Economy after eight years to work on President Barack Obama’s campaign. After the election, he landed a gig as senior adviser for innovation for the State Department under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ross describes his job as the “break-in-case-of-emergency guy.” His State Department team was sent to dozens of countries to use technology to solve problems. In northern Mexico, he says, they created an encrypted text messaging service for residents to send secure tips about drug gangs. In the Congo, they used electronic payments for army soldiers to reduce corruption associated with cash transported for paydays.

Ross thinks he can parlay that experience into successfully leading Maryland.

“I don’t need to get on a plane and travel halfway around the world to solve a big problem,” Ross says. “We have big problems to solve here in Maryland.”

And with three children and a wife who teaches at a public school, Ross says he is invested in improving the city and the state.

With sandy hair and a slight build, Ross looks younger than his age. But his admirers say he commands attention.

Peter Levin worked with Ross when the two were in the Obama administration — Levin as the chief technology officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Ross at State.

Ross helped lead a group of technology officials from various departments to push the VA into making electronic medical records accessible to patients. There was some pushback, but Ross convinced the team that it was a good idea, Levin said.

“Alec was the guy who let everyone vent first and explain why it couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done. And in this most elegant, graceful and collaborative way said: ‘Yeah, I hear you, but we’re going to do this,’ ” Levin said. “In a one-hour meeting, he changed the entire tone and tenor in 10 seconds.”

While Ross is a newcomer to Maryland’s political scene, he has many supporters in the technology industry and in the federal government — at least among Democrats. He’s written a best-selling book, “The Industries of the Future,” and amassed more than 366,000 followers on Twitter — that’s more than six times as many followers as Hogan, the popular Republican incumbent.

Ross’ admirers include Craig Newmark, founder and namesake of Craigslist, an entrepreneur adept at using technology to shake up the status quo.

Newmark professes not to be political, but crossed paths with Ross while supporting Obama’s campaign and watched his career at the State Department.

“He’s good at connecting with people firsthand or through social media,” Newmark said. “He’s just good at getting stuff done.”

And Newmark sees in Ross qualities that he says are not often found in politics: a command of policy combined with honesty.

“Given the political environment in Washington these days,” Newmark said, “being capable and honest is quite rare.”

Alec Ross

Age: 46

Profession: Author, technology policy expert

Home: Baltimore

Family: Married, three children

Running mate: Julie Verratti, 38, brewery owner and former federal employee

Education: History degree, Northwestern University

Experience: Taught for two years in Baltimore schools. Founded an organization that advocated for expanded internet access. Senior advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Author of “The Industries of the Future.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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