Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of profiles of Democratic candidates for governor.
At a recent forum in Baltimore, Krish Vignarajah was the last Democratic candidate for governor to step onto the stage. By then, it was already crammed with men.
The scene demonstrated why Vignarajah, a lawyer and former policy director for Michelle Obama, jumped into the crowded race to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — even though she has never run for office and had a baby just three months before launching her bid.
“They say right now no man can beat Larry Hogan,” Vignarajah told the crowd. “Well, I am no man.”
Vignarajah has placed her gender and motherhood at the center of her campaign in the June 26 Democratic primary race. She tells voters that of the 14 statewide and federal offices in Maryland, none are held by women. Her first campaign ad featured her breastfeeding her daughter.
“We have to have someone who is actually representing us, representing the struggles that our families face,” she says. “Maryland has had 62 governors. All have been male, all have been white.”
On the campaign trail, Vignarajah, 38, displays a natural charisma befitting a seasoned politician and a policy wonk’s command of detail. She sells herself as an immigrant success story built on the same Maryland public education system that provided her refugee parents with a lifeline and decades-long careers as teachers.
Last week, Vignarajah lost her distinction as the only woman running for governor when Valerie Ervin decided to take her deceased running mate Kevin Kamenentz’s place on the Democratic primary ballot. Vignarajah welcomed the development.
“Just as there is room for seven men in the race,” she said, “there’s room for two women.”
Vignarajah’s policy pitches display the forceful intellect that took her from Baltimore County public schools through multiple Ivy League graduate degrees and onto a White House job working for the first lady. And though her relatively low-budget campaign has been dogged by questions about her residency, her delivery of her ideas has impressed voters.
“The thing is, I believe her,” Ron Howell, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Teacher Network, said after hearing Vignarajah speak at the Baltimore event. “What she wants for the citizens, you can feel it, and it’s not just rhetoric. It doesn’t sound rehearsed. What she says, she says with integrity and with sincerity.”
When Vignarajah was nine months old, in 1980, her parents fled civil war in Sri Lanka. They arrived in Maryland, she tells voters, “with no jobs and $200 in their pockets.”
Her parents both became Baltimore city public school teachers and moved the family into a basement apartment in Baltimore County. Vignarajah often emphasizes how the power of education helped her overcome the economic struggles of a childhood where pizza and soda were considered extravagances.
After graduating from Woodlawn High School, Vignarajah went to Yale University and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a master’s degree in political science. She won a Marshall Scholarship and studied international relations at Oxford University. She briefly worked as a consultant before returning to Yale to earn a law degree.
She worked as a senior adviser in the State Department under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry before taking a job as a policy aide to Mrs. Obama.
After Vignarajah left the White House at the end of the administration, she launched a consulting company and traveled the country giving commencement and other speeches. Time and again, she said, people approached her about running for office.
It wasn’t until she was eight months pregnant that she began to seriously consider running for governor. After speaking at the 2017 Western Maryland Democratic summit — and someone else asked her to run — she spotted a poster featuring photos of eight potential gubernatorial candidates. They were all men. She looked down and saw her swollen belly as a reason to run.
The prospect even nagged at her on the drive home from the hospital after giving birth to her daughter, Alana, last June.
“It was the most important role that I could find to effect the change that we need,” she said.
Three months later she launched her campaign outside the basement apartment she once shared with her parents and older brother, Thiru Vignarajah, a candidate to be Baltimore state’s attorney.
Her retired parents moved into her Gaithersburg home to care for Alana as Krish campaigns and while her husband, Collin O’Mara, works as president of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington.
Vignarajah’s candidacy immediately attracted national attention, largely from women’s magazines writing about her as a new mother and immigrant in an era when Donald J. Trump’s presidency has ignited activism among Democratic women.
But Vignarajah was politically engaged long before Trump. At the White House, she led the global Let Girls Learn initiative. The program combined resources from six federal agencies to help teenage girls around the world continue their educations, particularly in places of crisis or war.
“I was impressed watching her use the levers of power,” said Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation, which was involved in Let Girls Learn. “She’s very good at taking the germ of an idea and turning it into something far bigger than what people would expect.”
Vignarajah spent a recent lunch hour in Baltimore’s Lexington Market meeting with city activists to learn about their projects. Eric Jackson, director of the Black Yield Institute, explained how his work on food scarcity began with years of convincing people in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood that a grocery store co-op could benefit them.
Within minutes, he and Vignarajah were discussing how the lack of trust in government institutions is destructive and how communities of color can overcome that skepticism.
“Part of my campaign is not just saying, ‘What are the problems and how do we fix it?’ ” she told him. “It’s saying, ‘What are the solutions you found and how do we scale them?’ ”
Over the course of the next few hours, Vignarajah tried to connect the director of a Baltimore recreation center with officials from Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that teaches computer science, and spent an hour talking with doctors about how patchwork grant funding has complicated efforts to treat opioid addiction.
Vignarajah has many big promises for Maryland spelled out in more than 100 pages of text and nearly 14,000 words on her website: universal pre-kindergarten, free college tuition at community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, more reproductive health centers, paid leave for new parents, expanded use of renewable energy sources and a massive increase in school construction funding.
She wants to give free doses of naloxone — the anti-overdose drug — to all homes in rural areas of Western and Southern Maryland and invest more in fishing piers, boat launches and hiking trails to boost what she calls the “outdoor economy” in Maryland. She intends to pay for all this by growing the economy and making a budget prioritized around those policies.
But Vignarajah’s candidacy has been unable to settle questions about whether she’s eligible to be governor.
Maryland governors must reside and be registered to vote in Maryland for at least five years. Vignarajah voted in Washington, D.C. as recently as 2014. That has prompted Democrats and Republicans to say she shouldn’t be on the ballot.
Vignarajah says she kept a “crash pad” apartment and voted in Washington, where she temporarily worked, but also maintained her voter registration and home in Maryland.
While no one has challenged her candidacy in court, donors have been scared off by the possibility that Republicans could get her thrown off the ballot in the November general election.
Vignarajah tried to resolve the uncertainty by asking a court to affirm she’s eligible, but withdrew the lawsuit at the request of state officials who said no one had ever alleged in court that she is not.
“No one has challenged our residency. I’m on the ballot,” she said. “We raised the issue, and everyone backed down. … If the question is, ‘Am I Maryland enough?’ I’m happy to take that to the polls.”
Family: Married, one child.
Running mate: Sharon Blake, 67, former president Baltimore Teachers Union
Education: bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, master’s degree in political science, law degree, all from Yale University.
Experience: Former policy director for first lady Michelle Obama. Former State Department adviser.