A fo­cus on fam­i­lies and ed­u­ca­tion

Her can­di­dacy for Mary­land gov­er­nor car­ries his­toric po­ten­tial

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY RACHEL CHASON

Fourth in a se­ries of pro­files of Mary­land’s Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary can­di­dates.

Kr­is­hanti Vig­nara­jah wove her way be­tween ta­bles in a col­lege pub in Bal­ti­more County, her 11-month-old daugh­ter on her hip, and ex­plained why she should be Mary­land’s next gov­er­nor.

“If you ever need a re­minder of what we’re fight­ing for, ta­da,” Vig­nara­jah said, hold­ing Alana up to grin­ning volunteers from the gun-con­trol ad­vo­cacy group Moms De­mand Ac­tion.

The gun-con­trol volunteers played peek­a­boo with the baby.

“I’m sorry,” said one of them, Ruth Gum­nitzky, look­ing up from the game. “I don’t know what you’re run­ning for.”

Vig­nara­jah, a 38-year-old for­mer ad­viser to Michelle Obama, replied qui­etly: “It’s okay — I’m run­ning for gov­er­nor.” Shortly after, she ush­ered the volunteers, a few stu­dents and a for­mer Bal­ti­more County po­lice chief to a ta­ble, where she led a con­ver­sa­tion about strate­gies to re­duce gun vi­o­lence.

As one of seven ma­jor can­di­dates in the June 26 Demo­cratic pri­mary, Vig­nara­jah has at­tracted some na­tional at­ten­tion be­cause of the his­toric po­ten­tial of her can­di­dacy: She would be the first woman, im­mi­grant or per­son of color to be elected gov­er­nor in Mary­land. One lib­eral out­let dubbed her Pres­i­dent Trump’s “worst night­mare” — a line she proudly uses on the cam­paign trail, fre­quently adding that her de­mo­graph­ics also make her ideally suited to chal­lenge pop­u­lar in­cum­bent Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R).

But she is lit­tle known among Mary­land Democrats, win­ning the sup­port of only 4 per­cent of likely Demo­cratic vot­ers in a Wash­ing­ton Post-Univer­sity of Mary­land poll this month.

She brushed aside con­cerns about name recog­ni­tion in an in­ter­view, say­ing that all the Democrats in the race are strug­gling to get their name out there, al­beit “to dif­fer­ent ex­tents.”

“But there is a unique ad­van­tage we have in terms of hav­ing a message that res­onates,” said Vig­nara­jah, whose par­ents fled civil war in Sri Lanka and ar­rived in the United States when she was 9 months old.

In a year in which more women and mi­nori­ties are run­ning for of­fice, Vig­nara­jah has billed her­self as a new voice in Mary­land, which has no women in its con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion or top statewide elected po­si­tions. She high­lights her per­spec­tive as a woman on the cam­paign trail, in­clud­ing re­leas­ing an ad in which she breast-feeds Alana and says ju­ris­dic­tions with fe­male lead­ers have “bet­ter schools, bet­ter health care and lower in­car­cer­a­tion rates.”

Vig­nara­jah has failed to se­cure ma­jor en­dorse­ments or sub­stan­tial fundrais­ing dol­lars. She has also been dogged by ques­tions about her res­i­dency: Mary­land law re­quires its gov­er­nor be a res­i­dent of the state for five years be­fore the elec­tion, but Vig­nara­jah said on govern­ment forms that she lived in the Dis­trict as re­cently as 2016.

She now lives in Gaithers­burg, in a house she pur­chased last sum­mer with her hus­band, Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Collin O’Mara. She says that she spent con­sid­er­able time in the Dis­trict while work­ing as a lawyer and then for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion but that she has al­ways con­sid­ered Mary­land her home.

Vig­nara­jah de­scribes her­self as the can­di­date best pre­pared to im­prove the state’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem — a top pri­or­ity for Demo­cratic vot­ers — be­cause she knows it best. Her run­ning mate, Sharon Blake, is a re­tired teacher, her par­ents were pub­lic school teach­ers in Bal­ti­more — her dad re­tired last year at age 81 — and she at­tended pub­lic school in Bal­ti­more County from kinder­garten through high school.

At Yale Univer­sity, she earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy, a mas­ter’s de­gree in po­lit­i­cal science and a law de­gree. She worked briefly in busi­ness and law be­fore be­com­ing an ad­viser in the State De­part­ment and then to the for­mer first lady — a po­si­tion she of­ten de­scribes on the cam­paign trail as “the honor of a life­time.”

“Our story is the Amer­i­can Dream,” said Vig­nara­jah, whose brother, Thiru, is run­ning this year for state’s at­tor­ney in Bal­ti­more — tim­ing that both said was a co­in­ci­dence.

She said she is run­ning be­cause Trump’s elec­tion and Ho­gan’s pri­or­i­ties dur­ing his first term — dur­ing which the state’s ed­u­ca­tion rank­ing has slipped even as fund­ing has in­creased — left her un­cer­tain whether fu­ture res­i­dents would be able to achieve that same dream. On Fri­day, she an­nounced a $200,000 ad buy in the Bal­ti­more area, fea­tur­ing the breast-feed­ing ad, which de­buted on­line in March.

Her message res­onated with Manelle Martino, a busi­ness owner in An­napo­lis who was still an­gry about Trump’s elec­tion when she read an ar­ti­cle an­nounc­ing Vig­nara­jah’s can­di­dacy. Martino, a mother of four whose par­ents were also im­mi­grants, picked up the phone, called the cam­paign and of­fered to vol­un­teer.

“We need to have women like her call­ing the shots . . . oth­er­wise, how can we feel rep­re­sented?” said Martino, whose chil­dren at­tend pri­vate school. She said that she wishes the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem were stronger and that she es­pe­cially likes Vig­nara­jah’s sup­port for uni­ver­sal prekinder­garten, which sev­eral other Democrats com­pet­ing in the pri­mary also sup­port.

Vig­nara­jah’s plat­form also in­cludes guar­an­tee­ing three months of paid fam­ily leave and mak­ing tu­ition free at com­mu­nity col­leges and debt-free for stu­dents who qual­ify for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance at his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

She says she would not raise taxes and would pay for her pro­pos­als by fos­ter­ing eco­nomic growth and read­just­ing pri­or­i­ties in the bud­get — re­duc­ing the amount of money spent on in­car­cer­at­ing peo­ple, for ex­am­ple, and putting left­over funds to­ward re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams.

Early in her can­di­dacy, she pro­posed a new state agency fo­cused on stop­ping sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing by iden­ti­fy­ing re­peat of­fend­ers, au­dit­ing state of­fices and re­quir­ing in­di­vid­u­als who seek pub­lic of­fice, em­ploy­ment or fund­ing to dis­close whether they have com­mit­ted such acts. She said too many women, in­clud­ing her­self, have ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual as­sault or ha­rass­ment.

“She’s beaten the odds again and again in her ca­reer,” said Thiru Vig­nara­jah, who over­lapped with Vig­nara­jah for one year at Yale and re­called that she could of­ten be found on a tread­mill at 5 a.m., read­ing an or­ganic chem­istry text­book. “As an older brother who lost un­ex­pect­edly to her all the time, I’m just glad I’m not run­ning against her.”

Vig­nara­jah said she is “laser­fo­cused” on vic­tory. She sleeps three or four hours a night, spend­ing the rest of the time with her daugh­ter and work­ing on the cam­paign.

Dur­ing the day, she treks across the state at a quick pace, at­tend­ing mul­ti­ple events with small groups and seek­ing in­put from po­ten­tial vot­ers on her al­ready de­tailed pol­icy po­si­tions.

At the pub at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Bal­ti­more County, Vig­nar­jah lis­tened and took notes as stu­dents, mothers and for­mer po­lice chief Jim John­son dis­cussed which anti-gun-vi­o­lence strate­gies are work­ing. Felix Fac­chine and Meghan Lynch, both se­niors at UMBC, said they would likely be sup­port­ing Vig­nara­jah, in part be­cause she is a woman.

“Sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters a lot,” Lynch said.

Gum­nitzky, the vol­un­teer who had not known what Vig­nara­jah was run­ning for, said she liked what she had to say dur­ing the round­table dis­cus­sion.

But as Vig­nara­jah left the pub and headed for a fundraiser in Bal­ti­more, Alana still on her hip, Gum­nitzky said she had not yet de­cided which can­di­date would get her vote.

Next: Valerie Ervin

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Kr­is­hanti Vig­nara­jah, a for­mer ad­viser to Michelle Obama, ar­rived in the United States as an in­fant after her fam­ily fled Sri Lanka.

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