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Alec Ross: Tech guru sets his sights on new horizon, becoming Maryland governor

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Alec Ross talks to reporters after a June 5 debate at the University of Baltimore's Learning Commons. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

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

Alec Ross, author and innovator, was on his way to Annapolis in early 2017 to brief state lawmakers about the economic future when he told a friend of his latest high-wire ambition: dethroning Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

The friend, state Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), liked the idea of a statewide candidate proselytizing about the necessity of modernizing. But Ferguson was surprised that Ross — then a 45-year-old political novice — actually thought he could become governor.

“I tried to be realistic,” the senator recalled. “He was sure he could win.”

Ross’s campaign for the Democratic nomination is the latest incarnation for a man who has spent the last quarter-century navigating new realms, including Baltimore public school teacher, tech guru for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and author of a bestseller.

His current venture may be his most quixotic, given that Maryland Democrats have only twice nominated gubernatorial candidates who had never held public office. Even Hogan (R), for all his claims to being an outsider, was the son of an accomplished politician, had twice run for Congress and was an adviser to Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R).

“We have a strong party state and political culture, where relationships and experience have been the route to success,” said John Willis, a University of Baltimore political science professor. “Politics is more complex than ‘I have the best ideas, I have the most energy.’ ”

As a candidate, Ross touts himself as “someone who thinks a little differently,” rolling out tech-infused visions of funding computer science and coding classes at all Maryland public schools.

He sprinkles his remarks with asides that most politicians would not dare float. “A total badass” is his description for his ticket-mate, Julie Verratti, an openly gay brewery owner running for lieutenant governor.

Ross says his greatest strength is “seeing what’s around the corner.” When it comes to his own future, his prospects in the June 26 primary appear dim, based on a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week that showed him with 2 percent support among likely Democratic voters.

“Ask Hillary Clinton how reliable polls are,” he said, referring to President Trump’s upset victory over his former boss. “We’re more than viable. I wouldn’t trade my lane with anyone.”

At a recent Laurel meet-and-greet, Ross told voters that he’s not a product of what he often describes as “the Annapolis farm system” — his shorthand for Maryland’s political establishment.

“I’m an innovator,” he said, citing as an example his interest in smart-grip technology that ensures a gun can be used only by its owner. “It’s not Democratic doctrine or Republican doctrine. It’s solving a problem.”

Chad Tyler, 36, a designer who attended the event, said Ross’s ideas were refreshing. But he questioned whether his political inexperience would make it difficult to “wrangle with grumpy delegates in Annapolis. Can he get them around his agenda?”

Ross has faced similar questions throughout his career, starting in the mid-1990s, after he graduated from Northwestern University and began teaching at an all-black middle school in Baltimore.

He grew up in Charleston, W.Va., the son of a lawyer and a stay-at-home mother he refers to — affectionately — as “Becky the Barbarian.” When his fourth-grade report card “was less than stellar,” Becky Ross recalled in an interview, “He didn’t see the TV set for a month. We only had to do it once.”

The embers of Ross’s ambition were emerging by the sixth grade, when he promised to become president.

“President of what?” he was asked, according to his mother.

“ ‘The president.’ ”

A decade later, when he was a Teach for America recruit at Booker T. Washington Middle School, a Baltimore Sun reporter made Ross the star of a series about a teacher’s first year, certain that he would be a “disaster.” “He had a baby face,” said Mike Bowler, the reporter. “I thought those kids would eat him up. It was the opposite.”

Recruit Survives, Flourishes” was the headline of Bowler’s last piece about Ross.

Ross met his wife, Felicity, an educator with whom he has three children, at the school. He taught for two years before finding a new horizon: launching the nonprofit One Economy, which focuses on delivering the Internet to the poor. It was there that Ross met then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign hired him as a technology adviser.

Ross showed his appetite for challenging political convention when his friend Ari Wallach proposed using social media to counter a growing perception that Obama was anti-Jewish. Wallach wanted to create a cheekily crude video in which comedian Sarah Silverman would urge Jews to travel to Florida to persuade their grandparents to support a black man for president.

While some Obama advisers were wary of the idea, Ross urged his friend to press forward. “Alec understood the technology and how to connect with people,” Wallach said. “The Great Schlep,” as the video was called, has been viewed more than 2.5 million times and is credited with helping Obama draw Jewish voters.

After Obama’s victory, Ross was recruited by Clinton, the new secretary of state, to lead the diplomatic corps into the Internet age. Ross used the post to promote technology globally and trumpeted social media as an engine for resisting autocratic rule, including, most notably, during the 2010 Arab Spring.

At one point during his tenure, Ross drew criticism for overly casual Twitter musings. During a trip to Syria, for example, he tweeted about a colleague’s “creative diplomacy” in challenging a local official to a cake-eating contest. “The idea of a diplomat tweeting caused a lot of pearl-clutching back in Washington,” Ross recalled. “We were ahead of our time. I’d rather be a little early than a little late.”

Ross left the State Department in 2013 and drew on his international experience to again try something new: He wrote a book, “The Industries of the Future,” in which he forecast global trends in chapters with titles like “Here Come the Robots.”

The book was translated into 17 languages, received praise from Google chief Eric Schmidt and drew a crowd of 4,000 when Ross showed up for a reading in Taipei. “There was a two-hour-long line to get your book signed,” Ross said.

As he remembered that moment, he was sipping a beer at a brewery in Laytonsville, and mingling with potential voters, 17 of whom were scattered here and there. No one recognized Ross as he wandered among the tables. And no one promised him their vote — a reception that did not dampen his enthusiasm.

“The biggest mistakes I’ve made are the chances I didn’t take,” Ross said later. “What I never want to happen is that I become so wise and cynical that I no longer believe I can invent the future.”

Read more candidate profiles:

Jim Shea: Dark horse gubernatorial candidate with lots of cash on hand

Valerie Ervin: A career in politics based on fighting unfair treatment

Krish Vignarajah: Former Michelle Obama aide touts Md. ties, immigrant story

Rich Madaleno: Budget expert with insider résumé, outsider story

Rushern Baker: Time as Prince George’s exec brought economic success, political bruises

Ben Jealous: Sanders-style Democrat gains traction in a state that loved Clinton