A Democratic woman running for Maryland governor has 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, unwelcome sexual advances or harassment.
“The fact that there has been such a groundswell of personal anecdotes highlights the pervasiveness of this problem,” said Vignarajah, one of two women in a crowded field of Democrats seeking to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2018. “We need to start talking about solutions of this scale.”
Vignarajah, a graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, previously worked as a policy aide for former first lady Michelle Obama, for the State Department, at a New York-based consulting firm and at Georgetown University. She said she has experienced sexual harassment in academia and in the workplace, but she declined to provide further details about the incidents.
“I’ve hesitated to add my name to the list of survivors, in part out of fear of being defined by it and out of respect for survivors who have suffered far worse,” she said. “All I’ll say for now is me too, because what I want to do now is focus on what we can do about it.”
Vignarajah said the state office she is proposing would be in charge of setting up a hotline through which victims could anonymously report sexual assault or harassment and get information about support services. The office would be tasked with enhancing coordination between governments at all levels to address allegations of harassment.
Additionally, the state would ask companies to post information about employee rights in the workplace, offer to audit them, and reward those that work to eliminate sexual violence and misconduct, including with gold-standard certification and preference in government procurement.
Vignarajah also promised funding to help eliminate the state's backlog of untested rape kits, which help identify unknown assailants and enter their DNA information into a national database.
She did not provide an estimate for the cost of implementing the program but said the office would largely use existing state resources and charge a fee to companies that want certification or audits. Failing to adequately address sexual violence and harassment entails high costs, she added, including medical expenses and people missing work or losing their jobs.
Vignarajah credited Maryland with having many progressive sexual-assault laws on the books but said the state needs to strengthen its enforcement.
The other Democratic contenders for Maryland governor are Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery), policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and lawyer Jim Shea.
Jealous applauded Vignarajah for “putting out a very thoughtful proposal” with “many good ideas” that he would build upon if elected governor, adding that he supports creating an office dedicated to combating sexual assault and harassment.
Shea also voiced support for Vignarajah’s plan and called on Hogan to direct the state Office of Crime Control and Prevention to “find ways to fight sexual harassment.”
The other candidates and Hogan’s campaign either did not respond or declined to comment specifically on Vignarajah’s proposal.
Vignarajah, who grew up outside Baltimore after immigrating with her family from Sri Lanka, announced her gubernatorial campaign in August. She was immediately confronted with questions about her eligibility to run, because she is registered to vote in both Maryland and the District and voted in Maryland only in 2016. She recently filed a lawsuit asking a state court to decide whether she meets the state's requirement that gubernatorial candidates be both a Maryland resident and a registered voter for the five years immediately preceding the election.
Vignarajah declined to address questions about her eligibility for office Monday.