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 “laser-focused” 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
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