She Led Policy for Michelle Obama. Now She Wants to Run Maryland.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Krish Vignarajah has a résumé tailor-made for the #MeToo movement.
The tables at the Jaycees Community Center are worn, the faded bingo stand left out from some event other than this Democratic gubernatorial forum in Waldorf, Maryland. For an hour and a half, a moderator pulls questions from the audience of maybe 50 people, who fill the folding chairs with their nods, stares and half-hearted applause. Krish Vignarajah, tries to inject some enthusiasm into the quiet crowd on a Sunday in April. “The orthodoxy out there is that no man can beat Larry Hogan,” she says, pausing for emphasis. “Well, I am no man,” she rallies, her black slacks and gold-buttoned, white jacket looking every bit like a military uniform — as if to say, yes, this daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant teachers will wage the necessary war to defeat the Republican incumbent.
She is at the vanguard of the Year of the Woman, in a state without a single woman in its 14 federal offices, following the retirement last year of longtime senator Barbara Mikulski. The “no man” line is a fittingly nerdy nod to The Lord of the Rings, uttered by the shieldmaiden Éowyn as she strikes down a demon king, who might be as daunting a foe as America’s second-most popular governor. Vignarajah first notably used the quip in a campaign ad a month before, one that caught the attention of everyone, from The New York Times to People, because the spot featured her breastfeeding her months-old daughter.
Vignarajah has leaned into her femininity as a direct contrast to both President Donald Trump and Hogan. Her résumé seems perfectly crafted for the #MeToo era, as she was policy adviser for first lady Michelle Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — but don’t expect her to ride their coattails. “I want to stand on my own two feet,” she says, adding that she hasn’t asked her former bosses for an endorsement. In November, she released a sexual harassment policy plan with the help of Ashley Judd, one of the first public accusers of Harvey Weinstein. “Krish’s policy will both help shed light on rampant sexual harassment and create concrete solutions that improve gender norms,” Judd said.
Yet Vignarajah is still searching for traction in her Democratic primary. “I do think the ad has broken through,” she says, noting that it had been seen by 1 million people. Still, she is mired in the low single digits in the polls against five other Democrats with the June 26 primary approaching. At the Waldorf forum in April, her rousing efforts are noticed. “She has a compelling story to tell,” says Russell Yates, a treasurer for the local Democratic Party. But it’s hard to score points when your opponents don’t even show up. The three Democratic front-runners — Prince George County executive Rushern Baker, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz (who died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest weeks later) — sent running mates in their stead. Meanwhile, Vignarajah is left to juke with shadows, toiling in an obscurity the 39-year-old couldn’t have imagined, considering her early publicity. “If you can’t show up to ask people for their votes,” Vignarajah asks, “how can you ask people to believe you will be there to take care of their concerns?”
I sometimes feel this chip on my shoulder in terms of making it clear how I have greater executive experience than anyone in the field.
By showing up, Vignarajah cuts a compelling picture. Her parents fled Sri Lanka with $200 in their pockets and a 9-month-old Krish in tow, eventually settling in as teachers in Baltimore. Krish won both the most likely to succeed and worst dressed awards in high school, then went on to Yale, Oxford University and Yale Law. At the State Department under Clinton, the senior adviser focused on domestic youth initiatives as well as global women’s entrepreneurship. The policy wonk’s issues page runs the length of a novella, spilling 16,000 words on everything from paid family leave and free prekindergarten to reducing gun violence with “Smart Gun” technology and creating universal broadband access while promising to add a quarter-million jobs.
In a year when female political newcomers are all the rage, Vignarajah faces an awkward authenticity question: Maryland requires its governor to be a resident of the state five years before the election, and Vignarajah listed a Washington, D.C., address as recently as two years ago. She argues it wasn’t her full-time residence, but the press around it could have ripple effects, including making donors skittish. “Where is the money? People don’t know her,” says Karen Fennell, a party activist who attended the Waldorf debate. Emily’s List, the nation’s largest fundraiser for liberal, pro-choice women, is “monitoring the race closely” but has not made any decisions, per spokeswoman Christina Reynolds. And after Kamenetz’s sudden death in May, his running mate, Valerie Ervin, decided to run at the top of the ticket, meaning Vignarajah can no longer claim the mantle of the only woman in the race.
Vignarajah often performs well in straw polls at candidate gatherings, but she has every underdog’s lament of not getting enough debates. Elizabeth Embry, the running mate for Baker, says Vignarajah’s lesser experience was something the first-time candidate “will have to address with the voters.”
“I sometimes feel this chip on my shoulder in terms of making it clear how I have greater executive experience than anyone in the field,” Vignarajah says. She points to the multibillion-dollar initiative Let Girls Learn, a “seed of an idea” which through her cultivation spread through seven federal agencies and 100 private partners. Here she quotes her mother: “If you want your money managed well, give it to a woman.” She remembers working in the East Wing, traveling from Morocco to Venice with the first lady, who taught her “to entertain people first, and then you can educate them.” Vignarajah has the attention-grabbing part down. Will Maryland listen to the rest?