A former top aide to first lady Michelle Obama has thrown her hat into a crowded ring of Democratic contenders in the race to challenge Maryland’s incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Krishanti Vignarajah, 37, a Sri Lankan-American, also served as a senior adviser to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John F. Kerry.
Vignarajah’s run is being viewed as quixotic by some longtime observers of Maryland politics. Indeed, even before her official campaign kickoff and announcement, set for September 19, an investigative piece in the Bethesda Beat on August 9 reported that she had voted in Washington, D.C., a number of times while registered in Maryland.
A day earlier, in a Facebook Post, Vignarajah declared she was running for governor “because I am worried my daughter will not have the same opportunities that my mom gave me when she brought our family here when I was a baby girl. I hope Marylanders will agree the best man for the job is a woman.” Vignarajah was born in Colombo but immigrated to the U.S. with her parents at 9 months of age.
“It was not long ago that Maryland was a beacon of hope, opportunity, innovation, and courage,” she said. “We led the nation in school performance, job creation, and conservation. But today too many of the students who can least afford to be left behind have been forgotten altogether. Too many workers have been left out. And our precious Chesapeake Bay faces its greatest risks in decades. A deficit in leadership from the governor could not come at a worse time.”
Vignarajah said her priorities were improving schools, increasing wages, reducing crime, treating drug addiction, alleviating traffic, protecting the environment and investing in infrastructure.
In an interview with India Abroad, Vignarajah said she was encouraged to run by supporters who believe she brings “some unique and valuable and fresh perspectives” to the field as “a woman, an immigrant, a minority, and of course, a mom.”
Thus far, she is the only woman among several longtime political and high profile men who have taken the plunge to become Democratic challenger to Hogan: former NAACP director Ben Jealous, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, State Senator Richard Madaleno, Baltimore attorney James Shea and entrepreneur Alec Ross. She said scores of women and women’s groups were strongly backing her.
“It’s been amazing the kind of support I’ve gotten from women as individuals, women organizations and institutions, who have said that we need your leadership, we need more women in office, and especially now at a time when out of 14 federal and statewide positions, we have no women representing us in Maryland.”
She was confident she could raise the minimum $2 million to $3 million for a viable primary run. The contest, she said, was a deeply personal issue because it was partly dependent on my personal narrative of coming from Sri Lanka to the U.S., and specifically to Maryland. This country has always been this amazing land of natives and newcomers and this is what Maryland and America has always embodied.”
She refused to say whether she had yet garnered the endorsement of Michelle Obama, for whom she worked as policy director, or that of any other high-profile women in politics.But political observers told India Abroad that even before the Bethesda Beat report about her voting record, she faced an uphill battle as a neophyte.
One observer noted: “Now after this devastating report, it will be a miracle if she even gets to first base and is successful in staying competitive.”
The Bethesda Beat said the attorney had voted four times in Washington, D.C., while registered to vote in Maryland. It noted she first registered in Maryland in 2006 at a Catonsville address. “However,” the report said, “she didn’t vote in the state until the 2016 general election, according to her Maryland voting history,” which Bethesda Beat obtained.
The Beat said that ‘while her Maryland registration remained active, she registered to vote in D.C. on Sept. 14, 2010, then voted in the city’s primary the same day.’ At the time, she had listed her address at an apartment building at 1701 16th St., N.W., the report said.
The Beat said Vignarajah’s D.C. voting record shows she also voted in the April 26, 2011, special election, as well as the 2012 and 2014 general elections in the city.
While she did not respond to numerous requests from the Beat for comment, her spokesman Steven Rabin, confirmed that Vignarajah had voted in D.C. while working in the White House and the State Department, while maintaining her residency in Maryland.
“Krish is a lifelong resident of Maryland,” Rabin said. “She was given the opportunity of her life to serve in the Obama administration. …For a few years while she was working in the State Department and the White House, she had a second residence in D.C., which is fairly typical for the White House staffers because of the hours they have to work.” He said that these questions about her eligibility to run or serve as governor — which requires a state residency of five years before an election — were being raised by potential challengers, but he did not name them.
Rabin told the Beat, “We do think it’s disappointing that some Democrats in a primary are trying to bring Trump-style politics to Maryland and are trying to make the same type of outlandish attacks that the president tried to make about President Obama’s birthplace.”
He said Vignarajah didn’t vote in Maryland during elections from 2010 to 2014 because “sometimes there are situations in the world that don’t allow a person to make an hour drive to Catonsville in the middle of the day.”
Several longtime Indian-American Democrats and major party fund-raisers said it would “be a real pity if Krishanti is disqualified from running because of this controversy.” They noted her “amazing bio,” albeit her political inexperience.
Vignarajah, who led the first lady’s signature Let Girls Learn Initiative, received bachelor’s degrees in molecular and cellular biology and political science respectively from Yale College and then attended Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar and received a Master degree in philosophy. She is a graduate of Yale Law School.
Before she joined the Obama administration, Vignarajah’s career spanned law and business. She is married to Collin O’Mara, who was also a Marshall Scholar at Oxford.
He is the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. In June, they became parents of a baby daughter, Alana.