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With the primary just weeks away, Krish Vignarajah talks to Dharna Noor about how she would fund schools and implement criminal justice reform, and explains why Maryland needs women in elected office

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DHARNA NOOR: We’re now just weeks away from the Democratic primary for the Maryland governor. Election day is June 26 and early voting starts on June 14th. Eight candidates are running and now two, Rushern Baker and Ben Jealous are going head to head in the polls, contending for first. Today we’re joined with the only woman left in the race, Krish Vignarajah. Krish is the former policy director to Michelle Obama, she’s a former State Department official and she’s here with me in our studio today. So, thanks for coming in.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So, Krish, we were speaking a bit off camera about some of your campaign videos that have gone viral, including one that features you breast feeding, which people are a bit up in arms about, and another one where you’re reading angry tweets or mean tweets that tell you to go back to India or question why voters would “vote vagina.” You’re lagging in the polls a bit right now, but a lot of voters are still undecided. So, talk about why you’re the best person to defeat our incumbent, Larry Hogan.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Sure. I mean, part of it is- a lot of kind of what you’ve noted, I think is actually connected to being a woman, meaning that my campaign has been focused on a range of issues connected to my experiences here, growing up in Maryland, but also working as Michelle Obama’s policy director I think I’m the most qualified because I’m not a career politician but I have had executive experience at the highest levels. I managed a fifty-one point six-billion-dollar budget while I was at the State Department, I ran multibillion dollar initiatives for the first lady.

But ultimately, I think what voters care about is that they’ve heard a lot of politicians come into an election promising the moon and stars and failing to deliver. I think people want to know that they have someone there who is one of them, who’s going to be fighting for all of us. And I think that that’s what our campaign has been about. I’ve been called Donald Trump’s worst nightmare in article after article. But for me, it’s not just about being anti-Trump or anti-Hogan, it’s about putting forth an affirmative, positive agenda. And so, for us, that’s really focus on education, revitalizing our economy, protecting our environment, supporting working families, addressing crime, making sure we provide healthy, clean air, safe drinking water for our families, et cetera.

DHARNA NOOR: So, I want to go through and unpack, I think, all of those. And we can start with the environment. We recently saw devastating floods here in Ellicott City and parts of Southwest Baltimore. And of course, when Larry Hogan was first running for governor, he ran on this platform that centered on what he called “the rain tax” or the mandate that developers would have to put money into stormwater management. How would you distinguish yourself from Hogan here? How would you sort of work to prevent these kinds of extreme weather events destroying communities, and work to fight climate change?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. So, I think the distinction between me and Governor Hogan on this issue is that I’m not going to play politics. Hogan, his rain tax resonated because people perceived previous administrations as nickeling and diming folks. And I get that. I understand why people feel like we have a high cost of living, we have a high tax burden, and that is something that I do want to address head-on, because our government doesn’t operate as efficiently as we need to. At the same time, the truth is that floods are natural in some ways, but when you see two one-thousand-year storms that have happened within less than one thousand days of one another, clearly there is something bigger at issue.

So, part of what I want to address is the fact that we have to have better stormwater management. When you have two large developments, when you pave over mother nature’s natural defenses and create roads or parking lots, what essentially you’re creating are slides that become the conduit for the volume and velocity of water that we saw in Ellicott City, here in Baltimore City, Baltimore County. This past weekend I was in Ocean City, they saw the effects of it. Last week, I was in Frederick. And so, this is where you realize this issue is going to come up time and time again. And the kind of political pandering is not leadership, and the fact that Governor Hogan has doubled down on this issue is, again, where I think he is so far out of sync with what people are feeling and where we need to go.

DHARNA NOOR: But then, so how would you fund something like a stormwater management system if not with something like the stormwater development tax?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. So, it’s a great question. I hope that people will tune in to our policies on the website, or, because we actually have a very elaborate flood plan. To your specific question about how do you actually pay for this, part of it is making sure that as developments are created, we’ve got to make sure that the externalities, basically the effects, of these developments are included in the pricing of that construction. And so, what I mean by that is that if you are going to create a development, there have to be requirements for the flood water management that are the effect of that construction.

DHARNA NOOR: And you’ve also supported the fifty percent clean energy by 2026 and one hundred percent by 2035 here in Maryland. Advocates have been working on this move to renewables for a long time. But talk about, again, how you would implement some of those plans. What does actually mean for the state of Maryland?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, again this is a sharp contrast with, certainly, Governor Hogan, but I also think that we have one of the most bold, if not the boldest, visions on this issue in the Democratic field. I believe you cannot set a target that isn’t achieved during your administration. So, when Governor Hogan says, “I’m going to get to forty percent by 2030,” that basically means, “I’m not going to do it during my administration.” It’s why we have set a very clear fifty percent clean energy by 2026, meaning the end of my second term. What we’re going to do is we’re going to invest in offshore wind, solar energy, geothermal, but also energy efficiency. You know, sometimes I hear people say- my husband will say this sometimes, he runs the National Wildlife Federation, that we need to eat our energy efficiency vegetables before we enjoy our new offshore wind, solar energy dessert.

Because it’s not as sexy to talk about energy efficiency, right, but it’s actually a social justice issue. When you think about the fact that the families that are burdened by high electricity bills are the families who would benefit from better windows, but we don’t provide the financing, knowing that it pays for itself if we provide that initial financing is where we’re focused on, both making sure we invest in offshore wind, solar panels, on real opportunities across the state, knowing that geothermal is something that we’re seeing in buildings, in homes, but we could definitely increase the usage of it. But also acknowledging that if we invest in energy efficiency in our schools, then we could reinvest that to rebuild our crumbling schools, that there are ways in which we can be much more innovative and smart about energy.

DHARNA NOOR: And switching gears a little bit, another, of course, issue that disproportionately impacts communities of color, communities living in poverty, is education. You’ve said that this is, in some sense, the center of your campaign. And Governor Larry Hogan has actually said that the problem of funding in Maryland is not actually one funding at all, it’s a problem of accountability, of accountability from schools, from teachers, from education officials. How do you respond to that, and then also, more specifically, how would you support the findings of the Kirwan Commission? I mean, your running mate, Sharon Blake, is a former teacher herself.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, great question. Education is the reason I’m running, and there are reasons for why we’re called “the education ticket.” I’m the only candidate in the field who’s a product of Maryland public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the only candidate who’s the daughter of two Baltimore City public school teachers. My father, who retired last year, was the oldest public school teacher in the state of Maryland at the age of eighty. He had taught thirty-seven years here in Baltimore City. My running mate, Sharon Blake, had taught for forty-three years here in Baltimore City. She was the head of the Teachers Union. And this is where we’ve got to revamp our schools, knowing that it has to be about policies from cradle to career.

So, part of that is investing in universal pre-K for three and four-year olds, knowing that that divide between the haves and have nots starts even before our kids go into school. But part of it is fixing the funding inequities.

When Governor Hogan says, “It’s not about money,” that’s curious, because he cut Baltimore City funding by at least forty-one million dollars in direct funding. The Kirwan Commission estimates the we’re underfunding Baltimore City Schools by about four hundred million dollars. He’s put one point four billion dollars of casino and lottery revenues intended for our schools, that was the promise that we made, he’s put that into other purposes. And so, it’s easy to say that it’s not a funding issue when he’s cut all this funding and used that money for other purposes. This is why I sometimes talk about him as a reverse Robin Hood. He steals from the poor and he gives it to the rich. And this is where, not surprisingly, our schools have gone from first to seventh. By some measure, I actually saw that they went from first to eleventh. And this is where it’s got to be, when I say cradle to career, it’s got to be about rebuilding or crumbling schools.

I know when I was in Woodlawn High School, I was learning in so-called temporary trailers, trying to learn in sweltering heat, freezing cold, and those trailers are still there twenty years later. My parents, my father and my running mate, both taught at Frederick Douglass, where our kids were literally freezing in classrooms. But it also has to be about investing in science, technology, engineering, arts, math, financial literacy, civics education, but it’s also got to be about knowing that our schools have become community centers. The number of kids living in poverty in Maryland has doubled between 1990 and today. Michelle Obama was one of the first people to kind of professionally teach me a common-sense principle, which is, “no child can give their teacher their full attention on an empty stomach,” which is why we want to provide free hot and healthy breakfast and lunches.

But, and I’ll kind of conclude with this piece, I want to make sure that when our kids come out of school they are either career-ready or college-ready. Some number of our kids are not going to go to college, and that’s fine. But we’ve got to destigmatize the trades. Welders, electricians, plumbers, those are well-paid jobs, and we’ve got to prepare our kids, when they come out of high school, to be able to go into those jobs immediately. But For some kids who do want to go to a two and four-year college, we’ve got to make sure that financing isn’t the reason that they don’t. It’s why we are offering, and we will guarantee free community college, debt-free tuition at our HBCUs, our Historically Black Colleges, but also one percent student loans, because a Maryland student right now has, on average, thirty thousand dollars in student loans.

DHARNA NOOR: And again, about will that free college be paid for, what kinds of revenue streams would you use to fund that?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, so, for free community college, we’ve got to be innovative here. Community college is a good example of where I believe the intersection of our economy and education exists. So, when you look at Pittsburgh, Kalamazoo, Michigan, you’ll see cities that have introduced public-private partnerships to pay for these smart programs. You basically have public-private employers, knowing that a lot of these kids are the pipeline for their jobs, who actually finance to the tune of seventy million, one hundred million, these kinds of programs. And so, this is where we’re going to partly fund this, through public-private partnership.

But part of it is also that we’ve got to revamp our budget. Joe Biden used to say this in the Obama administration when I served, “If you want to know your values, look at your budget.” We’ve got a 1950s, backwards budget here. What I mean by that is we spend about as much on prisons and policing as we do on higher education. We spend twice as much on roads as we do on public transit. And we spend much less on early childhood education as other states. And so, this is where there’s an opportunity, because community college, universal pre-K, are some of the smartest investments we can make.

DHARNA NOOR: So, I’m hearing you say this, and I think a lot of folks here in Baltimore might be skeptical of the idea of funding this with public-private partnerships, because this city has put billions of dollars into public-private partnerships but frequently, folks will wonder about the accountability to the city and to the people who are supposed to be benefiting. So, what kinds of measures could you put in place to ensure it’s actually the people who are supposed to be benefiting from those who are.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, and so, let me also just clarify. So, a substantial part of this will be government funding in the sense that we can’t rely on private partnerships, and we certainly will not be dictated to in terms of private partners’ funding. My point is that once we’ve constructed exactly the kind of program that we want to institute, there are opportunities of where private partners can partner with us, knowing that these are smart investments. So, for us, part of how I will fund my education policy is making sure that the one point four billion dollars in revenues goes, kind of going forward, to where it was intended. Part of it is actually making sure that we are investing funding from the legalization of marijuana into education, knowing that it is the smartest investment. And the truth is that this strategy we have of not going down that road is untenable and unwise. Part of it is also making sure that we do think creatively about public-private partnerships. So, a good example of the kind of approach I would have is based on my career.

So, when I led and launched Let Girls Learn, this was an initiative that the first lady had focused on, making sure girls got middle school and high school educations. So, what we did was I took that from a seed of an idea to bringing in seven federal agencies and a billion dollars of government funding. And that’s how you make sure that the anchor is strong, right, that you’re not getting dictated to by private partners, that the accountability exists. But what we did was we leveraged the government funding by bringing in over one hundred private partners and over three billion dollars of private capital. And this is what we can do even with universal pre-K, because we know that for every dollar we invest, we have a thirty-eight dollar return on that investment. Nineteen dollars between kindergarten through twelfth grade, and another nineteen dollars of savings once that child graduates from high school. And that’s where I just think that we’ve got to be smarter about how we put funding into certain programs. Baltimore.

DHARNA NOOR: So, Baltimore public schools, Maryland’s public schools have been the focus of a lot of this education policy, but Maryland also has a really interesting charter school program. We have some of the most regulated charters in the country, some of the only unionized charter teachers. What would you do to preserve those sorts of regulations for charters in Maryland?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, I mean look, the truth is that we’re seeing innovation in both our public schools as well as in charters. And I’m not- I mean, no one should be against innovation, right? If we can facilitate laboratories of experimentation knowing that there is a lot that is going wrong with our schools, but there are also smart programs that work that should be scaled. And so, my approach is- I don’t take a hard and fast role on any of these strategies. If we do have hard and fast rules, the truth is, we will lose a generation of kids, kids who frankly remind me of myself in the sense that I went from some struggling schools, Edmondson Elementary, Johnnycake Middle, Woodlawn High School.

But I went from Woodlawn High to the White House because there were some smart programs that we invested in. So, when I was in high school, we had Governor Schaefer, who invested in a magnet program at Woodlawn High. And the idea was to make investments, seed investments, in struggling schools. And so, that pre-engineering, math, science program is what sparked my interest and led me to study molecular biology at Yale. And so, my goal is, let’s try to foster that kind of innovation, let’s try to make strategic investments so that regardless of what zip code, what district a child grows up in, they have a basic shot to realize their potential.

DHARNA NOOR: To again switch gears, we’re seeing a bit of a crisis in policing here in Baltimore. Just last week, these two officers from the Gun Trace Task Force were sentenced to a combined forty-three years for racketeering, for overtime fraud, for robbing drug dealers. And your brother, Thiru Vignarajah, is actually running for State’s Attorney. But talk about how you as governor would sort of distinguish yourself from the tough on crime programs that Larry Hogan has actually worked with some Democrats to pass. What would you do to sort of fight this crisis of policing?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, so, there’s a range of problems that are at the root of this issue. Part of it is Governor Hogan has not accepted that these failed strategies of mass incarceration, zero tolerance, mandatory minimums, the racist war on drugs, that they’re failing. And so, for me, it’s about refocusing our attention. It’s about recognizing that there has been a school to prison pipeline. A lot of those kids are kids who Sharon, my running mate, and my father taught. And they’re smart kids, right? They want to do the right thing. But when you see an at-risk youth, you got to make sure that there’s an intervention early on. It’s why, even at the White House, we had a mentoring program. And it wasn’t to identify the valedictorians of classes, it was to identify kids who were smart but who had mental health issues, family problems, financial troubles, who had gotten in trouble prior.

And you realize that you can turn around a kid’s life by intervening. It’s why Operation Safe Kids was incredibly effective. And you saw Governor Hogan defund that and only start to refund it when he held hostage the program by saying, “I’ll only refund it if you address mandatory minimums,” which again, we know that that’s not the way to address this issue. Part of it is realizing that addiction is not a crime, it’s a disease, and it needs to be treated as such. And so, this is where- obviously, you asked a budget question. This is where it’s a win-win, where our moral interests align with our monetary interests.

To put a prisoner behind bars costs us thirty-eight thousand dollars to forty-five thousand dollars a year. To put that person into treatment costs five to ten thousand dollars, which means that for every person we put into a Baltimore prison, we could be paying for thirty families’ affordable housing. We could be paying for thirty-seven GED courses for individuals. And so, that’s where these strategies are losing. But when it comes to policing, this is where we’ve got to revamp the system. The fact that- so, the overarching policies that Sharon and I have put out, one is on community policing, so you will, again, be able to see it on our website. Another is on safe schools and safe streets.

When it comes to community policing, it’s about making sure that our law enforcement look like, live in, and work with our communities, meaning that forty percent of our officers are African-American. Only twenty percent are women. That’s obviously very different than the demographic that they patrol. Likewise, only twenty percent of all officers live within the city’s jurisdictions. And that’s where we’ve got to recruit from local communities. We’ve got to incentivize police officers engaging with boys and girls clubs, working with recreation centers. We’ve got to invest in the kind of community patrolling taskforce, those opportunities, because that’s how we’ll get the better results. But the other piece of it is when I talk about safe streets and safe schools- look, it’s great that we have focused on mass shootings, but the truth is, here in Baltimore we have a mass shooting every month.

And that’s where we’ve got to address that this gun violence has to be addressed head on. And so, for us, that’s about addressing that safe schools is not just an issue of guns, it’s an issue of public health. It’s about working with law enforcement and it’s about instituting smarter gun violence prevention policies, like making sure that every gun is registered and insured, just as we do with our cars. It’s about making sure that they age to purchase a gun is 21, just as we have for other rules. It’s about making sure that we’re arming our teachers, not with guns, but with guidance counselors, with counselors who can address the fact that many of the problems that we are addressing are mental health ones.

DHARNA NOOR: You talk about the need for more police of color, more police from the communities. But you know here at The Real News, we’ve actually noted some of the police in the Gun Trace Task Force are people who are from the communities that they’re serving. So, let’s talk a little bit about some structural reforms. Like you support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but do you believe that people currently incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes should be pardoned? And then, for instance in Oakland, there’s a program where those incarcerated for marijuana are the first in line for dispensary licenses as sort of a form of reparations. What kinds of steps like this would you take to bring justice to those incarcerated for marijuana?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, so, we’re going to- what I plan to do as governor is to take a hard look and look at kind of the current population and how to kind of address, in a just way, the fact that it has been a racist war on drugs, simply put. And so, it is going to be about not just addressing the incarcerated population, it’s got to also be about the fact that there are a lot of collateral consequences when someone comes out of prison for a simple offense of possession. It’s got to be about expungement of their records. It’s got to be also about making sure that there is a pathway to re-entry. There is no reason for why, with our incarcerated population, the ability to vote is taken away. Just two days ago, I was having a conversation with a former felon, Julius, who- incredibly bright, incredibly articulate individual- who complained, legitimately, about the fact that he’s had a number of job interviews. When his criminal record comes up, it’s the end of the conversation.

And so, unless our strategy is, “we’re going to lock folks up and throw away the keys,” what we do does not make sense. In Maryland, the recidivism rate is forty percent in Baltimore City, it’s seventy-three percent. And so, we’ve got to figure out how, when people are in prison, they are either going to become better criminals or they’re going to become better people. And so, I think that there are ways in which we could invest to make sure it’s the latter rather than the former. The fact that only .001 percent of incarcerated individuals have access to vocational or GED training makes no sense. And so, that’s where I think there are some real opportunities.

DHARNA NOOR: And then finally, as we’ve noted a couple of times, you’re now the only woman running for governor of Maryland, with Valerie Ervin backing Rushern Baker. And your ballot is actually- or your candidacy is actually the only one in history to ever have two Women of Color on a gubernatorial platform. But talk a little bit about how you would use that platform as governor to uplift women, people who are sexual or gender minorities, People of Color. Talk about how you would go beyond representation to really uplift those who are seeing the worst of these effects.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, in the great state of Harriet Tubman and Barbara Mikulski, the fact that out of fourteen federal and statewide offices- so, that’s the eight congressmen, two senators and the four statewide officials- we have not a single woman in any of those seats. That’s unacceptable. And as the only woman in this race, it is reflective of where Maryland is in the sense that we come in fiftieth out of fifty when it comes to childcare subsidies. As of this past legislative session, we were still debating rapists having paternity rights. Maryland was one of the six states that still allowed for that. And so, that’s where you realize that that zero has an effect. When you think about what that means, you realize that there is an incredible opportunity this election cycle.

When people said to me as I was contemplating Sharon Blake, someone who has lived the struggles of a lot of Maryland families, she committed her life, her career to empowering youth here in Baltimore City. And people said, “Well, you can’t have an all-woman ticket and you certainly can’t have an all-Woman-of-Color ticket.” I said, “Why not?” How many times have we had the exact opposite and no one has ever complained? And this is where I think that we have an opportunity to actually put our policies, to put our priorities, to put our funding into the things that matter, to address the fact that here in Baltimore, we have the highest number of deaths due to air pollution.

That here in Baltimore, we have skyrocketing crime. But, though we are never going to say, “Thank goodness Donald Trump was elected,” I have never seen the electorate more mobilized in the recent past. The last time I saw this to be the case was when my old bosses got elected. And so, this is where I do- I’m incredibly inspired and excited about this election, because look, we have gained momentum over the last few months because as people have heard our message, they’ve gotten excited. We have won forum after forum. We have been- I have been called out as sort of the stand-out in debate after debate, against the quote unquote “frontrunners.” With nearly half of the electorate still undecided, for us the point is that- it’s not that people hear our message and it doesn’t resonate, it’s that people are still being introduced to our campaign.

We just started one of the biggest campaign ad buys of any of the candidates this week. And so, the polling is only reflecting what’s happened in the past. Just as people are tuning in is when they’re hearing kind of our campaign. So, we’re very excited. But it’s also that 2018 is the year of the woman. Just yesterday, we saw in Virginia, six out of the seven elections in Virginia were won by women. That seventh race, there was not a woman running in it. And so, this is where, when you realize- to your first question of what stands, what allows you to stand out in this race? It’s that we actually have a competitive edge against Governor Hogan. The conventional wisdom is that no man can beat Larry Hogan.

Well, I am no man. And that’s important, because when Democrats have picked up seats against incumbent Republicans in this past year, sixty-one percent of those seats were won by women. And that’s where I think that we have an opportunity. Texas, Idaho, Virginia. Those were elections where women, even though they were outmatched in terms of financing, even though the polls had them significantly down, time and time again, race after race, you saw women won because people were sick of the same old politics as usual and people were sick of the old boys’ club. And that’s where I think people are looking for a new generation of leadership, and that’s what we represent. And I’m excited to kind of look at what’s to come and what’s going to happen in the next week and a half because I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of folks.

DHARNA NOOR: All right, well, we’ll see what happens I guess, and keep us posted on the campaign trail.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Absolutely, will do. Thanks so much for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: Thanks so much for being with us today and thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.