Maryland’s 2018 Democratic primary for governor was unique: Candidates had to distinguish themselves from not one or two, but seven opponents with sometimes identical ideas and similar answers to the question of what they’d do if elected.
One candidate, Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy adviser to Michelle Obama, found it easy to distinguish herself, as the only female candidate on the ballot. It wasn’t enough to propel her to victory: Her underfunded campaign never truly found its footing.
But her fourth-place finish, with 8.2 percent of the vote, put her ahead of a veteran state senator and some of her other foes. It also reinforced her long-spoken message that Maryland lacks adequate female representation in elected positions at every level of government – especially at the federal level, where the state’s 10-member congressional delegation is currently all male.
Vignarajah sees her showing – just 0.1 points behind the third-place finisher, attorney James L. Shea – as far from the end of her fight for equal representation for women in Maryland. She said she is happy about the campaign she ran, and discovered, “Clearly there [is] a thirst, maybe even a starvation, for a new generation of leadership.”
As a first-time candidate, Vignarajah said she was surprised by the community’s interest in her campaign and the enthusiasm she saw on the trail.
“I heard from many people who had never taken an interest in politics before but said something about my candidacy spoke to them,” she said.
Vignarajah said she encountered women who brought their daughters to “cheer [her] on from the sidelines and show their daughters the options open to them.” If she could, in hindsight, give herself advice before the election began, she observed, “Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can help.”
Though Vignarajah hoped money wouldn’t be a heavy determinant in this election, “the reality is that especially in statewide races, there is no getting around the importance of money,” she said.
During the campaign Vignarajah was outspent by all three candidates that beat her, a common trend in election results that she believes hold female candidates back. In the short term, Vignarajah said she plans to focus her attention on promoting the “amazing” candidates for other offices that she met throughout her campaign, specifically women – “without naming names.”
Despite some success for female candidates running for state and local positions, she said she remains “mind-boggled” that there were no Democratic female winners in any of the congressional primaries.
The candidate wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed: “Why is it that Maryland, which failed to ratify the 19th amendment until 1941, has once again fallen well behind much of the country in the battle for gender equity?”
Despite her disappointment, Vignarajah said she supports the Democratic nominee for governor, Benjamin T. Jealous, in November and has offered her services to his campaign to increase voter turnout. Vignarajah attended the post-primary Democratic Unity event in June to support the Maryland Democratic Party and Jealous’ campaign, and has appeared at other events on behalf of the Democratic ticket.
Vignarajah was disappointed in Maryland’s meek increase in voter turnout compared to other states.
The Washington Post reported only a 2-point increase in voter turnout in the primary, a slim gap between 22 percent turnout in 2014 to 24 percent turnout in 2018.
“Ben will be a phenomenal candidate to carry the torch,” said Vignarajah, “I am 100 percent behind making sure that we have a Democrat in the governor’s house come next year.”
Vignarajah and Jealous ran campaigns with similar themes, including their focus on education and the environment. Both candidates support implementing recommendations by the Kirwan Commission for boosting education funding and establishing universal pre-kindergarten in the public-school system.
“Obviously education is deeply personal to me, and I want to make sure that remains front and center,” she said.
“Look, for me, the fight is not over,” Vignarajah said, “whatever shape and form that fight takes moving forward. There are a lot of families like mine that are still out there that need a champion. If I can be that voice, I hope to play a part.”