31-Year-Old Obama Administration Official Launches Bid for Governor

Ashwani Jain has entered the Democratic race for governor.

Ashwani K. Jain, a former Obama administration official who ran unsuccessfully for Montgomery County Council in 2018, announced Wednesday night that he plans to seek the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

Jain, who is 31, is making an expressly generational appeal for votes, asserting in a campaign video, “In a state that’s becoming younger and more diverse than ever before, voices like mine are growing in Maryland and deserve to be heard, because decisions made about us should not be made without us.”

During the course of his 20-minute speech, Jain quickly acknowledged that his youth and inexperience may turn off some voters.

“I understand that some will say that this overly ambitious, eager millennial with a baby face and no elected experience is not qualified or ready for this position,” he said. But, he argued, “elective experience is not the only kind of experience that matters.”

Jain becomes the second Democrat to enter the 2022 election for governor, joining state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) as the only declared candidates. Several Democrats and Republicans are eyeing the race.

Jain held multiple roles during the Obama administration, working at the White House and in the Department of Health and Human Services. He also served as director of outreach for the administration’s “cancer moonshot,” which was headed by then-vice president Joe Biden.

Jain was one of 33 Democrats who sought the four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council in 2018. He finished a relatively strong eighth in the impossibly crowded field, amassing 19,367 votes ― and impressing political professionals with his smarts and inspiring life story.

The son of Indian immigrants who grew up in Maryland, Jain was a childhood cancer survivor, who said his illness gave him a higher purpose. He recalled recovering in a hospital and watching young children die and their parents suffer financial ruin.

“I turned from survivor to advocate,” he said. “I found my purpose in public service.”

During the 2018 campaign, Jain often told a story about being in the Make-a-Wish program, which grants children with grave illnesses a fantasy wish. Jain’s was to meet actor Denzel Washington ― a meeting that took place backstage in 2005 at a Broadway theater, where Washington was starring in a revival of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Jain has been a volunteer with the Make-a-Wish organization ever since ― and a poster of Washington as Caesar hung behind Jain during his announcement video Wednesday, along with a printed sheet of computer paper that said, plainly, “Jain for Governor,” taped to a whiteboard.

Jain did not participate in Montgomery County’s public financing system for political candidates in 2018, and proved to be a skillful fundraiser. He took in about $233,000 for his council race, including $47,000 from his own pocket. President Obama’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Julian Castro, headlined a fundraiser for Jain during his 2018 campaign. Earlier this year, closing out his campaign account and opening one for his gubernatorial bid, Jain forgave the $47,000 debt.

In his announcement speech, Jain said that he would be the first millennial governor in the U.S. and the first governor of color in Maryland. But he would not be the first young Obama administration veteran to run for governor of Maryland.

In 2018, Krishanti Vignarajah, who had been policy director for first lady Michelle Obama, and Alec Ross, an author and entrepreneur who had been a tech adviser to secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both sought the Democratic nomination for governor. They finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in a nine-candidate field.

Jain may not be the only Obama administration veteran in the 2022 gubernatorial scrum. Two high-profile members of Obama’s cabinet ― former Labor secretary Tom Perez and former Education secretary John B. King Jr. ― are also contemplating the race.

Jain said that, if elected, he would seek to make state government policies more equitable, would promote diversity in his cabinet, and would seek to eradicate the influence of money in state government and politics.

He invoked Obama toward the end of his announcement speech.

“Yes, it’s true that we are the underdogs in this election,” Jain said, “but history is shaped by underdogs and those who are told to wait in line ― including a former community organizer who said, ‘Yes, we can!'”

[email protected]

 

Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.