When Woody McCutchen, a veteran foundation leader, grants administrator and government official, heard that his old friend Jon Baron was thinking of running for governor in 2022, he was of two minds.
“I was very surprised,” McCutchen said in an interview. “There’s the public facing, the highly visible elements of politics — I don’t know how well he’ll do there. The actual down and dirty in the trenches world, the policy, how you get it implemented — he’s very well suited for that.”
That, in a nutshell, appears to explain Baron’s calculus as he ponders going from behind-the-scenes policy maven and evaluator to first-time candidate — and for the highest office in the state, no less.
Baron, himself a nonprofit executive and former government official, who lives in Glen Echo, has created an exploratory committee ahead of a possible gubernatorial bid. In an interview, he said he’s beginning to talk to voters and assemble a team and will decide in a couple of months whether to become a candidate.
“I want to greatly improve education, earnings and health care for Marylanders,” Baron said.
The news of his exploratory bid was first reported by The Baltimore Sun two weeks ago.
Baron, 58, isn’t just another political novice with a Washington, D.C., policy pedigree thinking about transferring that experience to the Maryland political scene. He’s a virtual unknown to Maryland political people. A quick survey of half a dozen Bethesda-area current and former elected officials turned up shrugs when asked about Baron. One pol who was vaguely familiar with the would-be candidate said, “He’s a nice guy who knows nothing about politics.”
But if it’s a clean slate voters are looking for — and a policy-oriented, apolitical focus, then Baron is hoping they’ll give him a look.
“I think there’s an opportunity to bring a completely different approach to governing in the state,” he said. “One where we’re not just spending money and hoping for the best. It would be beneficial to many, many Marylanders to pioneer a new approach to governing.”
Baron isn’t just a policy guy — he comes from the somewhat rarified world of what’s known as evidence-based policy. He’s worked for government agencies and nonprofits that study what’s worked in one place and try to circulate the idea more widely.
McCutchen, a Bowie resident who is a consultant in the same field and has known Baron since the late 1980’s, describes it as “strategic philanthropy, as opposed to public charity.”
Baron is currently a vice president at Arnold Ventures, a policy-based philanthropy, and ran his own organization, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, for 15 years. He worked on Capitol Hill for the House Small Business Committee, for the Defense Department during the Clinton administration, and was appointed to serve on boards and commissions by both President George W. Bush and President Obama.
“Early on, I learned how to drive change through government,” Baron said. “I’ve always been bipartisan. I’ve been an appointee of Democratic and Republican presidents and confirmed twice by the Senate.”
Arnold Ventures funded a program, which generated controversy and has since been discontinued, to fly drones over Baltimore City in an effort to fight crime. Baron said he was not involved in the planning and development of that program.
But Baron says he’s already been studying programs and following policy debates in other states to see what might be transferrable to Maryland. They range from one-on-one tutoring programs for 1st and 2nd graders, job training programs that focus on training low-income workers for a region’s specific economy, and getting Black-owned barber shops to partner with local pharmacies to provide a range of services, like screening for high blood pressure or prescription drop-offs, right at the barber shop.
“My top priority as governor would be to bring proven ideas to our state that are working around the country,” Baron said.
McCutchen, who met Baron when Baron was working on Capitol Hill and McCutcheon was running a small business center at Howard University, said “the timing” of Baron’s newfound interest in a possible political career “is so important and so perfect” and makes sense given his friend’s career trajectory.
“One of the results of this whole COVID situation we’ve been hit with is, we’re going to have to completely reinvigorate the economy,” McCutchen said. “It’s going to mean the expenditure of a lot of government money. If you’re going to spend it and not squander it, you’re going to have to reimagine how government works, and you’re going to have to ask tough questions. That’s what Jon’s whole career has been about.”
But McCutchen said he was particularly surprised about one thing: “When I heard he was thinking about running for governor, I immediately presumed that he would be running as a Republican.”
Baron said he’s “a lifelong Democrat because I believe in the values of the Democratic Party.”
“But I don’t particularly care whether an idea is seen as Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative,” he continued. “The key question is whether the idea is possible and would it help people thrive?”
Asked to assess the tenure of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who will be term-limited in 2022, Baron replied, “I give him great credit for standing up to Donald Trump. That took courage, and I like his bipartisan approach. On the vaccine rollout, it hasn’t gone so well. And overall, looking at state government, it’s been a continuation of the same old approach of spending money and hoping for the best.”
If Baron decides to run, he said his family — two sons, age 23 and 20, and his wife Jessica Rich, a former top official at the Federal Trade Commission — are on board. Of his wife, he conceded, “It was never her ambition to become first lady of Maryland.”
Baron said he’s aware of the fundraising challenges he’d face as a first-time candidate but believes he can assemble a strong team of advisers to guide him on the political front. He said he would not accept contributions from corporations, special interest groups or registered Maryland lobbyists.
“I know what I don’t know,” Baron said, “and I’m surrounding myself with people who really do know Maryland politics.”