John King: Government Should be a ‘Force for Good in People’s Lives’

Former U.S. Education Secretary John King, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, chats outside the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Editor’s note: Maryland Matters reporters sat down with some of the candidates for governor at the recent Maryland Association of Counties conference. Interviews with these candidates will appear over the next few days. And we will bring you interviews with other gubernatorial contenders as the campaign unfolds. 

John King began his career in education as a high school social studies teacher in Puerto Rico and Boston, and as a middle school principal.

He remembers telling his high school civics students: “‘If you have good ideas, and you think that you can make a difference and contribute, you should think about running for office,’” he said.

And now, in his first run for public office, King is doing “exactly the thing I told my students … because I think I can contribute and make a difference as governor.”

King, 46, who became the nation’s first Afro-Latino Education secretary after his appointment by President Obama, formally launched his gubernatorial campaign in April. Within six weeks, his campaign announced that it had raised more than $1 million, including from every county in Maryland.

During an interview at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference last week, King said he was driven to run for governor because he “saw early in my life how a high-functioning public institution can make the difference for someone.”

Without the intervention of teachers, King said, he might not be alive today.

Both of his parents were New York City public school teachers, and both died when he was young: His mom when he was 8, his father when he was 12.

In the period after his mother died, his father was struggling with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, “which was incredibly difficult and unstable and scary a lot of the time.”

“The thing that saved me was school,” King said. “Great public school teachers who made school a place that was safe, compelling, nurturing, engaging.”

In his teen years, King says he rebelled, got into trouble and was kicked out of high school.

“I was really angry at adults … but again it was teachers and a school counselor who were willing to see me as more than the sum of my mistakes,” King said.

He decided to become an educator himself “to really try to do for other kids what teachers have done for me.”

Through his career in education, King said he’s maintained an awareness of how kids and families are affected by the various systems in their lives.

“Whether they have affordable housing or are food insecure, whether their parents are caught up in our system of mass incarceration, whether or not their parents can find a good job, health care.”

Maryland’s next governor will have to work across those issues “to make sure that government is a force for good in people’s lives,” King said.

“I think sometimes people view having been education secretary and having been a lifelong educator as narrow, but actually, children and families touch every area of public policy,” King said.

King also notes that as head of the U.S. Education Department he oversaw a budget that was nearly $70 billion, he said.

In discussions with voters and party insiders, King focuses on what he would do as governor in three broad areas: education, “economic development and economic dignity,” and climate change and environmental justice, all through a racial equity lens.

On economic issues, King said he wants to focus not just on “wealth creation,” but on “paid family leave, affordable childcare, access to housing and public transit … those things that go to whether or not people are able to have a good life.”

King supported the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reforms through The Education Trust, a national advocacy group he headed that is focused on opportunity for low-income students and students of color.

King took a leave of absence from the organization to run for governor, and said one of his chief priorities will be the success of the multi-billion-dollar reform plan.

Historically, nationally and in Maryland, sweeping school reform plans are passed to great fanfare, but then are not fully funded, he cautioned, while pointing out that “not all the Democrats running for governor are committed to the Blueprint.” (Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, the first Democrat to declare a gubernatorial bid last year, told legislators to “back off” of education reforms, which he viewed as too costly).

“But I think of the Blueprint as the floor, not the ceiling,” King said. “…And that’s going to require leadership from our next governor.”

King has posted some general policy positions on his website, but plans to release detailed policy proposals this fall.

He wants to win the campaign by articulating a substantive agenda, pointing out that he thinks President Biden won the White House with a clear policy strategy that appealed to voters.

“I think there’s a tendency in politics for people to shy away from being specific about what they would want to do. And I think that is a mistake. I think campaigns ought to be about articulating who you are, what your values are, and the ideas that you want to advance,” he said.

King noted that Strong Future Maryland, the progressive advocacy group he created in 2020, offered testimony on dozens of bills during the 2021 General Assembly session, including support for measures that would have increased the income tax rate for Maryland’s wealthiest residents and changed election rules for five counties where district-based commissioners are elected by county-wide votes.

Neither measure passed, but King and Strong Future supported bills that did, including reforms to unemployment insurance and a prohibition on life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

“I have taken specific positions on issue after issue and I hope folks will take a look at that track record,” he said.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines covered government and politics for Maryland Matters for two years before moving into an editing position. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post ― as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at The Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.