A millennial, childhood cancer survivor and son of immigrants, Maryland has a unique gubernatorial candidate in 32-year-old Ashwani Jain (D).
“This [campaign] goes to … people of color who feel like this country doesn’t value their lives, women who feel disgusted that men can still decide what you do with your body, people with disabilities who feel talked down to continuously and young people who also feel and are told they’re don’t have enough experience to lead on issues,” Jain said in a recent interview.
Jain has managed to pack his résumé with experience in community organizing, sales, consulting and, most recently, as program director for the National Kidney Foundation — all in the last 11 years.
He is also a former Obama administration official, having served in the Office of Presidential Personnel, as a White House liaison for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and as associate director of external affairs for the American Care Act at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Jain took on then-Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Summit in 2016 as the program’s director — a deeply personal role because of his diagnosis with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was 13 years old.
In a May 2016 email sent to Americans via the White House, he described his experience as being in a “continuous state of recovery, and never in a place of victory” — that he had been dealt a rough hand and deserved better.
“It’s what millions of patients and their families feel every day,” he wrote in 2016. “Daily points of devastating despair and fear. That their illness will not be cured. That they will never become healthy again.”
Jain was only 26 when that email hit thousands of American inboxes.
He leans heavily on identity as a talking point when campaigning because it’s important to him that voters understand that he can empathize with feeling written-off.
“If you talk about any issue: reproductive justice, healthcare, housing, climate, economic development, infrastructure, you name it — if residents are not really given a seat at the table and made decisions with, as opposed to made decisions for, that none of those policies are actually going to be equitable,” Jain said.
Jain backs other progressive policies, like enshrining abortion access in the state constitution — a platform he announced in January 2021, months before House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) attempted to take up the effort during the 2022 legislative session.
All of his campaign events are free and he spends “seven days a week, every day in a different county” canvassing.
“There’s so many groups that feel marginalized and are told by politicians or campaigns that we matter that we need to vote and march and rally and protest when it comes to getting them elected, but then whenever any one of us try to … take leadership on these issues, we’re also told sit down, be quiet or wait your turn in line — you’re too ambitious” Jain explained.
According to Jain, his campaign is “100% crowdsourced” — he picks up volunteers along the trail, like Justin Morris, a Delmar resident who volunteered with the campaign after Jain showed up at his door.
“It’s important that someone would take the time to come out and find out what it’s like from a person who actually lives on the Eastern Shore, and so that made me really kind of curious,” Morris said. “… My initial thought was, this gives me an opportunity …. to actually speak up about what it is [like] where I live, and not only what it is [like] where I live, but being what I am as an African American male,” he said.
Thomas Jackson, a senior advisor to the campaign said he was drawn to the ticket because of the accessibility “that comes from not having the … big money interest that comes into a lot of campaigns.”
In January, Jain announced LaTrece Hawkins Lytes, a Prince George’s County resident, mother, Juvenile Type-1 Diabetes survivor and transplant recipient, as his running mate.
The campaign has pledged to not take donations from corporations, developers and political action committees and does not participate in the public financing system.
Occasionally, Jain’s belief in removing money from politics has served to his detriment.
In April, he was excluded from a gubernatorial forum at Coppin State University because organizers invited only candidates who sought public financing or raised at least $500,000.
Jain did not seek public financing in this race or in his 2018 bid for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council. Campaign finance records indicate that, as of Jan. 12, he had raised $103,309.53.
Jain was still recognized during the forum at Coppin State.
“Ashwani is a terrific candidate,” Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jerome Segal said in his closing remarks. “… I think everybody up here feels the same way — that Ashwani deserves his share, and we don’t want to knock him out of the race by keeping him out of these platforms and then splitting up the votes that he would’ve gotten.”
To Jain, it’s in large part the Democratic establishment — not the voters — that places the most emphasis on money, age and race when it comes to campaigning.
“[Voters] are more concerned about: ‘Do you actually know what you’re doing? What exactly are you going to do for me or my family? Have you thought about the policies? Are you going to be able to pay for these policies? And if I wanted to make a recommendation or get a hold of somebody, can I do that in a very easy way?’ Those are most of the conversations I’m having,” he said.
The young candidate set a goal to raise just $100,000 for his gubernatorial campaign, and Jain’s unflinching desire to stick to his guns can be frustrating to some supporters.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, let’s raise some money so that we can go do some of the stuff that other people are doing,’” Morris said.
But this is a policy that he plans to keep if he is elected. Jain plans to prohibit himself, his running mate and his executive cabinet from owning businesses and trading stocks while in office. He would also impose a four-year waiting period to participate in lobbying.
“It takes this idea of money out of the conversation and really puts the focus on individual residents and specific policies,” Jain said.
The 2022 primary election is July 19.
The other Democratic hopefuls in the governor’s race are former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, nonprofit executive Jon Baron, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, former state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., author, former anti-poverty CEO Wes Moore, former U.S. and Maryland Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and college lecturer Jerome Segal.