This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for Maryland governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.
The candidate: Ashwani Jain
Running mate: LaTrece Hawkins Lytes, Prince George’s County community activist
At 32, Ashwani Jain is the youngest candidate for governor in the race — and would be the youngest governor of a U.S. state if elected in the fall. But the childhood cancer survivor and former Obama White House staffer says he has the experience necessary to lead.
The former director of outreach for then-Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiatives, Jain says he’s running a grassroots campaign and not taking any money from developers, business or political action committees and has shared the most detailed policy agenda, including the “Maryland Now” Plan that Jain says will eliminate the state income tax for 95% of Marylanders and create a guaranteed jobs program for Maryland residents.
A Baltimore Sun/University of Maryland poll showed him struggling to gain traction in a crowded race with just 2% support among registered Democrats
Jain said: “As a 32-year-old cancer survivor, as a son of immigrants and small business owners, as a product of Maryland public schools, and as someone who has worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including the Obama White House and in two federal agencies, I think those are the perspectives that we need in the governor’s office more than ever.”
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
WTOP: After the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of concerns about education — everything from learning loss to mental state of students, but we also have the complicating layer of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The next governor is going to be handed the task of implementing this. So let me ask you, what will you do to make sure that that implementation is going to be a success?
Ashwani Jain: I fully support the blueprint. And I was proud to lobby with our educators in Annapolis to get it passed. But it goes back to the perspective that I bring as a product of Maryland Public Schools. I also went to a Title I elementary school which had mold on the ceilings, [was] overcrowded with students, and [had] great educators who just didn’t have the resources they needed.
My education plan looks at the entire system comprehensively. So that means universal pre-K; affordable child care; easing student debt for educators and students; reducing the barriers to becoming an educator; so we actually have diverse educators that represent the students; making sure we prioritize funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods and using prevailing wage laws; making sure we tackle affordable housing, because a lot of educators can’t even live where they teach; moving away from standardized testing to more performance-based testing; mandating financial literacy credits to graduate high school; removing SROs and replacing them with more guidance counselors and social workers, so we actually get to the root causes of some of these issues; and making sure we’re investing in after school programs. I think from a K through 12 perspective, those are some of the tangible next steps that we can build upon the blueprint, but really tackle the issue sustainably.
WTOP: Where, in the blueprint, do you differ?
Jain: It’s not so much that I differ on the priorities of the blueprint — a lot of those priorities are things that I’ve been advocating for, for a long time. It is more about how do we actually execute and implement those priorities and actually tackle the entire system in a comprehensive way? I think a lot of times residents feel that elected officials, candidates or even their governor may say that they care about public education and then veto certain pieces of legislation that could provide that support. They hear that candidates want to help folks regardless of their ZIP code. But then they see different moneys not being allocated to those communities that really need those resources. And that’s where I’m offering a different perspective. And it also starts with how you campaign — making sure that residents, parents, students and educators actually have a seat at the table from Day One, not just waiting until after the election to include them.
… I think there’s a lot of great things that are being done. But there’s still a big discrepancy based on where in the state you live. If you live in Western Maryland, if you live in the Eastern Shore, if you live in Baltimore, if you live in areas that have predominantly minority communities, we’re seeing that the resources are not being allocated sufficiently and sustainably. We’re also seeing that when residents … are promised by elected officials that that money would be allocated for public education, and then it doesn’t end up being that way — that’s where I think we have a lot of frustration. And I think we need to rebuild community trust with our elected officials, and have those elected officials continue to appoint leaders who understand the same lived experiences of the residents and communities we’re trying to serve.
WTOP: Police accountability boards are being set up in each jurisdiction. What are your concerns there in the need for balance between making police truly accountable to communities, but also keeping police who feel more and more that the scrutiny that they are under makes the job less appealing?
Jain: We need to make sure, first of all, that if you are a true public servant and trying to get into law enforcement as a career, we need to support you. At the same time, when Black and brown individuals are being disproportionately sentenced or even killed by these public servants, we clearly have a severe problem with our criminal justice system. And keep in mind that accountability does not diminish whatever good work is being done. But we demand accountability in every other field, and our criminal justice system should be no different. Now, just because there’s no one reason for crime, no one solution for crime, we have to tackle the issue of criminal justice comprehensively.
And that’s why in my plan, we talk about everything from ending extreme sentences for children; ending the money bail system; continuing the end of for-profit prison contracts; treating opioid and drug use, finally, as a disease, not as a crime; investing in more mental health professionals, preparing those in prison for life outside of prison; making sure we have independent oversight and accountability; and making sure we do things like legalize marijuana while expunging records, and make sure that folks have access to good jobs and a decreased cost of living.
That will not only help law enforcement officers and get them the resources they actually need to do their jobs, but it will also build better community trust, and make sure that residents of our society actually are able to live the lives they want to in a safe manner with greater respect for law enforcement.
WTOP: What are you hearing from police on this issue, understanding that people want accountability, but at the same time, they say people don’t understand the challenges of their jobs and they feel that every move they make is going to land them in some kind of hot water.
Jain: We do have law enforcement officers who are also part of our large team, and actually helping make a lot of the policies I just mentioned. But, again, in partnership with communities of color, with younger folks with folks who feel marginalized and discriminated against in the criminal justice system. And the way we do that is by taking out the hateful rhetoric that we sometimes see in our national discourse and making sure, for example, that we are training 911 dispatchers to assess that if a caller does not present immediate danger to themselves, or to the community, send a social worker, in addition to a law enforcement officer.
And when we talk to police officers, they say, “Yes, that is going to help us do our jobs better, because we’re not fully equipped to help those with mental issues in the community.” And it also helps those with disabilities, people of color, or anyone who needs the resources at the source … to actually get the help that they deserve. So again, when you look at all these issues comprehensively, what we’re finding is, by removing the rhetoric, looking at the entire system, and having practical next steps, we’re actually able to build better community trust, actually allow public servants to do their jobs better, recruit more individuals who represent constituents, and again, build community trust.
Jobs, economy, transportation
WTOP: We always hear that companies want to know: Can my employees get to the jobs that I want to provide? Do you have a good transit system? Are your roadways easy for people to navigate? What would you do to get and attract really good jobs and be on transportation? And what’s your position on the tolls for I-495? And I-270. And what about a Chesapeake Bay Bridge span? What would you do about that?
Jain: So that touches on three things. One is my small business platform that’s been shared on my website. Second thing is, it touches on my infrastructure policy memo that is also shared on my website and my Maryland Now plan.
So kind of diving in a little deeper on all of those: When it comes to infrastructure, we need to have smart growth and mixed-use development. I support the Purple Line; the Red Line; a Southern Maryland rapid transit project; expanding MARC train services; sustainably expanding the Bay Bridge, by using what the environmental impact study conducted proved to have a singular eight-to-10 lane bridge — but I would mandate that at least one or two of those lanes are designated for HOV or buses; and making sure we don’t forget about the access roads.
I do oppose adding toll lanes to I-270, because it is going to be too expensive for residents to use, and that is an area where we can encourage more designated bus lanes, MARC train services, Metro stops, as well as encourage transit options. That goes into my Maryland Now plan.
The Maryland Now plan will do a couple of things. In addition to eliminating the state income tax for 95% of Marylanders and creating a guaranteed jobs program, my plan will make public transit where it’s already available completely free for every resident. And this will not only help students get to and from school; it will not only help seniors and those with disabilities get to and from wherever they need to get to; but it will help our businesses get to and from their employees and vice versa, and also to customers. And in doing so we can help our climate; we can help with the economic sustainability of our state. And we can also encourage more businesses to move into our state and stay in our state.
WTOP: The elimination of the tax — do you have an analysis of how much that would cost the state?
Jain: The way we’re going to pay for it is by keeping the tax the same for anyone who makes more than $400,000. We’re going to increase the fossil fuel fee for any of the polluters, the companies that have made fossil fuels. We’re going to make sure to legalize and tax marijuana. And we will also in the short term increase the sales tax from 6% to 7 1/2%. Now what we find is most Marylanders pay anywhere from $600 to $800 a year in sales tax, but up to $2,000 a year in state income tax. So by getting rid of the bigger tax, not touching property taxes, not cutting services, and coupling it with a guaranteed jobs program, affordable housing and infrastructure, we can make sure more residents have increased disposable income and allow more folks to retire in our state, while encouraging more folks and businesses to move into our state.
WTOP: What is it in your background that qualifies you to be governor? Have you held elected office before? Who are you? I think that’s the question a lot of people have.
Jain: So, while I would be the nation’s youngest governor, there are four reasons why people should vote for me: No. 1, because I’m fully accessible, with 100% of my events being free, and I’m the only governor candidate to personally and consistently meet voters at their homes in all 24 counties.
No 2, I am fully accountable. We created the first statewide campaign in the nation that is 100% crowdsourced and run by residents from every age, every background, in all 24 counties.
No. 3, I’m fully transparent. We have shared the most detailed and paid-for policy agenda on my website a year and a half ago in January 2021. And the fourth and final reason is because I have both the professional and lived experiences to really serve the residents of Maryland well. As a 32-year-old cancer survivor, as a son of immigrants and small business owners, as a product of Maryland public schools, and as someone who has worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including the Obama White House and in two federal agencies, I think those are the perspectives that we need in the governor’s office more than ever.
Interview conducted by Kate Ryan; edited by Jack Moore