Jon Baron has done his homework.
During a two-hour candidate forum in June, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate supported each of his answers to the moderator’s questions with statistics and scientifically-proven research.
He told the near-full auditorium of senior citizens at a retirement village in Silver Spring that he was offering Maryland a “fundamentally different approach” to governing.
”If we simply continue on our current course, we’re going to be here in another 20 years,” he said, citing poor student achievement, stagnant wage growth and a stubborn poverty rate. “Nothing will have changed.”
Instead, he tells them he wants to “do what works.”
The roots of the 59-year-old’s “do what works” platform came from his decades-long career evangelizing the virtues of evidence-based social programs that have passed scientific rigor.
He gave the audience of about 150 people several examples of programs he’d like to try in Maryland if they make him their next governor.
He wants to prevent costly repeat hospitalizations for seniors with multiple health conditions by pairing them with in-home care after discharge to ensure they follow doctor’s orders and correctly take medications. Research showed the nurse-led program reduced return hospitalizations and saved $4,500 per person.
And to tackle gaps in student achievement, Baron proposed a statewide tutoring program staffed with retirees and recent college graduates. The academic aid would target struggling first and second graders, focusing on improving math and reading proficiency by third grade.
But the biggest problem facing Maryland’s economy, he told the audience, was the stagnant wage growth over the last 40 years for the lowest 40% of earners, after adjusting for inflation.
”Here’s what I would do,” he said, a microphone in one hand, emphatically gesturing with the other as he described a program partnering businesses with young adults seeking job training. The program Baron cites has increased earnings an average of $8,000 a year over a seven-year period, according to David Fein, the researcher leading the trial.
Fein said he supports Baron’s run for governor because Baron has dedicated his career to presenting viable solutions to policy makers. ”Somebody like Jon makes me feel confident because he understands good evidence,” Fein said.
Baron’s approach to government “resonated” with Michael Ball, a retired business professor, who said he has taught similar evidence-based concepts in his supply chain management classes.
”If I was going to hire a governor, Jon is exactly the kind of person I would want to hire,” said Ball, who recently retired from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
The registered Democrat from Silver Spring plans to vote for Baron in the primary.
“It’s a wide open race,” Ball added. “He doesn’t have the name recognition, but if he gets his message out he certainly has a chance.”
The first-time political candidate may not have the name recognition — Baron was polling at 2% according to a June Goucher College Poll conducted in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR. But he has the third largest campaign bank account among the nine remaining Democrats. On top of the over $600,000 in campaign contributions from donors, Baron self-funded an additional $1.7 million. The candidate declared his campaign will not accept money from corporations, political action committees or Maryland lobbyists to avoid influence from “special interests.”
His campaign has spent the bulk of its budget buying airtime for two television ads featuring him alongside his running mate, Natalie Williams. The airtime cost “in the high six figures” for each, according to a campaign spokesperson. The latest ad comes out Wednesday.
Baron grew up in Montgomery County, and after a family move to Texas and his college years, moved back in 1994, where he has lived and raised two children with his wife, Jessica Rich. Rich, an attorney, headed the Bureau of Consumer Protection in the U.S. Federal Trade Commission during the Obama Administration.
Baron attended Rice University and majored in economics. Soon after, he simultaneously pursued a master’s degree at Princeton and a law degree at Yale, graduating from both just one year apart.
Baron’s father was a medical doctor and researcher at the National Institutes of Health, and his mother taught children with learning difficulties how to read. He credits his parents with his career in public service.
Baron said his father, a perpetual researcher, challenged him to scrutinize untested ideas.
”We had an unusual family dynamic where he would talk at the breakfast table about controlled studies,” he recalled.
In 2001, Baron started the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a nonpartisan nonprofit with a consistent mission: to get policymakers on board with what works.
He has advised members of Congress and two presidential administrations on how to vet evidence-based social programs before investing taxpayer dollars. He was appointed by President George W. Bush and was confirmed by the Senate to serve on the National Board of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. He rose to chair the Board in 2011 during the Obama administration.
He wants science-backed programs to become the core principle behind government services, rather than an outside influence.
”We need a few people at the top of government to understand this,” he said. “That’s why I quit my day job, which I loved, and decided to do this.”
But often politicians aren’t interested in evidence.
For the last 20 years, gun violence prevention researcher Daniel Webster has worked at the intersection of research and politics. Electing more politicians with scientific acumen would benefit policymaking, he said.
However, Webster said he has witnessed firsthand the reality of getting lawmakers with varying ideologies and opinions on scientific evidence to embrace his research at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
”I can publish the best research ever in the top scientific journals, and I can go present it to policymakers or political actors, and they will immediately discount it because they’re really not searching for the truth, they’re searching for a win,” said Webster, who is not affiliated with Baron’s campaign nor endorsing him.
One example of the clash between science and politics stands out in his mind.
The 2012 mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 20 children and six adults, created a political moment where lawmakers on both sides hungered for solutions. Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, invited Webster to speak during a closed-door meeting to a bipartisan task force searching for solutions. Webster said conservatives who appeared curious and open to solving problems in private met him with animus during public hearings.
“Some of the same people were completely different on a public stage, like they were performing for their constituents. And, you know, they would try to discredit me,” he said.
Webster warned even the best solution may be outweighed by political aspirations. “A lot of people are very interested in — and perhaps just stating the obvious — like, how do they keep their job.”
Baron said in his experience, common sense bridges party divides and “attracts bipartisan support.”
Baron saw one of those conflicts after the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy he ran was scooped up by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
The Arnold name may ring a bell for Baltimoreans. The Texas billionaires privately funded the now-abandoned Baltimore City surveillance plane experiment in partnership with the Baltimore Police Department. The city’s spending board voted last year to halt the program after residents objected and just before a federal court ruled the surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment. In January, the city signed a settlement agreement with grassroots organizers saying they would expunge gathered records related to the spy plane and pay $99,000 in legal fees.
Baron, who resigned from Arnold Ventures to run for governor, said he knew of the program but that it did not involve his division, and he agreed with the decision to pull out of the program.
To avoid conflicts of interest between a Baron administration and the evidence-based policy community, he said as governor he would create an open, independent process to apply for government funding and review the results.
And he also pledges not to implement ideas without involving affected communities. “You absolutely need that kind of ongoing input. To avoid the kind of arrogance coming in,” he said.
And if his tutoring program were to move forward, he would do some of the tutoring himself.
Program results would be shared simultaneously with all levels of government and citizens.
“People won’t have to just take my word for it,” he said. “That’s the way government ought to work.”
”And I would be honest, I mean, if an initiative that I championed was found not to work,” he said. “I would be the first one to say so.”