Gubernatorial candidate Ashwani Jain speaks during a candidates forum on healthcare issues sponsored by the Maryland Democratic Party at BC Brewery on May 31, 2022. (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

Ashwani Jain logs a lot of hours in his Jeep Wrangler. Every day since August of last year, the 32-year-old drives to a different Maryland county, sets up shop in a park and holds meet-and-greets in his car.

The grassroots candidate knows he doesn’t benefit from the same name recognition as most of the other eight Democrats running in Maryland’s gubernatorial primary election, but he’s optimistic that his extensive outreach may move the needle.

“There’s a lot of folks where they don’t feel represented,” said Jain, who says he’ll bring new economic policies and a greater sense of urgency to Annapolis. “Young people are told by elected officials and candidates, ‘we need you to march, rally, protest and canvass.’ And we’re told by those same candidates, ‘you’re too young, you’re too ambitious, wait your turn in line.’ That forces people out of the system, makes folks feel they don’t actually have a seat at the table.”

If he wins and succeeds term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, he’d be the youngest governor in America. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was elected at age 40, is currently the youngest. In true millennial fashion, Jain juggles the campaign with his full-time job as a program director at the National Kidney Foundation, and some of his campaign graphics were clearly created using Instagram’s stories feature.

Though his resume may not be as long as those of other candidates, it’s packed with high-profile jobs: Jain has worked in the private, nonprofit and public sectors, including for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He helped lead the Cancer Moonshot initiative in then-Vice President Joe Biden’s office, which aimed to accelerate cancer research progress.

That job in particular is tied to the adverse experience he credits for igniting his desire to enter public service: In eighth grade, Jain was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“I felt very powerless,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘OK, if I am blessed enough to make it out of this situation, I want to help others who have been going through something similar.’ And that’s how I found empowerment, found purpose.”

Jain, a lifelong Montgomery County resident, currently lives in Potomac in a multigenerational household with his sister, parents and Indian immigrant grandparents. He and his running mate, LaTrece Hawkins Lytes, want to eliminate the state income tax for residents who make less than $400,000 — about 95% of workers — and pay for the difference through raising the state sales tax and fossil fuel fees.

“If we eliminate your state income tax, without raising property taxes, without cutting services, than we will provide an average individual Marylander about $2,000 more per year,” Jain said, arguing that the extra cash coupled with his plans to make public transit free and create a granted jobs program would offset increased taxes.

He’d also legalize and tax marijuana and expunge the records of those convicted of its possession.

Polling suggests the grassroots candidate would need to gain substantial ground to eke out a win in the primary — an early June poll found he has the support of 2% of likely Democratic voters. Candidates with much better polling numbers have dropped out of the race, but Jain is resolutely upbeat.

“I went from not showing up in the polls at all to 2%,” he said. “It’s nice that I have moved up a lot. But that’s not my focus. Voters don’t care about polling, your fundraising numbers or endorsements. They care about outreach, they care about feeling empowered.”

Earl Andrews, who filed a civil rights complaint alleging Gov. Hogan’s controversial cancellation of Baltimore’s Red Line project deprioritized Black city residents, said he hadn’t heard of Jain until the Democrat cold-called him to discuss transportation ideas. Though his complaint became a talking point in city politics, Andrews said he’d never received outreach from any elected officials or candidates other than Jain.

“They were mute, which is just something that floored me,” Andrews, who works at Douglass Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, said. “I was very impressed with Ashwani.”

He cited Jain’s decision not to accept donations from corporations, developers and political action committees as another plus. Jain raised about $137,974 since January 2021 and reported having about $20,800 on hand for the last few weeks of the race.

“We’re not beholden at all to any special interests,” Andrews said. “Those who are heavily financed by special interests tend not to appear at the smaller debates. That’s problematic — what it says to me is, ‘We are, in fact, beholden to the people pulling the purse strings.’”

Janani Krishnamurthy, a junior at Wootton High School in Rockville, first met Jain when he spoke at a meeting of her school’s Women In Politics club. She thinks it speaks to Jain’s commitment to building a diverse base that he’s willing to speak to people, like Krishnamurthy, who aren’t eligible to vote in the July 19 primary.

“His willingness to meet with us is a testament to how accessible he is,” the 16-year-old said. “I have seen personally how this campaign has empowered young people like me to be involved in politics.”

While Krishnamurthy thinks it’s time for a millennial to enter the governor’s mansion, she stresses that Jain’s campaign isn’t solely about attempting to change the generational guard.

“He has a lot of extensive experience that backs his knowledge in politics — people should also be taking that into consideration,” she said. “The main policy that brought me into the campaign was his reproductive justice politics. The potential overturn of Roe v. Wade — and being a young woman of color in the U.S. — can be scary, but as governor I know he would advocate for the rights of women.”

But breaking out in a race teeming with highly visible candidates will be an enormous challenge, said Spencer Goidel, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University who studies crowded political races.

“Running against three major people with name recognition — former comptroller Peter Franchot, Tom Perez and Wes Moore — makes it difficult for Jain to stand apart on issue positions,” he said. “That name recognition is going to play a huge role with undecided voters, because name recognition signals viability. Most people don’t waste their vote, and I think that’s especially pertinent in these crowded fields.”

Jain is adamant: He thinks his grassroots campaign has enough momentum to eke out a primary win. But he knows nothing in life is guaranteed, and he wouldn’t be staking out public parks in every Maryland county if he didn’t think connecting with and empowering voters throughout the state was worthwhile.

“My ultimate goal is to make sure that no one no one feels left out of the process when decisions about their lives are being made,” he said.

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