A Conversation with Ashwani Jain, Maryland’s Millennial Gubernatorial Candidate & Former Obama Administration Official

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Ashwani Jain, Maryland's Millennial Gubernatorial Candidate & Former Obama Administration Official
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Transcript:

Soniya Gokhale (00:35):
Hello, welcome to another addition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are delighted to be joined by Ashwani Jain. Ashwani Jain is seeking the democratic nomination for governor of Maryland. And he’s a first generation American who was born parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and went on to become successful small business owners in the state of Maryland.

Soniya Gokhale (01:08):
A product of the Maryland public schools and graduate of the University of Maryland, Ashwani is the youngest candidate running for governor. And if elected, he would be the state’s first millennial governor, and first governor of color.

Soniya Gokhale (01:24):
Ashwani began volunteering for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as a high school senior. And after Obama took office, he transitioned from a campaign staffer to an administration official, helping the presidential personnel diversify applications for political appointees to the federal government, and acting as the director of outreach for, then, Vice President, Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

Soniya Gokhale (01:53):
Ashwani, welcome to the show.

Ashwani Jain (01:55):
Thank you so much for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (01:56):
Well, we’re so excited to speak with you. And I always like to start interviews with my guests, most of whom are from the South Asian community and diaspora, about how their background as immigrants or the child of immigrants who came to this country, may have impacted them in their work and as a human being. And I know you grew up in Maryland with parents who immigrated to this country from India and were small business owners. And I think that narrative in and of itself, is quite inspiring, as immigration has been, and I suspect will continue to be, a hot topic politically.

Soniya Gokhale (02:31):
But I think it also is an excellent example of how many immigrants are small business owners, and truly contribute to the economy of this country in so many ways and in other aspects, in terms of the society at large. Now we certainly see that, in the API community and is very prevalent amongst South Asian. So, would you be able to offer some insights in that aspect of your life and how it has shaped who you are?

Ashwani Jain (02:56):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think you hit the nail in the head. We, as people of immigration of descents, children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, we have contributed a lot to the American economy, to the American society and culture. And that does need to be protected and upheld in all aspects of our lives. For me personally, I did not come from a political or well connected family. My grandfather, my [Nana G 00:03:23], immigrated to this country from India with very limited resources, but found work really as a high school maintenance worker to really provide for his family and achieve his American dream. My mother went to community college here in the states and worked at a nursing home, where she made the minimum wage of $3.25 just to pay for classes. And then my father, despite being highly educated in India, he struggled to find work here because of the language barrier.

Ashwani Jain (03:53):
After my parents got married, they decided to move to Maryland and to start a business. And they were always working, and so I practically grew up in their store. I saw how hard they worked just to keep the lights on in our two bedroom apartment. And I think the interesting thing is, my story, my family story is not unique, very similar story to a lot of people like me and like my family. And so, the reason why I’m running for Maryland governor, is really to make sure that at the end of the day, we’re providing equal access to opportunity for families like mine and families who may have a different story, but similar struggles.

Soniya Gokhale (04:30):
Well, no, that is absolutely inspiring. And I want to move ahead in discussing your life and touch upon the fact that, in eighth grade you were diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And during your treatment, you witnessed firsthand, other children who were suffering from debilitating illnesses. And to add to this trauma, you saw that parents and families were often left unable to cover the exorbitantly high medical costs that were incurred. And this is a very moving part of what has driven to where you are right now. You’ve indicated, it was during this treatment as an eighth grader, that you understood the profound connection or disconnect, I should say, between legislation and those who are affected by it.

Soniya Gokhale (05:15):
So first of all, let me say that this acknowledgement and understanding at such a young age, and in the midst of your own medical struggles, is so moving because you had never aspired to become involved in politics. But at a moment when you didn’t know whether you would survive your illness or not, your perspective shifted. And to quote you directly, “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, if I’m given a second chance at life, I’m going to make it count.’ The idea of public service and politics became my therapy.” Amazing words. So, can you elaborate more on this?

Ashwani Jain (05:48):
Yeah. I appreciate that. You’re absolutely right. I never thought I would go into politics. Growing up, especially as an Indian, that’s not, at least it didn’t used to, be a field that we even thought we could get into. I always grew up, thought I was going to be in the family business or something else. And so, it really was during that time where I was going through cancer, I saw a world in which I may not get to leave the four walls of that hospital room. And yes, I did see kids sitting right next to me lose their battles. I felt really depressed and alone. And I found that many were making decisions for me, as opposed to making decisions with me.

Ashwani Jain (06:28):
And so, that’s really where I started, first volunteering with the American Cancer Society and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as my first entryway into channeling my pain into something positive and connecting with other families and children who were going through the same thing that I was. And through that experience, I felt empowered, and I felt like, “Okay, my life has purpose.”

Ashwani Jain (06:50):
And then later on when I was in high school, that community activism translated into politics, when I was a senior in high school and this guy at the time, named Barack Obama, decided to run for president. And his campaign reached out to my high school, I signed up, and they offered me to be one of my volunteer leaders for my high school. And it was really in that moment, where I was able to feel that same empowerment with the political campaign that I felt with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the American Cancer Society. And that was my way of saying, “Okay, now I can take my experiences and not only help my immediate community, but really help the community at large through public policy.”

Ashwani Jain (07:36):
And so, that’s where I got involved in politics. And I was able to work my way from a volunteer on his campaign into later working in his white house, and also working as one of the directors of the Affordable Care Act at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As well as one of then Vice President Biden’s director of outreach for the Cancer Moonshot Summit. So really get getting to work directly on making sure we use the power of the federal government to help find cures for different kinds of cancer, and invest in more clinical research, and invest in more data collection. So, it really was an honor for me to kind of go through that journey. And I think it really stems from the 13 year old kid who really felt like he didn’t know if he was going to live to see tomorrow.

Soniya Gokhale (08:21):
Unbelievable what an incredible journey and story. And when I read it, I was preparing for this interview, I thought, “My goodness. I hope… I know that this will give people inspiration and already has.”, Because as we consider your candidacy for governor of Maryland, I think it’s important to designate as being a landmark moment as you would be the nation’s first millennial governor and Maryland’s first governor of color. I think what’s exciting about you as a candidate, is that you intend to give young people a seat at the table. And you’re doing so in the course of your campaign. What’s really striking is that you are walking the walk, and not just offering pithy campaign talking points. Roughly half of your senior advisors and for our listeners, these are campaign advisors, who typically have an abundance of experience and running campaigns, they are students.

Soniya Gokhale (09:13):
So this is all so newsworthy and very notable, as you are giving roles and a voice to volunteer high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, by asking for their input on policy and outreach strategies. This is extremely empowering concept and a great way to bring the next generation of thought leaders and future of voters into the democratic process. So, tell me why you chose this approach and why you think it is a great model for campaign management. I add the footnote, as you did, that in high school, you were able to work locally with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. And then went to working directly in his white house. So yes, if you could speak to that.

Ashwani Jain (09:58):
Yeah. I mean, it kind of stems off my personal health experiences where, I really felt like we need to make our politics, especially, more inclusive and more accessible. And I had an opportunity to see that firsthand on the Obama campaigns, but I wanted to take it a step further. And that’s why I am the first statewide campaign in the United States to have my campaign be 100% volunteer run. We crowdsource policy and strategy, we limit the influence of money by making all of our events free.

Ashwani Jain (10:29):
And to your point that you alluded to, we do make sure that to give an opportunity, a real leadership opportunity to students and young people. Because at the end of the day, they’re going to be impacted by all the policies that are going to be enacted. And so, they should also have a real seat at the table when those policies are being created, implemented, and executed. And so I think the way in which you campaign, yes, we’re doing a lot of innovative things and historic things, but hopefully through what I’ve proven so far, already having built one of the largest grassroots campaigns in Maryland, if not the nation, I think my hope is, we really start to change the dialogue of, who deserves a seat at the table. And then that will obviously translate into the election.

Soniya Gokhale (11:15):
Absolutely. And I will have a link of in the podcast notes to a variety of articles about your campaign. Because I think the quotes from some of those that are working, the young people that are working on your campaign, you have changed their life trajectory. Perhaps, you’ve inspired them to take the lead in proceeding on a pathway to public service, because they often thought, many of young people indicated, “Wasn’t sure I could do this.” And yet, they realized they can and they are.

Soniya Gokhale (11:45):
And I know that education features prominently in issues you’d like to tackle. As a product of public schools and while attending Glen Haven Elementary School in Wheaton, you saw firsthand, how the title one standard of your school, which is an indicator of its eligibility for federal aid, compared with the environment in which you learn. And to quote you, this is rather shocking, but I think we see this a lot, unfortunately, across the country, quote, “We live in the wealthiest county and the state, and yet there was still mold on the ceilings. The school was crowded with students, but with great teachers and educators who just didn’t have the support they needed.”

Soniya Gokhale (12:25):
So if you can explain why you would prioritize public school funding, advocate for public school apprenticeship, I think it’s so important. So if you could especially speak to that, and address the teacher shortage, currently being faced across Maryland. I know that you are proposing some educational requirements that perhaps aren’t as stringent as they are now, to address that shortage.

Ashwani Jain (12:46):
Yeah, absolutely. I think… And this is where perspective really is important, because oftentimes we’ll hear candidates and politicians always talk to talk about, “Yeah, we need to invest in our public education system.”. But they haven’t necessarily lived in those same experiences and been at the tail end of those policies. And so that’s where, yes, I talk about my experience growing up and attending a title one elementary school in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

Ashwani Jain (13:11):
I also talk about how, when I was going through cancer in middle school, the entire ecosystem of my school, that’s everyone from the bus driver to the cafeteria lady, my guidance counselors, teachers, even the physical building itself really became my safe place where I felt supported. And so at the end of the day, education really is one of the best ways out of poverty, one of the best ways to expand opportunities for as many residents as you can. And that’s why I have been talking about, how do we ease student debt for educators? How do we reduce the barriers to becoming an educator in the first place, and diversifying those who actually become educators?

Ashwani Jain (13:51):
I talk about making sure that we’re prioritizing funding for low neighborhoods and using prevailing wage laws in school construction projects. I talk about tying it into affordable housing, because many of our educators cannot even afford to send their own kids to where they teach. I talk about making community colleges more affordable. I talk about increasing access to STEM programs as early as middle schools. So again, it’s looking at this issue in a comprehensive way and not just addressing the short term needs, but really focusing on what are the long term, sustainable solutions as well.

Soniya Gokhale (14:26):
Absolutely. And as a product of the public schools, which I think amongst a diaspora, or the South Asian community, many of us attended private schools perhaps. And yet, this community belonging, as you stated, you shouldn’t have to pay for that, as we often find in the private school setting. As you indicated, it was a lifesaver for you in your middle school years. So I really think, again, you’re walking the walk. And I know, especially with younger voters and a younger population, that’s so important.

Soniya Gokhale (14:54):
And another one of the key issues that you want to address as governor, which I really think resonates, again, with younger voters in this country, pertains to the concept of corruption and big money in politics. I wasn’t aware that your campaign is the first of its kind. And I think I could see it making its way into various Harvard business case studies, because that is just amazing. And I think that, you’re right, that’s the way that these campaigns should be run. You’ve stated you’d ban corruption in state government and push the governor, Lieutenant governor, and agency heads from owning stocks or serving on for-profit corporate boards while in office, as well as implementing a four year lobbying band for the governor, Lieutenant governor, and agency heads from becoming corporate lobbyists after they leave their positions. And if you could explain why this is so important in your estimation. I think it’s something many of us are not aware of, as voters.

Ashwani Jain (15:50):
Yeah. I mean, I think if you’re a resident, regardless of where you live, regardless of what your age is, oftentimes you will feel like these elected officials don’t care about you. All they’re in it for is the power, to get money in their pockets. They often make decisions or policies that don’t seem to make sense or align with the majority of the constituents. And oftentimes, that’s because there’s these big corporate lobbyists or big organizations that have a lot of money behind them, or a few big donors that contribute a lot of money to these campaigns. And then they get their way with certain policies that may benefit them financially, but may not absolutely be necessary or important or helpful to the community at large.

Ashwani Jain (16:32):
And so, yes, a lot of elected officials say, “Okay, we’re going to try to do this and that, and care about residents.”. But look at how they’re campaigning, because usually how you campaign will dictate how you will govern. And that’s why I’ve shown people that I’m committed to this idea of being really people-focused and not being beholden to any of these special interests, by making every single event I have, completely free. I am not taking a dime from corporations or lobbying groups. I’m not forcing people to pay me in order to hear me speak, which is oftentimes what happens when you run for governor or a statewide office. Right?

Ashwani Jain (17:08):
The only people who can get direct contact with them are the big donors, or if you have a lot of big actions. And that’s not what, in my opinion, politics is all about or should be all about. And then to translate that into policies, like you mentioned, that’s where I have those anti-corruption measures so that we can still hold all these elected officials, myself included, if I have the honor of winning the election, accountable and transparent in all the actions that I’m doing.

Soniya Gokhale (17:34):
Well, that’s amazing. No, I want to address your relief, recovery, and reform agenda. You would seek to fund your policy proposals with short and long term solutions, which again, everything has a cost. And what I really like, again, I’m going to have a link in the podcast notes to your campaign site, but you do address how you would fund some of these proposals.

Soniya Gokhale (17:56):
In the short term, you support legalizing medicinal cannabis to generate millions of dollars to invest in the needs of Maryland. And I’m a little surprised that it’s actually not legalized medicinally, in the state of Maryland. It is in my home state of Ohio. And a lot of people depend on it heavily. You propose legalizing chair store, liquor sales, which you say, could generate up to 200 million and direct economic benefit. And what I really like is, you also support treating drug abuse as a public health crisis, because it truly is. The opioid epidemic is just unbelievably out of control in this country. And I think the pandemic has only exacerbated it. But you are opposed to a criminal offense, in those cases. And so, if you could offer more on all of these policies.

Ashwani Jain (18:45):
Yeah, absolutely. And just a quick edit, and this is reflected on my information and on my website, in Maryland, we have already legalized medical marijuana. What I am proposing, is legalizing marijuana altogether. And so the way that I see that issue is, right now, we are wasting billions of dollars and thousands of racially skewed arrests, when it comes to criminalizing marijuana as a whole. Black and white and Americans, for example, use marijuana at similar rates, but black Americans are about three to four times more likely to be arrested, and usually have harsher sentences. And so, the idea is not only can we generate a lot of new revenue for our state by legalizing marijuana altogether, but we can also start to reduce some of these racial inequities and systemic racism that we have constantly seen throughout our nation.

Ashwani Jain (19:34):
And another piece of that, that I also advocate for, and again, this is fully on my website, is really targeting small, rural and urban farms in certain parts of our state, so we can make sure that farmers are actually able to protect in this new revenue streams. Oftentimes, a lot of our agricultural industry, the machines they have to use with grain cultivation, it has a two part system. If you’re going to do hemp cultivation, it often requires you to purchase a completely new machine. And so, we do want to offer tax credit so that we’re not forgetting about our mom and pop farmers, and the other individuals in our state who need to be a part of this economic revenue stream.

Ashwani Jain (20:19):
But beyond that, as a larger issue, is, I do have plans to pay for everything that I’m proposing. I think a lot of times people listen to candidates, listen to politicians, regardless of what party you are or where you live and say, “Okay, these are great talking points. How are you actually going to accomplish them? How are you actually going to pay for them?” And I was always frustrated when I never heard those answers throughout my life.

Ashwani Jain (20:44):
And so I said, “Okay, whenever I run, I’m going to make sure that I’m not only really specific and detailed in the policies that I’m proposing, not only am I looking at short term solutions, but long term solutions, but I’m going to be really transparent on my website and all my policy memos of exactly, how am I going to pay for these things?” And yes, we may not always agree on all the issues. And you may not even agree with me on how I’m planning to fund some of my proposals, but you will never be able to question, “Oh, I wonder how he’s going to do this.” And so far from that honesty and transparency, we’ve been getting a lot better responses because people can see that I’m sincere, and that I’ve really thought about these issues, beyond just the 30 second soundbite.

Soniya Gokhale (21:28):
I think that’s very true. And I could attest to the fact that, in researching for this podcast, it was so easy to find the information about your campaign, where you stand on issues. And I know you use media heavily, which I haven’t seen before. So, really innovative approach to how you’re running this campaign, and I think also, how you pay for things. Perhaps, that is rooted in being the son of a small business owner, as small business owners and immigrants to this country, whereby, everything has a cost associated. So, I do like that component as well.

Soniya Gokhale (22:01):
And finally, I can’t believe we’re coming to sort of the latter part of our discussion with you, but criminal justice reform is such a key issue for many Americans and across many states. And in your state of Maryland, you had proposed banning chokeholds, ending the money bail system and solitary confinement, and bring an end to extreme criminal sentencing for children. I think most notably, you would reallocate public safety funds to expand necessary services that would reduce the need for police officers to respond to incidents with mentally ill individuals, or incidents involving ongoing social work issues.

Soniya Gokhale (22:43):
This is so critically important. I’ve done interviews with many other legislators, and the number of police officers and incidents whereby they are responding to truly a mental health crisis… And especially, like I said before, under this pandemic, it has only exacerbated all of those issues with, perhaps some people not even having access to broadband internet, not being able to see a social worker or psychologists. So, this is really innovative, and I just want to hear more about this.

Ashwani Jain (23:14):
Yeah. Thank you so much. So as it relates to that latter issue, I do want to invest in more mental health professionals in our criminal justice system. And the best thing is, it’s a really low hanging fruit. It’s an easy thing to do, if you have the political will behind it, which I am doing on my campaign. And one of the most practical ways that we can actually resolve some of that discrepancy, is by training those 911 dispatchers to make assessments when they get those calls. If a caller does not present an immediate danger to themselves or to those around them, then, yes. Instead of sending a police officer to address those issues, which often are a mental health issue, we should send social workers. I think that’s common sense.

Ashwani Jain (23:55):
And again, it’s looking at the issues, not only in the short term, but the long term. At the end of the day, our criminal justice system should be about reforming individuals, making sure they’re able to live a better life, and not just keeping them locked up or putting them in jail for any small offense. And also addressing the systemic racism that we have seen time and time again, where people of color, specifically black people, are treated in a much harsher and unfortunately, much more way from law enforcement than white counterparts.

Ashwani Jain (24:29):
And so the way that I’m approaching this issue is, looking at the issue in totality, looking at in a comprehensive way. Like you mentioned, I want to end the money bail system. I want to end extreme census for children. I want to end the for-profit prison system as well, and those contracts. I do want to treat opioid and drug use as a mental health issue and a disease, not as a crime. I want to also look at preparing those who are currently in prison for release outside of prison, so they can actually learn to acclimate back into life, normally. And also making sure we have independent oversight and accountability whenever law enforcement ends up taking it a step further and not doing their jobs properly.

Ashwani Jain (25:13):
And one last point that I’ll make on this, because I know this is a really hot button issue right now, demanding accountability from individuals in power, whether they are law enforcement or whether they’re politicians, or even business people, does not negate the good work that also happens in those departments. I think we can all agree that when somebody does something bad and you hold them accountable, that does not tarnish the entire profession or the entire industry that they work in. Instead, it strengthens them and strengthens that department, or that office, or that profession in a much longer and more healthy, sustainable way, which is what I have proposed.

Soniya Gokhale (25:54):
Well… And I think that’s hugely important. So, the men in blue and women in blue in Maryland understand that they have somebody that acknowledges the work that they do, and by incorporating mental health professionals into the frontline and training 911 employees on how to handle these calls. I think you’re demonstrating that. And so, really, really appreciate all your answers today. Any closing comments that you have? I think just speaking with you and learning about your campaign and story, has just provided me so much hope for the future. And I really want to thank you for doing this. I know it’s not easy. You’ve gone from private citizen to very public political candidate. And any closing comments you want to offer?

Ashwani Jain (26:40):
Yeah. First of all, I just want to say thank you again, for this opportunity. At the end of the day, I really, sincerely believe that decisions about us should not be made without us. And so for anyone who’s listening, I just urge you, if you’d like to join us, join our movement, or even just to learn more about anything I talked about, you can always visit jainforgovernor.com. And I really do appreciate, again, this I opportunity and I would love to be invited back sometime.

Soniya Gokhale (27:05):
Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

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